Two decades of engagement in Afghanistan by British troops has come to an end as the final members of UK military and diplomatic personnel left Kabul airport on Saturday night (local time), ending the largest evacuation mission since World War II.
Operation Pitting – where more than 1000 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.
And 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”.
British boots first hit Afghan soil in November 2001, as part of a coalition tasked with finding the leaders of al-Qaeda in the wake of the deadly 9/11 attacks, the 20th anniversary of which is just two weeks away.
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, Afghanistan is again under the control of the militant group, with the nation’s future uncertain.
Mr Johnson said: “20 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.”
The Government said of the 15,000 people evacuated since the Taliban returned, 5000 of those were British nationals and their families.
And more than 8000 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.
Around 2200 of those airlifted – on more than 100 RAF flights – were children. The youngest was 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.
And 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 around 10,000 in total – double the number anticipated this year.
The UK has evacuated more people than any other country other than the US, the Government said, as both those in Afghanistan and coordinating the effort from the UK worked all hours to process evacuees.
And as well as taking people out, UK 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.