British forces have withdrawn from Afghanistan after 20 years of conflict and 457 dead, the chief of the military has announced. 

Gen Sir Nick Carter, the Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS), confirmed that the majority of troops had left the country, and that the last Union flag was taken down in a secret ceremony on June 24.

Brigadier Olly Brown, the outgoing commander of Operation Toral, the UK’s contribution to Nato’s mission in Afghanistan, handed it to Sir Laurie Bristow, the UK ambassador, in a final ‘flag-lowering’ event conducted without media for security reasons.

A small number of British troops will remain in the country to train the Afghan army, with additional military support available should the region pose a security threat to the UK in the future.

Speaking ahead of the Prime Minister addressing the Commons about the withdrawal on Thursday, Gen Sir Nick admitted the news from Afghanistan was “pretty grim”, adding the Taliban now holds “nearly 50 per cent of the rural districts” in the country. 

However, he insisted that the country was now very different to 2001 when British forces first deployed, and paid tribute to veterans, saying they can “hold their heads up very high”.

Gen Sir Nick said: “I am immensely proud of the tactical excellence that our military showed on the battlefield. They were never defeated on the battlefield. They showed extraordinary adaptability [and] phenomenal courage throughout that campaign.”

The last Union flag being taken down in a secret ceremony on June 24

The Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace, also paid tribute to those who had served in Afghanistan.

He said: “Operation Toral is drawing to an end, but our enduring support for the Afghan Security Forces and Afghan Government has not.

“We owe a huge debt of gratitude to all those who have served in Afghanistan over the past 20 years, particularly those who lost their lives. Their efforts have helped prevent international terrorism and set the country on the path to peace. We hope the deal struck last year will form the basis for progress.

“We will now continue this important work as we transition to a new phase in Afghanistan.”

Amid criticism that the withdrawal of international troops had left Afghanistan on the brink of collapse, Gen Sir Nick said no provincial capital has fallen to the Taliban and government forces were “consolidating” their positions. He insisted it was “unlikely” the Taliban would ever take complete control “if it chose to fight to the end over the whole of Afghanistan”.

“If provincial capitals don’t fall and the Taliban recognise that they can’t achieve their outcome militarily, then that is something that would lead to the Taliban recognising they have to talk.”

Afghanistan was it worth it promo embed

Just under a third of Afghans now live in urban areas, with around 10 per cent of the population – about three million people – in Kabul.

The implications of recent Taliban advances in rural areas should therefore not be overblown, Gen Sir Nick said, although he accepted as “plausible” a potential collapse of the Afghan government’s authority across the nation.

“The Taliban recognise they can’t rule all of Afghanistan without a compromise,” he said. “And of course the Taliban, I don’t think any longer, want to be international pariahs.”

“They want to be regarded as internationally legitimate and they recognise that they’re not going to retain international legitimacy if they continue to fight and they don’t talk.

“The Taliban also know that it’s a very different Afghanistan to the one that they were last involved in governing in up until 2001.

“Now that foreign forces have gone it’s very difficult for the Taliban’s Ulama, the council of religious scholars, to argue that they are genuinely engaged in a jihad. The recent joint announcement by the Afghan and Pakistani ulumas, which took place under the aegis of the grand Sheikh in Saudi Arabia, made it very clear that the war now no longer is legal under Islamic law.

“That is an uncomfortable place I would suggest for the Taliban to find themselves.”