The last remaining UK troops have begun to touch down in the UK after leaving Kabul for the last time, ending Britain’s 20-year campaign in Afghanistan.
An RAF plane left at 9.25pm on Saturday and arrived at RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire early on Sunday morning.
More aircraft are expected to land through Sunday and possibly into Monday.
It follows the departure of the last flight dedicated to the evacuation effort on Friday night.
The head of Operation Pitting, which has now ended, said service personnel are “deeply tired” having “given their all over the last two weeks”.
Vice-Admiral Sir Ben Key, Chief of Joint Operations, added: “Some of the pictures that have come back in the last few days have painted a really good impression of just how desperate and difficult those conditions have been in the last few weeks.
The troops had “travelled with very little equipment – we didn’t allow them to carry much kit – and in many cases they have lived in the clothes they have been wearing for many days”, he said.
“They have been sleeping in rough conditions, eating off ration packs and their sole motivation has been to help as many of the Afghans and British entitled personnel as they possibly could.
“It’s been a combination of deep professionalism, considerable courage, really sophisticated judgment and, on occasion, huge compassion, and it’s been difficult for those of us back here not to just have the most enormous admiration for what they’ve done and how they’ve gone about it.”
Vice-Admiral Key said there was a “sense of sadness that we haven’t done all we would have wished”.
He said the UK would continue to “make sure those who would wish to come back to his country continue to have an opportunity to do so”.
Under Operation Pitting, the UK evacuated 15,000 people from Kabul in a fortnight – including 5,000 British nationals and more than 8,000 Afghans who worked for the UK and their families, as well as many highly vulnerable people.
Among those fleeing were approximately 2,200 children who have now been lifted to safety – the youngest of whom was just one day old.
It has been the UK’s largest military evacuation since World War Two.
Around 10,000 people have been brought to the UK under the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP), which is double the number anticipated this year.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the UK’s departure from Afghanistan was the “culmination of a mission unlike anything we’ve seen in our lifetimes”.
In a video posted on Twitter on Sunday morning, he added: “UK troops and officials have worked around the clock to a remorseless deadline in harrowing conditions.
“They have expended all the patience and care and thought they possess to help people in fear for their lives.
“They’ve seen at first hand barbaric terrorist attacks on the queues of people they were trying to comfort, as well as on our American friends.
“They didn’t flinch. They kept calm. They got on with the job.”
Earlier, while writing to the armed forces community, the PM said: “Our purpose in Afghanistan was simple – to protect the United Kingdom from harm – and you succeeded in that central mission.
“In the last 20 years, not a single terrorist attack has been launched from Afghan soil against the UK or any other Western country.”
The British ambassador to Afghanistan, Sir Laurie Bristow, was among those landing at Brize Norton on Sunday morning.
Speaking shortly after arriving back, he said his embassy will operate from Qatar “for the time being”, but he and his staff will return to Kabul “as soon as we can”.
Efforts to bring to the UK Afghans and British nationals “who still need our support” will continue, Sir Laurie said.
London will be “putting pressure on the Taliban to allow safe passage for those people”, he added.
Labour has accused government ministers of being “missing in action”, with leader Sir Keir Starmer saying: “We’ve known for 18 months that this moment was coming.
“It is unconscionable that there was no strategy in place to get all the British nationals and Afghans we owed a debt to out.
“I pay tribute to all the FCDO [Foreign and Commonwealth Development Office] staff and military personnel who have, as ever, stepped up when their leaders have failed them.”
The Sunday Times has reported that up to 9,000 people who may have been eligible to escape were left behind, while The Observer claimed thousands of emails from MPs and charities highlighting potentially eligible cases went unread by the Foreign Office.
The FCDO told The Observer: “We have been working tirelessly to evacuate over 15,000 people from Afghanistan in the last two weeks.
“We deployed a 24/7 cross-Whitehall team based in our crisis hub to triage incoming emails and calls from British nationals, Arap applicants, and other vulnerable Afghans.
“We always cautioned that the nature of the security situation in Afghanistan meant that we would not be able to evacuate everyone we wanted to.”
But Sir Keir said: “The fact that so many emails have simply gone unopened is not the fault of civil servants but of government ministers who have been missing in action during this whole crisis.
“MPs and their staff have been hearing harrowing stories from so many people we should have taken care of but who have been abandoned to the Taliban.”
The government has said it will continue to provide help to any remaining British nationals and Afghans who have worked with the UK and who were not evacuated on time.
The UK also reiterated that the legitimacy of the Taliban regime, in the eyes of the G7, depends on the group continuing to provide safe passage for those who want to leave the country and safeguarding the rights of all Afghans.
The Home Office is working to establish the details of the Afghan Citizens’ Resettlement Scheme (ACRS), which aims to provide protection for Afghan citizens identified as most at risk – such as women and girls.
The government has committed to take around 5,000 refugees in the first year and 20,000 over the coming years.
Sharing an image of departing troops on a packed military plane, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace wrote: “The UK should be very proud of what you have done. Every one of you has displayed the highest levels of professionalism and bravery.
“You have helped thousands to get to a better future and safety. Thank you.”
He later added: “In 14 days over 15,000 people have been airlifted on over 165 flights. We should be proud of our armed forces, welcoming to those coming for a better life, and sad for those left behind.
“Our obligation to them does not end with our leaving. There will be many lessons to learn but over the last 20 years there are also endless examples of amazing achievements, bravery and friendships formed. We will not forget those who lost their lives.”