Final UK troops from Afghanistan arrive back in UK as Taliban vows to let people leave country
The last UK military and diplomatic personnel to leave Afghanistan arrived in the UK on Sunday morning, reports Helen Keenan
The last UK military and diplomatic personnel to leave Kabul airport have landed back in the country, marking the end of the 20-year campaign in Afghanistan.
Operation Pitting, the largest evacuation mission since the Second World War, ended on Saturday night as the final troops left.
Meanwhile, the Taliban has promised the UK it will ensure "safe passage" for any people who want to leave the country after August 31.
Amid fears that thousands of Afghans who may have been eligible to move to the UK will be stuck in the country, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said if the Taliban want diplomatic recognition and aid funding, they would have to ensure “safe passage” for those who want to leave.
In a joint statement with the US and more than 90 other countries, it was confirmed that the Taliban had said anyone who wished to leave the country could do so.
The joint statement read: “We have received assurances from the Taliban that all foreign nationals and any Afghan citizen with travel authorisation from our countries will be allowed to proceed in a safe and orderly manner to points of departure and travel outside the country.”
A Voyager aircraft touched down at RAF Brize Norton airfield in Oxfordshire on Sunday morning carrying roughly 250 personnel on board, including members of 16 Air Assault Brigade who were stationed at Kabul airport.
The plane flew in from Al Minhad airfield in the United Arab Emirates near Dubai, where the UK’s evacuation flights from Afghanistan first landed.
British troops seen boarding an A400M aircraft on Saturday in Kabul, in one of the last UK evacuation flights from Kabul on Saturday
Further flights carrying personnel are expected later on Sunday.
Ambassador to Afghanistan Sir Laurie Bristow, who had been processing those fleeing the country at the airport until the last moment, was among those on the flight.
The Ministry of Defence said the last civilian evacuation flight had left on Saturday.
More than 15,000 people have been airlifted to safety in just over a fortnight, as more than 1,000 troops, diplomats, and officials were sent to Afghanistan to rescue British nationals and Afghan allies after the Taliban took over the country's capital.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said now was “a moment to reflect on everything we have sacrificed and everything we have achieved in the last two decades”.
In a video uploaded to Twitter on Sunday morning, Mr Johnson praised the more than 1,000 military personnel, diplomats and officials who took part in the operation in Afghanistan.
He said: “UK troops and officials have worked around the clock to a remorseless deadline in harrowing conditions.
“They have expended all the patience and care and thought they possess to help people in fear for their lives.
“They’ve seen at first-hand barbaric terrorist attacks on the queues of people they were trying to comfort, as well as on our American friends.
“They didn’t flinch. They kept calm. They got on with the job."
The prime minister praised the "colossal exertions" of UK troops and said their departure from Afghanistan was “the culmination of a mission unlike anything we’ve seen in our lifetimes”.
Musa Popal and Mohammed Niazi are believed to be the two British citizens who died in the Kabul airport bomb attack, ITV News Political Reporter Shehab Khan reports
Meanwhile, US has conducted an air strike against two alleged ISIS-K suicide bombers near Kabul airport.
It comes after the US military conducted an airstrike on Saturday morning against members of the Islamic State group's Afghanistan affiliate - ISIS-K.
It is believed the targeted members were involved in planning the terrorist attack at Kabul airport on Thursday that left more than 170 people dead, including two British nationals and the child of another British national.
The US drone strike killed two "high profile ISIS targets" and one was wounded, US Army Major General William "Hank" Taylor said in a Pentagon press conference on Saturday. He said there were no civilian casualties.
As the final troops arrived back in the UK, Vice Admiral Ben Key, Chief of Joint Operations, who commands Operation Pitting, admitted there was a “sense of sadness” that not all could be saved.
Speaking at RAF Brize Norton on Sunday morning, he said: “Whilst we recognise and I pay testament to the achievement of everything that has been achieved by coalition forces, but particularly the British contingent, over the last two weeks, in the end we know that there are some really sad stories of people who have desperately tried to leave that we have – no matter how hard our efforts – we have been unsuccessful in evacuating.”
He added: “There has been a phenomenal effort achieved in the last two weeks. And I think we always knew that somewhere we would fall just short.
“So, this isn’t a moment of celebration for us at all, this is a moment to mark a tremendous international effort to evacuate as many people as we could in the time available.”
But former head of the British Army General Lord Richard Dannatt suggested more could have been done if the government had not been “asleep on watch”.
Speaking to Times Radio, he said: “It is unfathomable why it would appear that the government was asleep on watch.
“I think the issue of Afghanistan sat on the backburner. Maybe it started to come forward. But then, suddenly, when the Taliban took over the country in the precipitate fashion in which they did, it fell off the cooker straight on to the kitchen floor and we’ve… had this chaotic extraction.
“We should have done better, we could have done better. It absolutely behoves us to find out why the government didn’t spark up faster.”
Addressing the families and loved ones of the British troops who “gave their all”, Mr Johnson said: “Your suffering and your hardship were not in vain.”
He added: “It was no accident that there’s been no terrorist attack launched against Britain or any other western country from Afghanistan in the last 20 years.”
But Conservative MP and veteran Tobias Ellwood said the UK had “very little to show” for 20 years in Afghanistan.
The chairman of the Commons Defence Select Committee told LBC: “Our armed forces performed so valiantly but they were let down by their political masters.
“We lacked the strategy, the statecraft, the patience to see through, and the manner of our departure is a humiliation, a confirmation of our diminished resolve, and our adversaries will not be slow to exploit it.”
Mr Ellwood added: “Unfortunately, we’ve made the situation worse, by absenting ourselves from the very place where it’s now very easy for terrorist groups to do their work.”