The final UK troops and diplomatic staff have been airlifted from Kabul, drawing to a close Britain’s 20-year engagement in Afghanistan.
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace confirmed the final RAF plane took off from Hamid Karzai International Airport at 9.25pm on Saturday, as the Prime Minister said he was “lost in admiration” for the troops.
Operation Pitting – where more than 1,000 military personnel, diplomats, and officials were dispatched to Afghanistan to rescue UK nationals and Afghan allies after the seizure of the country’s capital by the Taliban – airlifted more than 15,000 people to safety across just over a fortnight.
It was understood to be the largest evacuation mission since the Second World War.
In an open letter to members of the Armed Forces, veterans, and families, Boris Johnson said: “There has been nothing like it in speed and scale, certainly in my lifetime.”
The Government said of the 15,000 people evacuated since the Taliban seized Kabul, 5,000 of those were British nationals and their families.
And more than 8,000 Afghans who helped the British effort as interpreters or in other roles, or who are otherwise vulnerable to persecution by the regime, were also able to flee to safety with their families.
Around 2,200 of those airlifted – on more than 100 RAF flights – were children, the youngest was just one day old.
One refugee, Soman Noori, gave birth to a baby girl, Havva, on an evacuation flight on its way to Birmingham on Saturday.
But fears also rose for those left behind as a bitter blame game began over the evacuation effort.
The Sunday Times reported that fingers were being pointed at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) over a lack of escape routes from the country, with claims that up to 9,000 people who may have been eligible to escape – such as women, journalists, and aid workers – were left behind.
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace previously said he believed there were between 800 and 1,100 Afghans eligible under the Afghan Relocation and Assistance Policy (Arap) scheme who would be left behind, while around 100 and 150 UK nationals will remain in Afghanistan, although Mr Wallace said some of those were staying willingly.
But MPs have said that judging by their correspondence, they thought the true numbers were far higher.
But Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said: “The fact that so many emails have simply gone unopened is not the fault of civil servants but of government ministers who have been missing in action during this whole crisis. MPs and their staff have been hearing harrowing stories from so many people we should have taken care of but who have been abandoned to the Taliban.”
Those lucky enough to be evacuated will be supported by a new programme dubbed Operation Warm Welcome.
The PM said: “I am determined that we welcome them with open arms and that my Government puts in place the support they need to rebuild their lives.”
Operation Warm Welcome will be modelled on a similar scheme put in place for Syrian refugees and will include ensuring access to health and education services, as well as support into work and accommodation.
A central hub will also be created where organisations and individuals can register to give their support, after an outpouring of offers to support those coming to the UK.
This could be volunteering, jobs, professional skills, trauma support, or donations.
And free English lessons will also be provided as although many of those Afghans coming to the UK may have good English skills through working as interpreters, their families may not.
Meanwhile, US Major General Hank Taylor said during a Pentagon news conference on Saturday that a retaliatory drone strike ordered by President Joe Biden killed two “high-profile” IS militants believed to have been involved in planning or facilitating attacks, not one, as initially reported.
Mr Biden ordered the strikes after a suicide attack on Thursday, by an Islamic State group affiliate, killed two British adults and a teenager who was the child of a British national, 13 US service members, and 169 Afghans.
And there were concerns that the group, which is far more radical than the Taliban, could strike again within 24 to 36 hours.
“The fact that two of these individuals are no longer walking on the face of the Earth, that’s a good thing,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said.