Final British troops leave Afghanistan after 20-year campaign

Twenty years of British military involvement in Afghanistan has come to an end.

The final UK troops and diplomatic personnel left Kabul airport on Saturday night, ending the largest evacuation mission since the Second World War.

Operation Pitting – where more than 1,000 troops, diplomats and officials were dispatched to Afghanistan to rescue UK nationals and Afghan allies after the seizure of the country's capital by the Taliban – airlifted more than 15,000 people to safety across just over a fortnight.

Vice Admiral Sir Ben Key, Chief of Joint Operations and the lead on Operation Pitting, said it "isn't a moment of celebration for us at all".

"This is a moment to mark a tremendous international effort to evacuate as many people as we could in the time available," he said.

He also said there was a "sense of sadness that we haven't done all we would have wished".

"Of course, we would have liked more time, because then we could have brought more people out," he said.

"It would have given us a chance to really make sure we'd reached out to those who have helped us so wonderfully and courageously over the last 20 years.

"But the truth is, no more time was granted to us by the Taliban, who were very clear that by the end of August, not only had the evacuation got to have [been] completed, but that we, the western militaries, had all withdrawn as well."

However Vice Admiral Key said there is not "a single person deployed forward… who could have given more in the last two, two-and-a-half weeks".

"The effort has been, frankly, truly humbling."

Air Commodore David Manning, Air Mobility Force Commander, has overseen the evacuation flights leaving Kabul airport.

He said "the Kabul airlift is second only to the Berlin airlift of 1948" in terms of scale and "has used pretty well most of the air mobility force", as well as "every serviceable aircraft".

And Air Cdre Manning also acknowledged the "significant" challenges RAF personnel faced in conducting the evacuation from Kabul.

"But again, Royal Air Force air crew and support crew are highly trained," he said.

"This is not normal jogging but it's what we're trained for and, funny old thing, they stepped up and delivered."

Watch: Timeline of British forces in Afghanistan. 

Vice Admiral Key said the 20 years that UK personnel have spent in Afghanistan "has characterised, for many, their careers within the military".

"It represents considerable sacrifice," he said.

"It's difficult not to ignore the 457 UK military personnel that have lost their lives in the last 20 years and the many more who have had life-changing injuries.

"But I think all of us that have been involved, in whatever way, would say that we've made a difference, and a positive difference."

British troops first arrived in Afghanistan in November 2011 as part of a coalition tasked with finding the leaders of al-Qaeda following the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington.

The Taliban was accused of providing a sanctuary for Osama Bin Laden and his al-Qaeda movement, and by December the regime collapsed.

But nearly 20 years later, after 457 British service personnel lost their lives in the country, Afghanistan is again under the control of the militant group, with the nation's future uncertain.

In an address to the nation, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said now was "a moment to reflect on everything we have sacrificed and everything we have achieved in the last two decades".

Mr Johnson said: "Twenty years ago, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the first British soldier set foot on Afghan soil aiming to create a brighter future for the country and all its people.

"The departure of the last British soldiers from the country is a moment to reflect on everything we have sacrificed and everything we have achieved in the last two decades.

"The nature of our engagement in Afghanistan may have changed, but our goals for the country have not. We will now use all the diplomatic and humanitarian tools at our disposal to preserve the gains of the last twenty years and give the Afghan people the future they deserve."

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer added: "I pay tribute to the brave men and women of our Armed Forces who have done so much to provide the opportunity of a new life to so many.

"Our diplomatic staff and military personnel should be proud of the heroic work they have done and we owe them a great debt of gratitude.

"It is now for the Government to urgently set out a plan for those left behind."

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace wrote on Twitter: "The UK should be very proud of what you have done. Every one of you have displayed the highest levels of professionalism and bravery."

The Parachute Regiment tweeted pictures of soldiers on an RAF aircraft earlier.

Watch: "Absolutely heartbreaking that we can't bring everybody out" of Afghanistan.

The Government said of the 15,000 people evacuated since the Taliban returned, 5,000 of those were British nationals and their families.

And more than 8,000 Afghans who helped the British effort as interpreters or in other roles, or who are otherwise vulnerable to persecution by the regime, were also able to flee to safety with their families.

About 2,200 of those airlifted – on more than 100 RAF flights – were children, with the youngest just one day old.

One refugee, Soman Noori, gave birth to a baby girl, Havva, on an evacuation flight on its way to Birmingham on Saturday.

The total number of Afghans brought to the UK under the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP) since it was set in April is now about 10,000 in total – double the number anticipated this year.

Watch: Who are the Taliban?

The UK has evacuated more people than any other country other than the US, the Government said, as both those in Afghanistan and co-ordinating the effort from the UK worked all hours to process evacuees.

And as well as taking people out, the Armed Forces also flew in vital supplies such as vegetarian and halal meals and 250,000 litres of bottled water, to distribute to those waiting to escape.

The operation saw the RAF fly a total of 261,000 miles. A C-17 large military transport aircraft leaving Kabul this week carried 436 people – the single biggest capacity flight in RAF history.

British capacity in Afghanistan had been diminished since October 2014, when the central hub of operations in Helmand Province, Camp Bastion, was handed over to Afghan forces and combat troops were withdrawn.

But a small number of personnel stayed behind to help train and advise the Afghan National Security Forces, alongside American forces who continued a scaled-back combat mission.

If you or someone you know needs support at this time, you can find more information by visiting the British Army website and the Government's website.

Further details about support available can be found on our website.

Cover image: British troops board an RAF A400M at Kabul airport (Picture: MOD).

Related topics

Join Our Newsletter


How new Mk 41 Vertical Missile systems increase firepower for Royal Navy

French infantry troops commitment to security of Nato's eastern border

How is Estonia dealing with heightened Russian threat to its security?