US troops leave Afghanistan’s Bagram airbase after nearly 20 years
US troops have left Bagram, the sprawling airbase north of Kabul that was the symbolic and operational heart of the American military operation in Afghanistan.
With that hub handed over to Afghan security forces, it sets the scene for the final departure of American forces from the country only months before the 20th anniversary of the start of US operations to topple the Taliban, launched in response to the 9/11 attacks.
The US departure was marred by disorganisation. There was a gap between the American troops leaving and their Afghan replacements arriving, allowing looters to ransack parts of the base.
“Unfortunately the Americans left without any coordination with Bagram district officials or the governor’s office,” the district administrator, Darwaish Raufi, told the Associated Press.
The Pentagon said the outgoing US force commander, General Austin Miller, would be formally handing over his responsibilities to US Central Command chief General Kenneth McKenzie “effective later this month”.
US President Joe Biden denied reports that the US withdrawal would be completed in the next few days, but then ducked further questions at the White House, saying he wanted to celebrate the 4 July holiday weekend and would address the issue next week. The White House spokesperson, Jen Psaki, later said the withdrawal would be complete “by the end of August”.
However, only a minimal presence remains. Although the Pentagon has stopped giving up updates on forces levels, there are thought to be less than a thousand US troops left in Afghanistan, virtually all in Kabul, where they will provide security for the embassy and potentially for the international airport.
Bagram, which lies about 40 miles (64km) north of the Afghan capital, Kabul, was the hub of US operations and is strategically vital to anyone who wants to hold it. It was captured at the start of that campaign and remained the key staging point for international hardware and personnel over the past two decades, offering a first glimpse of Afghanistan to everyone, from footsoldiers to presidents.
A ceremony on Saturday will mark the official transfer of Bagram to government control, an Afghan official said, but like the rest of the foreign drawdown, the transfer was managed largely without fanfare.
Most of America’s Nato allies have already taken their troops home, in a muted end to an international mission that began two decades ago as a show of committed solidarity with a still stunned and grieving America.
Britain and Turkey are among the last few nations still to have boots on the ground. UK soldiers are expected to leave within days, although special forces may keep a covert presence, documents leaked to the BBC suggested recently.
The Turkish military is in negotiations to remain in Kabul, securing the international airport, with some international military presence considered vital to foreign embassies staying open there. About 650 US soldiers will stay on to guard their compound.
But with Bagram’s runway and hangers handed over to Afghan troops, the Taliban are likely to start testing its defences, although defending such a strategic and propaganda prize will be a priority for the Afghan armed forces.
Built by Soviet engineers in the 1950s, the airbase has been at the heart of two ill-fated foreign military campaigns, one launched by Moscow in 1979, and America’s own “war on terror”, dubbed the “forever war” because it seemed to have no endpoint.
In 2001, the base was devastated by years of civil war; the two ends of its 3km-long runway held by opposing factions. But the US quickly built it into a sprawling citadel that embodied the problems, waste and contradictions of the international military effort in Afghanistan.
It had a “black jail”, second only to Guantanamo in its notoriety, where Afghans swept up on suspicion of Taliban or al-Qaida connections were tortured and in some cases killed. The murder of a taxi driver in detention there was the subject of an Oscar-winning documentary.
But there were also boardwalks, fast food restaurants, a sewage treatment camp and even at one point a swimming pool. At its peak, 40,000 military personnel and civilian contractors were stationed there, many of whom saw no more of Afghanistan than the six square miles enclosed within its blast walls and razor wire fences, and the mountains surrounding them.
Rockets sometimes landed inside its perimeter, and there were insider attacks by Afghan security forces, but the camp was deemed safe enough to host visiting VIPs, including celebrities on morale boosting tours and senior politicians.
Camp commanders were so far removed from the threats facing soldiers at frontline posts, they had time to dream up a “Bagram Batman” campaign, dealing with petty military offences such as unauthorised use of cars, or misplacing weapons.
Taliban spokesman Sohail Shaheen said the group welcomed the US departure from Bagram. The militants have been seizing swathes of territory across the country in recent months as foreign troops headed home, taking control of 50 out of nearly 400 districts since May.
Gen Austin Miller, the top US commander in Afghanistan warned last week the country could be headed for civil war. He said on Friday that despite the Bagram handover, the US “still retains all the capabilities and authorities to protect the forces” stationed in Kabul.
Few politicians want to highlight that a military project launched to destroy the Taliban is ending with the group resurgent across Afghanistan.
The US withdrawal agreement was reached under Donald Trump, but Biden has pushed ahead with the drawdown, saying on Friday it was “on track”, despite warnings about the grave security threats. Some intelligence analysts have warned the government in Kabul could collapse within months.
Asked about that possibility, Biden responded: “We were in that war for 20 years … I think they have the capacity to sustain the government.”
In the face of further questioning from the press, the president responded: “I’m not going to answer any more quick questions on Afghanistan. Look, it’s the 4th of July. I’m concerned you guys are asking me questions I’ll answer next week. But it’s a holiday weekend. I’m going to celebrate it. There’s great things happening.”
Biden told his Afghan counterpart, Ashraf Ghani, on a visit to Washington last month that “Afghans are going to have to decide their future”. Peace talks between the government and the Taliban, meant to be kickstarted by the US withdrawal, have largely stalled as militants try to consolidate their position on the ground.