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Afghanistan war: Services mark 20th anniversary of UK operations

Afghanistan war: Services mark 20th anniversary of UK operations

By Joseph Lee

BBC News

Image source, PO Sean Clee/Army

Early Newspaper
Image caption, When UK operations moved to Helmand in 2006, a peace support operation became a bloody counter-insurgency

Commemorations are to be held to mark the 20th anniversary of the start of UK military operations in Afghanistan.

At dawn on Thursday, wreaths will be laid in memory of the 457 British personnel killed during the conflict.

UK troops left Afghanistan at the end of August, bringing an end to the 20-year war.

“The hurt never goes away”, says Claire Hill, whose only son James was killed in 2009. “We have to believe he did make a difference.”

The war in Afghanistan began on 7 October 20 years ago, with American-led coalition airstrikes against airports and terrorist training camps, in response to the 11 September terror attacks in the US.

Two small wreath-laying ceremonies will take place at 07: 30 BST, intended by the Ministry of Defence to honour “the courage and commitment of its people” during the two decades of conflict.

One wreath will be laid at the Bastion Memorial, dedicated to those who lost their lives in combat in Afghanistan, at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire.

At the same time, another wreath will be laid at the Iraq and Afghanistan Memorial near the Ministry of Defence in central London.

The commemoration comes as veterans and their families try to reckon with the legacy of the war, having watched the Taliban swiftly regain control of Afghanistan as UK and US forces withdrew.

Nearly 12 years to the day since L/Cpl James Hill died, his parents Claire and Brian are proud of his service and sacrifice, but also acknowledge the pain of seeing the Taliban return.

“If we were to say that James’ life is wasted then that would hurt us all over again, because we have to believe he did make a difference,” said Mrs Hill. “They all gave so much. Not just the ones who died but the ones who carry on with injuries.”

James was 23 and about to get married when he was killed by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan’s Helmand province.

“It never leaves us, we don’t have a son anymore. We don’t have any other children. There’s an emptiness, there’s a hole here that nothing can fill,” Mrs Hill said. “The hurt never goes away.”

“Remembrance Day for most people is 11 November, but for the likes of us Remembrance Day is every day,” said Mr Hill.

Stuart Tootal – a former colonel who commanded 3rd Battalion, the Parachute Regiment – saw the first serious casualties of the war when he led British troops into Helmand in 2006, and a simple peace support operation became a bloody counter-insurgency conflict.

Image caption, “There is no victory here, ” says Stuart Tootal, whose battalion suffered 15 deaths in the first major casualties of the war

His view of the war now is very clear: “The intent of what we were trying to do was always right. The concept was flawed: too little, too late. And we quit far too soon.

“And that is the great tragedy of Afghanistan.”

While Afghanistan had 20 years to see how life could be different, Mr Tootal adds that the opportunity was never fully realised because the Taliban regained power.

“I don’t think we can be very proud of the outcome. We can be proud of what we tried to do as soldiers,” he said.

“But in terms of those responsible for the strategic decisions, I don’t think there’s a great deal to crow about… There is no victory here. You know, we did not win that conflict.”

Afghanistan war: Services mark 20th anniversary of UK operations – BBC News