Following a terrorist attack at Kabul airport on 26 August, the civilian evacuation efforts in Afghanistan came to a close today (28 August).
British troops will also arrive home over the next few hours, three days before originally planned, leaving many British nationals and eligible Afghan refugees behind.
Speaking to BBC Radio 4, the Head of the British Armed Forces said the evacuation had “gone as well as it could do in the circumstances”, but added: “ we are forever receiving messages and texts from our Afghan friends that are very distressing, so we’re all living this in the most painful way.”
Operation Pitting, the name of the civilian evacuation efforts from Kabul, has been cut short following a terrorist attack on Kabul Airport which killed 13 US troops and at least two British nationals, as well as a child.
90 civilians are thought to have lost their lives in the attack which involved an ISIS suicide bomber and led to Taliban members firing bullets into the air and crowd.
General Sir Nick Carter, the Chief of the Defence Staff, said Operation Pitting would wrap up throughout the day, bringing “very few” civilian flights back to the UK, as well as troops and remaining aircraft.
Sir Nick also spoke of the “heartbreaking” judgment calls military personnel had been forced to make.
“We haven’t been able to bring everybody out and that has been heartbreaking, and there have been some very challenging judgments that have had to be made on the ground,” he said.
“And I think that, you know, people like me, who have had a very, very long association with this country, we are forever receiving messages and texts from our Afghan friends that are very distressing, so we’re all living this in the most painful way.”
The MoD said on Friday night that 14,543 people had now been extracted from Kabul since August 13, a mix of Afghan and British nationals.
‘Our failure as a country’
Among those left behind are around 1,000 Afghans who worked alongside British military and who the government promised to protect, according to the UK’s shadow defence secretary.
Labour MP for Wentworth and Dearne, John Healey, told Sky News that the evacuation efforts had continued throughout the night and into Saturday morning, as flight continued to arrive at RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire.
Mr Healey said: “This is the brutal truth, despite getting more than 14,000 people out, there are probably 1,000 Afghans who have worked with us over two decades in Afghanistan, helped our troops, our aid workers, our diplomats, that we promised to protect, but we’re leaving behind.
“And I know those troops in particular will feel our failure on this as a country is a betrayal of many of those who risked their own lives to work alongside us.”
His comments were a reiteration of the cross-party frustrations that Operation Pitting was coming to an end without all personnel and eligible Afghans successfully evacuated.
Tom Tugendhat, a Conservative MP who fought in Afghanistan, said he was disappointed the evacuation effort was coming to an end.
The former army officer and now chairman of the Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee told BBC Breakfast: “I’m extremely sad about this and I very much hope that it might go beyond the August deadline but we found out a few days ago that it wasn’t, so I was expecting it.”
He added that there was ongoing efforts to “get people into second countries, and then connecting them to high commissions and ambassadors of the United Kingdom, to get them to the UK safely.”
The Ministry of Defence said on Friday that once the final civilian evacuations were complete, this would free up space on military flights for diplomats and personnel.
‘Shift heaven and earth’
On Friday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson also said he would “shift heaven and earth” in an attempt to save his country’s personnel, diplomats, eligible refugees and nations who haven’t escaped yet.
It came as Defence Secretary Ben Wallace stated there would be up to 1,100 Afghans eligible under the Afghan Relocation and Assistance Policy (Arap) scheme who would be left behind, but stressed some of them where staying willingly.
In the early hours of Saturday, the US military conducted an airstrike against a member of so-called Islamic State in Afghanistan who was believed to be involved in planning attacks against the US in Kabul.
The strike killed one individual, and US spokesman navy captain William Urban said they knew of no civilian casualties.