British and US forces formally conclude their military involvement in Afghanistan – but after so much bloodshed, is this really ‘mission accomplished’?
British and US troops have handed Camp Bastion over to Afghan forces, bringing to an end combat operations in Afghanistan which claimed the lives of 453 UK soldiers.
The vast majority of the UK’s death toll came in the fight against the Taliban insurgency in Helmand, after Britain established a presence in the southern province in 2006.
The UK is preparing to withdraw all combat troops by the end of the year and is next expected to hand over a base in Kandahar, the country’s second largest city.
We have given Afghanistan the best possible chance of a safer future Defence Secretary Michael Fallon
Several hundred military advisers and trainers are due to remain in the Afghan capital Kabul, but ministers say they will not be involved in combat.
Camp Bastion has been the centre of British operations in Afghanistan for eight years. The government said UK forces would only protect reconstruction, but soon became entangled in the struggle against the Taliban.
At the peak of the Afghan conflict, 10,000 British personnel joined 20,000 US Marines along with Danes, Estonians and other nationalities at 180 bases and checkpoints.
But leading up to the withdrawal, civilian casualities in Afghanistan have climbed considerably.
The UN reported 1,564 civilian deaths in the first six months of 2014, up 17 per cent on the first half of 2013. There were also 3,289 injuries, up 28 per cent.
We will always remember the courage of those who served in Afghanistan on our behalf and never forget those who made the ultimate sacrifice.
— David Cameron (@David_Cameron) October 26, 2014
The Director of Human Rights for the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, Georgette Gagnon, said the country’s fight “is increasingly taking place in communities, public places and near the homes of ordinary Afghans, with death and injury to women and children in a continued disturbing upward spiral.”
The generals have been clear that mistakes were made Defence Secretary Michael Fallon
Secretary of State for Defence Michael Fallon said the sacrifices made by British armed forces “laid the foundations for a strong Afghan Security Force, set the security context that enabled the first democratic transition of power in the country’s history, and stopped it being a launch pad for terrorist attacks in the UK”.
“Although we are ending a significant chapter in our shared history, the UK’s commitment to support Afghanistan will continue through institutional development, the Afghan National Army Officer Academy, and development aid,” he added.
One battalion of troops, believed to be Americans, are expected to be the only foreign forces to remain in Afghanistan following the formal handover.
Helmand’s Provincial Governor Naim Baluch said the UK’s troops and their allies “have helped to improve security in Helmand”.
“We are very grateful for the courage and commitment of your soldiers and we are ready to deliver security ourselves,” he said.
But Chief of the General Staff General Sir Nick Carter admitted that security in Helmand remains “difficult”, and Mr Fallon said there was “no guarantee” that Afghanistan would be “stable and safe” following the departure of western combat troops.
“We have given Afghanistan the best possible chance of a safer future, primarily through the sacrifice of our own troops and other Nato troops in building up the Afghan army itself,” Mr Fallon told the BBC’s Andrew Marr show.
He conceded that errors had been made during the Afghan campaign.
“I think the generals have been clear that mistakes were made,” he said. “Mistakes were made militarily and mistakes were made by the politicians at the time.”
But he confirmed that Britain would not be sending combat forces back into Afghanistan “under any circumstances”, including a large scale insurrection in Helmand or Kabul.