British and U.S. soldiers have formally marked the end of combat operations in Afghanistan’s southern Helmand province by handing control of the country’s largest military base to Afghan forces.
The British flag was lowered Sunday in a ceremony at Camp Bastion, while the American flag came down for a final time at the adjacent Camp Leatherneck.
The handover ends an important chapter in the 13-year Afghan campaign, which started after the terrorist attacks on the United States in 2001.
All NATO combat troops will leave Afghanistan by December, leaving most of the fight against a resilient Taliban insurgency to Afghan army and police.
The timing of the troops’ withdrawal from the base in the strategic province of Helmand was not released for security reasons.
Camp Leatherneck is the largest U.S. base to be handed over to Afghan control as the coalition ends its combat mission at the end of the year,
British forces transferred the adjacent Camp Bastion at the same time. The camp has been the center of UK operations in Afghanistan since 2006.
UK Defense Secretary Michael Fallon said the end of combat operations is being announced “with pride” and that Britain has helped give Afghanistan “the best possible chance of a stable future.”
Fallon said Britain’s commitment to support Afghanistan will continue “through institutional development, the Afghan National Army Officer Academy, and development aid.”
Brigadier Rob Thomson, senior British officer in Helmand, said Afghan National Security Forces are “more than ready” to assume responsibility for security.
A total of 453 British troops and 2,349 Americans have been killed during the campaign.
Once a teeming compound of about 40,000 personnel, the coalition’s Regional Command (Southwest) combined base on Sunday resembled a dust-swept, well-fortified ghost town.
“It’s empty now – when I got here, it was still bustling, so there were a lot of services around and people around,” said Marine Capt. Ryan Steenberge, whose taskforce was overseeing surveillance and security for the withdrawal and will be among the last troops out.
The most recent official estimate of combined international troops at the base was 4,500 – and those last few will be gone soon, officials said.
Many facilities such as pipelines, buildings, roads and even office furniture remain in place, with the U.S. alone estimating $230 million worth of equipment is being left behind.
After the withdrawal, the Afghan National Army’s 215th Corps will be headquartered at the 6,500-acre base, leaving almost no foreign military presence in Helmand.
General Sayed Malook, who leads the Afghan forces in the region and has now established his quarters in the base, said the camp would become a military training center and house 1,800 soldiers.
“I’m certain we can maintain the security,” Malook told the French news agency AFP on Sunday. Asked about the departure of the NATO troops, he said: “I’m happy and sad. I’m happy because they are going to their home, I’m sad because they are friends.”
The province, which produces 80 to 90 percent of the opium that helps finance the Taliban’s insurgency, has seen fierce fighting this year, with Taliban and allied forces seeking to seize the district of Sangin from Afghan army and police.
Afghan army’s abilities
The battles have raised concerns about whether Afghan forces are truly able to hold off the Taliban without intelligence and air support from the United States and its allies.
Officials with the U.S.-led coalition say the Afghan forces held their own this summer fighting season and did not lose any significant ground.
“I’m cautiously optimistic they will be able to sustain themselves,” said Brig. Gen Daniel Yoo, the commander of Regional Command (Southwest), said of the Afghan forces.
He said the success of the Afghan security army and police depended on leadership, continued development of logistics and confidence.
“They’ve got to want it more than we do,” he said of Afghan forces that have been losing hundreds of soldiers and policemen each month in battles, assassinations and suicide attacks by insurgents.
The huge joint base built in the desert near the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, was the most important installation for the NATO mission in Afghanistan.
Helmand was a major focus of the 2010 troops surge to wrest control back from the Taliban insurgency. The surge saw international forces in Afghanistan swell to about 140,000. By Jan. 1, that number will be about 12,500 of mostly trainers and advisers.
After Camp Leatherneck and Bastion, the most important NATO bases will be at Kandahar, Bagram, Herat and Mazar-e-Sharif.
Some material for this report came from Reuters, AP and AFP.