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Britain's 13-year war in Afghanistan comes to an end
Britain's war in Afghanistan has ended with a final ceremony in Camp Bastion.
The British flag was lowered in a moving ceremony, bringing to a conclusion the 13-year war in Afghanistan, which has claimed the lives of 453 British servicemen and women.
All British soldiers will leave Camp Bastion within days, handing over the huge base to Afghan troops.
Thousands of soldiers have returned to Britain in recent months, leaving only a few hundred members of the Armed Forces operating in the country. Tonnes of equipment have been repatriated, to meet the deadline of ending combat operations by the end of 2014.
The sprawling base in Helmand province was officially handed over to the Afghans at 10am local time in a ceremony before the few British and American personnel left on the base.
The British flag was lowered, along with the US and Nato flags, as Apache helicopters clattered overhead.
The imminent closure of the last major British base in the country marks the end of Britain's ground war in Afghanistan. Camp Bastion was opened in 2006 in response to a surge in Taliban attacks and has been Britain's main operating base in the country for eight years.
Camp Bastion is the only British base left in Helmand province, compared with more than 120 outposts three years ago.
At its peak, Bastion held around 40,000 people, but by the end of 2014, the number of coalition military personnel across the country will have been cut to the bare minimum.
Around a thousand people currently remain on the base, of whom a few hundred are British. The Afghan Major General Sayed Malook will take control of the base.
A few dozen British military personnel will remain in Kabul to operate an officer training facility nicknamed Sandhurst-in-the-Sand, as part of the continued support of the Afghan people. Special forces will continue to operate in the region.
The US will maintain a force of around 10,000 troops in Afghanistan next year, after reaching an agreement with the new Afghan president Ashraf Ghani. At its peak, the number of British troops in the whole country was 9,500.
There are concerns about the future security of the country, when the £37billion security operation comes to an end. Almost 800 members of the Afghan security forces have been killed in Helmand this summer, and around 4,000 Afghan security forces this year.
Brigadier Robert Thomson, the most senior British officer in Helmand, said he was proud of what had been achieved and happy to be going home to his family. But he also said he was sad about every serviceman and woman who died in Afghanistan.
"I'm optimistic about this country," he said. "What we have achieved is something that we can be proud about. The people voted and the Taliban have been marginalised. There is never an easy time to leave a country when you've been building an institution.
"This is a country that is a work in progress rather than a country that has been completed."
There are concerns that the security situation in Afghanistan could mirror the catastrophic deterioration seen in Iraq.
Since British forces pulled out of Iraq in 2006, the country has slid inexorably into chaos. In recent months, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has massacred civilians across the north of the country.
Brig Thomson insisted that the situation in Afghanistan was very different to the situation in Iraq.
"Iraq and Afghanistan are very different places in terms of environment - geography, culture, societal structures. The way that we are ending here is very different. We are transitioning here. It is not a cliff edge, it is going to be a transition," he said.
As the American-led forces pull out of bases across Afghanistan, they have faced attack after attack, with some ground attacks being launched on the day of departure.
Some security experts believe that the Taliban is trying to establish their superiority as soon as coalition forces depart.
The Taliban have carried out a series of operations in Helmand this summer, attacking in areas such as Sangin and Nad-e Ali, where British soldiers spent months battling to maintain control.
In recent months, thousands of tonnes of kit has been transported back to the UK from Afghanistan, including 3,345 vehicles, 50 aircraft and 5,500 standard shipping containers worth of items.
Thousands of tyres, tonnes of damaged ballistic glass and hundreds of air conditioning units and printer cartridges have been scrapped or sold because it was not cost effective to bring them back to the UK.
Camp Leatherneck - the neighbouring American camp - has also being reduced in the same way.
As a result of the drawdown, which started in October 2012, servicemen and women have been living in increasingly austere conditions at Camp Bastion. While before the base contained a huge dining facility, soldiers have been eating boil-in-the-bag ration packs in recent weeks.
Ironing was an early casualty, with irons being sent home in April. Creased uniform would usually be unacceptable, but in recent months, soldiers have only been using the absolute basics.
The relaxed rules were part of a shift to an "expeditionary posture" as the sprawling base the size of Reading was wound up and lost its creature comforts.
Regimental Sergeant Major Robert Mansel from Swansea, of the Queens Dragoons Guards, said he had seen significant improvements in the region since his last tour two years ago.
"There has been a big step difference this time, a big change from previous tours. They are managing their own casualties, extracting them with their own helicopters, treating them with their own doctors."
"I was in Garmsir in 2009 and the place was a real mess. The only schools were burned out carcasses. Helmand was a very dangerous place. It is still a dangerous place, though. It is a third world country. It is a strange feeling now that we are actually leaving. It is a huge privilege to be here," he said.
Captain Philip Mhango of the Royal Corps of Signals, 35, from west London, said he was hopeful about the future of Afghanistan.
"There is an Afghan saying, 'the river is made of many drops of water', and I think it will be the same here. It will take time, but I believe that Afghanistan will get there. I don't see that it is not achievable," he said.
"Afghanistan has so much to offer. I was here in 2006 and this is my fourth tour. I was here at the start and it is an honour to be here at the end."
Captain Mhango said the Afghans had been disappointed when they were told the British were leaving.
"It is the end of an eight year relationship. We've got to know these guys really well. It is sad in some ways to say goodbye. I've spent two years of my life in Afghanistan over four tours," he said.
"We went through the five stages of bereavement when we told them we were leaving at the end of the year. It's been a very long goodbye. They said, 'why would you build this massive base in the desert and just leave it?'"
[Source: By Holly Watt, Whitehall Editor, Camp Bastion, Afghanistan, The Telegraph, London, 26Oct14]
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|This document has been published on 27Oct14 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.|