British troops ended their combat operations in Afghanistan on Sunday as they and U.S. Marines handed over two huge adjacent bases to the Afghan military, 13 years after a U.S.-led invasion launched the long war against the Taliban.
Their coming departure leaves Afghanistan and its newly installed president, Ashraf Ghani, to deal almost unaided with an emboldened Taliban insurgency after the last foreign combat troops withdraw by year-end.
At the U.S. Camp Leatherneck and Britain’s Camp Bastion, which lie next to each other in the southwestern province of Helmand, troops lowered the American and British flags for the final time on Sunday and folded them away.
The timing of their withdrawal has not been announced for security reasons.
Camp Leatherneck, the largest U.S. base to be handed over to Afghan control, and Camp Bastion together formed the international coalition’s regional headquarters for the southwest of Afghanistan, housing up to 40,000 military personnel and civilian contractors.
But on Sunday, the base resembled a dust-swept ghost town of concrete blast walls, empty barracks and razor wire. “It’s eerily empty,” said Lt. Will Davis, of the Queen’s Dragoon Guards in the British Army. Camp Bastion was also where Prince Harry was based in 2012 as an Apache helicopter gunner.
In all, 2,210 American soldiers and 453 British soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan since 2001, when the U.S.-led coalition toppled the Taliban government for harboring al-Qaida after the terrorist group carried out the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.
The coalition has been led by NATO since 2003, and includes forces from Germany, Italy, Jordan and Turkey.