On a sunny morning in Kabul, British troops silently lowered a Union flag from its mast, a poignant moment symbolising the end of their 20-year military campaign in Afghanistan.
Gentle birdsong could be heard as soldiers from the historic Black Watch battalion folded the flag to present to their commander; himself a veteran of some of the most fierce fighting endured by British troops in the war-ravaged country.
Brigadier Oliver Brown, the outgoing commander of the Kabul Security Force, described the ceremony as being ‘tinged with emotion’ for the ‘457 British lives lost’ since the war against the Taliban began in 2001, ‘and for those severely wounded’.
Just over a decade ago, Brigadier Brown, then a major in the Royal Anglian Regiment, led his men into battle in Helmand province. It was 2009 – a year in which 95 UK troops died fighting the militants who, as the Prime Minister acknowledged for the first time yesterday, will almost certainly be involved in governing Afghanistan in the years ahead.
On a sunny morning in Kabul, British troops silently lowered a Union flag from its mast, a poignant moment symbolising the end of their 20-year military campaign in Afghanistan
Footage of the recent ceremony in Kabul was released as – 3,500 miles away in London – Boris Johnson paid tribute in the House of Commons to the ‘efforts and sacrifices’ of British troops which, he insisted, had not been in vain.
The Prime Minister pointed to the successes of the UK’s contribution to the Nato campaign in Afghanistan, the 3.6 million girls who are now permitted to attend schools, the women previously forbidden to play roles in public life who now sit in the country’s parliament and the 340,000 acres of land cleared of deadly landmines.
And he issued a thinly veiled threat, suggesting the Taliban would face further UK military action should they strip Afghans of their human rights – freedoms paid for in British soldiers’ blood and £37 billion of taxpayers’ money.
He personally commended Afghan interpreters who risked their lives alongside our troops, saying this country owed them ‘an enormous debt’.
British forces would not have been able to operate, especially in the dangerous Helmand province, without the men described by UK soldiers as their ‘eyes and ears’.
Afghan translator Arif (right) is among those waiting for permission to start a new life as others boarded a ten-hour ‘freedom flight’ to the UK
But it has taken the Daily Mail’s Betrayal of the Brave campaign to highlight their plight and to get the Government to protect the translators and other local workers.
Mr Johnson’s personal tribute came as more translators boarded a ten-hour ‘freedom flight’ expected to land in the UK last night from Afghanistan. For security reasons, details of the flight are shrouded in secrecy.
The Prime Minister came under attack from members on his own backbenches, with Conservative Edward Leigh describing the British campaign in Afghanistan as a ‘catastrophic defeat’.
Mr Johnson’s suggestion that a peace deal with the Taliban was a preferred option for Afghanistan also appeared to unsettle MPs.
He said: ‘The chance of a negotiated political settlement involving the Taliban is the only realistic prospect for that country. The Taliban have for several years now controlled a very considerable part of Afghanistan and during that period we have not seen terrorist operations launched against the wider world.
‘And I think what might weigh on the Taliban’s minds as they think about whether to allow [terrorist] groups to reform and act outside Afghanistan, they should remember what happened last time.’
A force of 120 British troops, mainly Special Forces, but also including intelligence and communications specialists, are expected to remain in Afghanistan. Their roles will include working with local military commanders to identify and eliminate terrorist threats.
Britain’s embassy in Kabul, and its ambassador to Afghanistan Sir Laurie Bristow, will continue to be protected by former Gurkha troops supplied by a private military contractor.
The Prime Minister’s decision to withdraw almost all UK soldiers, following the lead of the United States, was challenged by Tory MP Tom Tugendhat, who served in Afghanistan with the Foreign Office.
He said: ‘The achievements [of British troops] were won with the blood of my friends and I can point him to where they now lay. Because that legacy is now in real doubt, and we know it.
‘How does British foreign policy work in a country like Afghanistan if persistence isn’t persistent and endurance doesn’t endure? How can people trust us? How can people look at us as a friend?’