Britain ends combat role in Afghanistan, US Marines hand over base

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Britain ends combat role in Afghanistan, US Marines hand over base
US Marines play basketball as British and US troops prepare to withdraw from the Camp Bastion-Leatherneck complex at Lashkar Gah in Helmand province on October 25, 2014. British forces October 26 handed over formal control of their last base in Afghanistan to Afghan forces, ending combat operations in the country after 13 years which cost hundreds of lives. The Union Jack was lowered at Camp Bastion in the southern province of Helmand, while the Stars and Stripes came down at the adjacent Camp Leatherneck -- the last US Marine base in the country. AFP PHOTO/Wakil kohsar (Photo credit should read WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP/Getty Images)
A general view of the Camp Bastion-Leatherneck complex at Lashkar Gah in Helmand province on October 25, 2014. British forces October 26 handed over formal control of their last base in Afghanistan to Afghan forces, ending combat operations in the country after 13 years which cost hundreds of lives. The Union Jack was lowered at Camp Bastion in the southern province of Helmand, while the Stars and Stripes came down at the adjacent Camp Leatherneck -- the last US Marine base in the country. AFP PHOTO/Wakil kohsar (Photo credit should read WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP/Getty Images)
US Marines play a game of cards as British and US troops prepare to withdraw from the Camp Bastion-Leatherneck complex at Lashkar Gah in Helmand province on October 25, 2014. British forces October 26 handed over formal control of their last base in Afghanistan to Afghan forces, ending combat operations in the country after 13 years which cost hundreds of lives. The Union Jack was lowered at Camp Bastion in the southern province of Helmand, while the Stars and Stripes came down at the adjacent Camp Leatherneck -- the last US Marine base in the country. AFP PHOTO/Wakil kohsar (Photo credit should read WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP/Getty Images)
US Marines play a game of cards as British and US troops prepare to withdraw from the Camp Bastion-Leatherneck complex at Lashkar Gah in Helmand province on October 25, 2014. British forces October 26 handed over formal control of their last base in Afghanistan to Afghan forces, ending combat operations in the country after 13 years which cost hundreds of lives. The Union Jack was lowered at Camp Bastion in the southern province of Helmand, while the Stars and Stripes came down at the adjacent Camp Leatherneck -- the last US Marine base in the country. AFP PHOTO/Wakil kohsar (Photo credit should read WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP/Getty Images)
US Marines load equipment onto a C-130 transport aircraft as they withdraw from the Camp Bastion-Leatherneck complex at Lashkar Gah in Helmand province on October 25, 2014. British forces October 26 handed over formal control of their last base in Afghanistan to Afghan forces, ending combat operations in the country after 13 years which cost hundreds of lives. The Union Jack was lowered at Camp Bastion in the southern province of Helmand, while the Stars and Stripes came down at the adjacent Camp Leatherneck -- the last US Marine base in the country. AFP PHOTO/Wakil kohsar (Photo credit should read WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP/Getty Images)
US Marines load equipment onto a C-130 transport aircraft as they withdraw from the Camp Bastion-Leatherneck complex at Lashkar Gah in Helmand province on October 25, 2014. British forces October 26 handed over formal control of their last base in Afghanistan to Afghan forces, ending combat operations in the country after 13 years which cost hundreds of lives. The Union Jack was lowered at Camp Bastion in the southern province of Helmand, while the Stars and Stripes came down at the adjacent Camp Leatherneck -- the last US Marine base in the country. AFP PHOTO/Wakil kohsar (Photo credit should read WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP/Getty Images)
A US Marine reads a book while he waits near transport as British and US troops withdraw from the Camp Bastion-Leatherneck complex at Lashkar Gah in Helmand province on October 26, 2014. British forces October 26 handed over formal control of their last base in Afghanistan to Afghan forces, ending combat operations in the country after 13 years which cost hundreds of lives. The Union Jack was lowered at Camp Bastion in the southern province of Helmand, while the Stars and Stripes came down at the adjacent Camp Leatherneck -- the last US Marine base in the country. AFP PHOTO/Wakil kohsar (Photo credit should read WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP/Getty Images)
KABUL, AFGHANISTAN - OCTOBER 03: A Black Hawk makes up part of a convoy of helicopters taking the media and British Prime Minister David Cameron to the Presidential Palace from Kabul airport as Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron visits Afghanistan on October 3, 2014 in Kabul, Afghanistan. David Cameron is the first world leader to meet Afghanistan's new President Ashraf Ghani and his defeated opponent in the presidential race Abdullah Abdullah since the new government was formed. Mr Cameron's visit was unannounced to Kabul and comes after a visit late last night to RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus from where RAF Tornados are launching air strikes against Islamic State militants in Iraq. (Photo by Dan Kitwood - Pool/Getty Images)
BRIZE NORTON, ENGLAND - MAY 06: People pay tribute as the coffins of five British servicemen who were killed in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan pass the Memorial Garden in Carterton after being repatriated to nearby RAF Brize Norton on May 6, 2014 in Oxfordshire, England. Captain Thomas Clarke, Warrant Officer Spencer Faulkner and Corporal James Walters, of the Army Air Corps (AAC), who were serving as the Lynx aircrafts three-man team when they died alongside Flight Lieutenant Rakesh Chauhan of the Royal Air Force and Lance Corporal Oliver Thomas of the Intelligence Corps, who were believed to have been passengers on the flight. The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has denied claims by the Taliban that insurgents shot the helicopter down in Kandahar province on April 26, claiming it was a tragic accident rather than enemy action that caused of the crash. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
DONCASTER, ENGLAND - JANUARY 24: Soldiers from 1st Regiment Royal Horse Artillery parade through the streets of Doncaster to mark their recent return from Afghanistan on January 24, 2014 in Doncaster, England. Around 250 soldiers from the regiment were led through the town by 22 horses from the ceremonial King's Troop Royal Horse Artillery. The return of soldiers from 1 RHA brings to an end a decade of constant deployments by the soldiers from the regiment. (Photo by Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)
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By KAY JOHNSON

(Reuters) - 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.

U.S., U.K. Hand Off Afghan Base, but Taliban Still a Threat

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.

"CAUTIOUSLY OPTIMISTIC"

Helmand province, which produces 80-90 percent of the opium that helps finance the Taliban's insurgency, has seen fierce fighting this year, with Taliban and allied forces seeking to seize the district of Sangin from the Afghan army and police.

The battles have raised concerns about whether Afghan forces are truly able to hold off the Taliban without intelligence and air support from the United States and its allies.

Officials with the U.S.-led coalition say the Afghan forces, which have been losing hundreds of soldiers and policemen each month in battles, assassinations and suicide attacks by insurgents, did not lose any significant ground in the recent summer fighting season.

"I'm cautiously optimistic they will be able to sustain themselves," said Brig. Gen Daniel Yoo, the commander of Regional Command (Southwest).

He said the success of the Afghan security forces depended on leadership, continued development of logistics and confidence.

"They've got to want it more than we do," he said.

International forces in Afghanistan boosted their numbers to about 140,000 in 2010 troops with the aim of wresting control of Helmand 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.

Gen. John Campbell, head of coalition forces in Afghanistan, acknowledged Helmand "has been a very, very tough area" over the last several months.

"But we feel very confident with the Afghan security forces as they continue to grow in their capacity," he said.

He said that the smaller international force that will remain next year will still provide some intelligence and air support, two areas where Afghan forces are weak.

General Sher Mohammad Karimi, chief of staff of the Afghan National Army, also said the insurgency "will keep us busy for a while".

"We have to do more until we are fully successful and satisfied with the situations," he said.

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."

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