'Historic moment' in Afghan mission
British troops have left all but one forward operating base in Helmand province, as the UK reaches a major milestone in the drawdown from Afghanistan.
Just one base, Sterga 2, remains in Helmand outside Camp Bastion, effectively becoming Britain's front line in the area, as the UK works towards withdrawing all combat troops by the end of this year.
In an operation lasting more than a month, three important bases have been closed or handed over to Afghan control.
Main Operating Base (MOB) Lashkar Gah - the former headquarters of UK military forces in Afghanistan - and Patrol Base (PB) Lashkar Gah Durai have been handed over to Afghan control.
And yesterday final equipment was brought back to Camp Bastion - which itself is slowly being closed down - from a third base, MOB Price.
They are the latest milestone in a drawdown that has seen UK bases reduce from 137 at the height of the campaign, while Afghan forces are now leading 97% of all security operations across the country and carrying out over 90% of their own training.
Defence Secretary Philip Hammond said: "The handover and closure of our bases across Helmand underlines the progress UK Forces have made to increase security and stability across the province but also to build up the capability of the Afghan forces who will carry that work forward.
"Those service personnel who have served in Lashkar Gah and Lashkar Gah Durai and at MOB Price as part of successive UK brigades have made a huge contribution to the campaign which has safeguarded our national security at home.
"UK combat operations will cease by the end of this year but our support for the Afghan people will continue.
"Meanwhile, our troops will continue the mammoth task of getting our people and equipment home by Christmas."
The main base at Lashkar Gah, which opened in 2006 and served as the headquarters of Task Force Helmand until it moved to Camp Bastion in August, was handed over to the Afghans in a ceremony on February 24.
Lashkar Gah Durai, which commands an important junction in Helmand, was handed over to the Afghans on March 8, while MOB Price, which closed just yesterday, was the UK's largest forward location for most of Operation Herrick.
The head of British forces in Helmand today said the handover of three of the largest British bases in Helmand marked a "historic moment" in the UK's military campaign in Afghanistan.
Brigadier James Woodham, Commander of Task Force Helmand, said "history would judge" the success of the UK mission in Afghanistan.
He said despite the majority of bases being closed or transferred, important work is still going on alongside Afghan security forces. Speaking in Camp Bastion, he said he had seen huge progress in central Helmand since his last tour of duty in 2009/10, which gave him "hope for the future".
"If I speak to my Afghan counterparts, they are hugely grateful for the investment of the British forces here in central Helmand," he said.
"They believe the progress they have made, the confidence that they have now, will hold them in good stead for the future."
Asked if the sacrifice of 448 British lives during the conflict was worth it, he said: "It's always a difficult question to ask when there has been a human cost here in central Helmand.
"I guess ultimately history will judge the worth of what we've been doing at our Government's request here."
"It's really difficult for people in the UK to understand the changes," he admitted, and said he had seen a noticeable difference in Nad-e Ali, which had been transformed from "a warzone" to somewhere which is now "primarily peaceful".
"They're really proud of the progress they've made, I just wish we could capture that and take that back to the UK, but I've seen it through my eyes and it's really powerful stuff."
Lieutenant General John Lorimer, deputy commander of ISAF, the most senior Briton in Afghanistan, said: "This is a key milestone in the ISAF mission as we prepare for the conclusion of combat operations at the end of 2014.
"These bases have been vital in the UK contribution to securing the south of the country from the insurgency and their handover underlines the progress being made in reducing the ISAF footprint."
He told the Press Association that he had "no doubts" that Afghan forces will be able to look after their own security beyond the end of this year.
He said the Afghan National Security Forces had grown into a "competent organisation", who were: "capable, confident in themselves, and credible in the eyes of the Afghan people".
"Everything I've seen since I've been out here this time, since June last year, leads me to believe that the Afghans will be able to look after their own security."