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 coming 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 has 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 ceremony, 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.
Speaking on BBC television, British Defense Minister Michael Fallon said British armed forces had helped to strengthen the Afghan security forces, who were now taking on "full responsibilities".
"It is with pride that we announce the end of UK combat operations in Helmand, having given Afghanistan the best possible chance of a stable future," he said.