CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan — 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 and costly war against the Taliban.
Their 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 had 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. Offices and bulletin boards, which once showed photo tributes to dead American and British soldiers, had been stripped.
“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 Qaeda after the militant 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.
After Sunday’s withdrawal, the Afghan National Army’s 215th Corps will be headquartered at the 28 sq km (11 sq mile) base, leaving almost no foreign military presence in Helmand.
The U.S. military is leaving behind about $230 million worth of property and equipment — including a major airstrip at the base, plus roads and buildings — for the Afghan military.
“We gave them the maps to the place. We gave them the keys,” said Col. Doug Patterson, a Marine brigade commander in charge of logistics.
Civilian casualties in Afghanistan may reach an all-time high this year, with the United Nations reporting nearly 5,000 killed or wounded in the first half of 2014, most of them by the insurgency.
Several Afghans at Sunday’s ceremony expressed pride at taking over the base, mixed with sadness at the international forces with whom they have worked with for years leaving for good.
“We are going to miss our friends,” said Afghan Brig. Gen. Nasim Sangin. “But we will still be in touch by email.”
International forces in Afghanistan boosted their numbers to about 140,000 in 2010 troops with the aim of wresting control of the Helmand province back from the Taliban. By Jan. 1, that number will be about 12,500, comprising mostly trainers and advisers.
Of those, 9,800 will be American, with the rest from other NATO members. The British will keep a small contingent at an officer training school in Kabul.