UK to bring home last remaining troops in Afghanistan this weekend
Britain is expected to bring the last of its regular troops home from Afghanistan over the weekend, ending its official role in a two-decades long conflict even though the Taliban are resurgent across the country.
Defence sources told the Guardian that the exit of the last of the UK’s 750 soldiers – part of a Nato stabilisation and training mission – is expected to be complete “in the next few days” before formal announcements.
Although insiders are reluctant to confirm the exact timetable, two military sources indicated that British forces were due out by Sunday 4 July, with the RAF having rescheduled flights to complete the evacuation.
The UK exit has been scheduled to match the final departures of US forces, which have been working to essentially complete their withdrawal to an operational deadline of July 4.
US president Joe Biden denied the withdrawal would be completed over the Independence Day weekend, but less than a thousand US troops are thought to be still in the country, mostly for security purposes in and around Kabul. A contingent of 650 US soldiers will stay behind in the coming months with the sole responsibility of providing security for the embassy.
The withdrawal saw the Americans hand over the strategic Bagram airbase north of Kabul to the Afghan security forces on Friday.
The US president, Joe Biden, had pledged to bring all troops home by September but that schedule was accelerated, despite rapid Taliban advances, the raising of new militias to fight them and warnings of civil war.
“The Bagram departure illustrates how quickly the US wants to get out, even though there is a danger of Afghanistan collapsing,” said Tobias Ellwood, the chair of the Commons defence select committee. “This cannot be how we imagined leaving the country, after two decades, over British 450 lives being lost and thousands of other soliders left with life changing injuries.”
Boris Johnson, the prime minister, will make a statement to parliament early next week, possibly as early as Monday, marking the change and outlining the UK’s future diplomatic presence and military posture towards Afghanistan.
That could include a residual presence for the SAS and other special forces to help the over-stretched Afghan forces hold off the Taliban. The US is already providing air support from planes and drones based outside the country. It has promised funding for the security forces and is reportedly considering paying for contractors to keep the vital Afghan air force in the air.
Final decisions will be taken at a meeting of the UK’s national security council, also scheduled for Monday, although the plans are already well developed. Like the US, a small number of soldiers may be retained to help guard the British embassy in Kabul, although it is currently protected by contractors.
Britain played a major role in combat operations in Afghanistan between 2001 and 2014, leading the fight against the Taliban in the southern Helmand province. A total of 454 British soldiers and civilians were killed on operations during the period.
Since then, the UK has contributed to a Nato-led Resolute Support troop training mission for the Afghan forces. British generals say they had wanted to remain in the country in a training capacity but recognised it was impossible to do so without the US military presence.
In common with other Nato countries, who ended their missions in recent weeks, the UK had intended to make a low-key military departure. Few politicians want to highlight that a military project launched to destroy the Taliban is ending with the group resurgent across Afghanistan.
The Ministry of Defence said on Friday there would be no public, formal flag-lowering ceremony as the last troops leave. It marks a stark contrast with the official end of 2014 combat missions, when security was better and hopes for Afghanistan’s future higher. Then journalists were flown in to cover handover ceremonies on the ground.
Most of the 750 UK troops have already left, defence sources said, and the British flag has already been lowered at Hamid Karzai international airport, the closest to a symbolic withdrawal.
Germany, Italy and Poland were among others confirming their final forces had left in a series of statements over the last week. Germany waited until its last forces were airborne before making its announcement on Tuesday.
At its height, there were about 130,000 Nato troops deployed in Afghanistan, with British forces at about 9,500.
More than 2,300 US personnel have been killed and 20,000 wounded in Afghanistan since 2001. Tens of thousands of Afghan security forces and more than 50,000 civilians have also died, with casualties expected to rise fast during a summer of intense fighting.
Action on Armed Violence, a research group that monitors deaths in conflict, said in 2020 that Afghanistan had the highest level of civilian casualties harmed by explosive weapons recorded anywhere in the world.
A Ministry of Defence spokesperson said the Nato Resolute Support mission was due to end in a few months. “The UK is involved in ongoing discussions with US and international allies regarding the future of our support to Afghanistan,” they added.