KABUL, Afghanistan (Dispatches) — After nearly 20 years, the U.S. military left Bagram Airfield, the epicenter of its destructive operations in Afghanistan, the Associated Press reported Friday, citing two U.S. officials.
The airfield was handed over to the Afghan National Security and Defense Force in its entirety, the officials said on the condition of anonymity.
The U.S. top commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Austin S. Miller, met Afghan President Ashraf Ghani Friday and according to a Dari-language tweet by the presidential palace the two discussed “continued U.S. assistance and cooperation with Afghanistan, particularly in supporting the defense and security forces.”
While no one was calling Miller’s visit a farewell, in the backdrop of the evacuation of Bagram Airfield it had the hallmarks of a goodbye.
Afghanistan’s district administrator for Bagram, Darwaish Raufi, said the American departure was done overnight without any coordination with local officials, and as a result early Friday dozens of local looters stormed through the unprotected gates before Afghan forces regained control.
“They were stopped and some have been arrested and the rest have been cleared from the base,” Raufi told The Associated Press, adding that the looters ransacked several buildings before being arrested and the Afghan National Security and Defense Forces (ANDSF) took control.
“Unfortunately the Americans left without any coordination with Bagram district officials or the governor’s office,” Raufi said. “Right now our Afghan security forces are in control both inside and outside of the base.”
The Taliban welcomed the American withdrawal from Bagram Airfield. In a tweet by spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, they called it a “positive step,” urging for the “withdrawal of foreign forces from all parts of the country.”
The previous U.S. administration had signed an agreement with the Taliban promising to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan.
The withdrawal from Bagram Airfield is the clearest indication that the last of the 2,500-3,500 U.S. troops have left Afghanistan or are nearing a departure, months ahead of President Joe Biden’s promise that they would be gone by Sept. 11.
It was clear soon after the mid-April announcement that the U.S. was ending its “forever war,” that the departure of U.S. soldiers and their estimated 7,000 NATO allies would be nearer to July 4, when America celebrates its Independence Day.
Most NATO soldiers have already quietly exited as of this week. Announcements from several countries analyzed by The Associated Press show that a majority of European troops has now left with little ceremony — a stark contrast to the dramatic and public show of force and unity when NATO allies lined up to back the U.S. invasion in 2001.
The U.S. has refused to say when the last U.S. soldier would leave Afghanistan, citing security concerns, but also the protection of Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport is still being negotiated. Turkish and U.S. soldiers currently are protecting the airport, the AP said.
The U.S. will also have about 650 troops in Afghanistan to protect its sprawling embassy in the capital.
The U.S. and NATO leaving comes as Taliban insurgents make strides in several parts of the country, overrunning dozens of districts and overwhelming beleaguered Afghan security Forces.
At its peak around 2012, Bagram Airfield saw more than 100,000 U.S. troops pass through its sprawling compound barely an hour’s drive north of the Afghan capital Kabul.
The departure is rife with symbolism. Not least, it’s the second time that an invader of Afghanistan has come and gone through Bagram.
The Soviet Union built the airfield in the 1950s. When it invaded Afghanistan in 1979 to back a communist government, it turned it into its main base from which it would defend its occupation of the country. For 10 years, the Soviets fought the U.S.-backed mujahedeen, dubbed freedom fighters by President Ronald Reagan, who saw them as a front-line force in one of the last Cold War battles.
The enormous base has two runways. The most recent, at 12,000 feet long, was built in 2006 at a cost of $96 million. There are 110 revetments, which are basically parking spots for aircraft, protected by blast walls. GlobalSecurity, a security think tank, says Bagram includes three large hangars, a control tower and numerous support buildings. The base has a 50-bed hospital with a trauma bay, three operating theaters and a modern dental clinic. Another section houses a prison, notorious and feared among Afghans.
There was no immediate comment from Afghan officials as to the final withdrawal from Bagram Airfield by the U.S. and its NATO allies.