Boris Johnson has admitted there could never be a "perfect moment" to leave Afghanistan after he confirmed British forces have withdrawn from the country after 20 years.
Speaking before the Commons on Thursday, the Prime Minister said: “We and our Nato allies were always going to withdraw our forces. The only question was when, and there could never be a perfect moment.”
Mr Johnson also confirmed to the Commons that “most of our personnel have already left”, as he urged MPs not to “leap to the false conclusion that the withdrawal of our forces somehow means the end of Britain’s commitment to Afghanistan”.
“We are not about to turn away, nor are we under any illusions about the perils of today’s situation and what may lie ahead,” he said.
Speaking ahead of the Prime Minister’s statement, General Sir Nick Carter, chief of the defence staff, confirmed that it was on June 24 that the last Union flag in Afghanistan was taken down in a secret ceremony, as previously revealed by The Telegraph.
It was handed by Brigadier Olly Brown, the outgoing commander of Operation Toral, the UK’s contribution to Nato’s mission in Afghanistan, 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. However, General 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.
Vetarans can ‘hold their heads high’
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”.
Mr Johnson also praised those who fought there, stating: “The threat that brought us to Afghanistan in the first place has been greatly diminished by the valour and by the sacrifice of the Armed Forces of Britain, and many other countries.
“We are safer because of everything they did.”
Mr Johnson confirmed that the withdrawal was “a follow up” to the end of military operations in 2014 and that the Government will back the Afghan state, “with over £100 million of development assistance this year, and £58 million for the Afghan National Security and Defence Forces”.
He also cited the “millions of children educated” and the “millions of girls in school”, as well as “the reduction in the terrorist threat in that country for decades”, and the “chance of a political negotiated settlement involving the Taliban”, as some of the UK’s achievements in Afghanistan over the last two decades.
‘Legacy is in doubt’
However, Mr Johnson’s defence of the UK’s legacy in Afghanistan, which saw 457 British military personnel killed, as a “proud” and “lasting one” came amid mounting criticism from MPs who questioned the decision to pull all troops out.
Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, who served in Afghanistan, questioned what the UK’s “legacy” would be, as he told the Commons: “The achievements that he has listed were won with the blood of my friends and I can point him to the graves, where they now lay, because that legacy is now one that is in real doubt.”
Sir Edward Leigh, a senior Tory MP, denounced it as “a catastrophic defeat for the West” and a “very sad day for tens of thousands of British personnel whose life work may now lie in ruins”.
Afghanistan withdrawal grid
Tobias Ellwood, chairman of the Defence Select Committee, who also served in Afghanistan, told Mr Johnson it would be a “dereliction of duty not to ask what went so wrong”, as he called on him to launch an inquiry into the war.
However, Mr Johnson said he did not believe such an inquiry was “not the right way forward at this stage”, but he pledged that the Government would “certainly look at” to what extent counter terrorist activity can be conducted from outside Afghanistan, on an “outside in” basis.
Taliban not seeking power
The Taliban’s political office said Thursday the group did not seek to seize power in Afghanistan militarily, Russia’s TASS news agency reported.
It comes as Afghanistan’s army and police have struggled to contain the Taliban offensive and have often appeared to surrender, or hand over their posts without a fight.
In his first formal address on Afghanistan since the US withdrew, President Joe Biden said the US military mission in Afghanistan would conclude on Aug 31.
Twelve of the best photographs from Telegraph photographers embedded in Afghanistan
"We’re ending America’s longest war but we will always honour the bravery of the American patriots who served in it," he added.
Asked if he thought it had been worth it, Mr Biden said: "I opposed having permanent US forces in Afghanistan. The US cannot afford to remain tethered to policies created in response to a world as it was 20 years ago."
Mr Biden said the US went to Afghanistan to take Osama bin Laden "to the gates of Hell" and "degrade the terrorist threat".
"We achieved those objectives," he said. "We did not go to Afghanistan to nation-build. It’s the responsibility of the Afghan people alone to decide who they want to run their country.
"We have provided our Afghan partners with all the tools of an advanced military."
Asked if a Taliban takeover was inevitable he said: "No, it is not. I do not trust the Taliban, but I trust the capacity of the Afghan military."
Mr Biden said there was no "mission accomplished" moment, but "the mission has not failed yet".
He said: "I will not send another generation of Americans to war in Afghanistan, with no reasonable expectation of achieving a different outcome.
"How many more? How many more thousands of American daughters and sons are you willing to risk?"