Last US troops leave Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan

By: News Desk      Published: 08:10 AM, 2 Jul, 2021
Last US troops leave Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan
US and Nato troops leaving Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan.

All US and NATO troops have left the biggest airbase in Afghanistan, a US defence official told AFP Friday, signalling the complete withdrawal of foreign forces from the country was imminent after two decades of war.

Bagram Air Base served as the linchpin for US operations in the rugged country, where the long war against the Taliban and their Al-Qaeda allies was fought with airstrikes and resupply missions from the airfield.

"All coalition forces are off Bagram," said the official -- who asked not to be identified -- without specifying when the last foreign troops left the base, 50 kilometres north of the capital Kabul.

He did not say when it would be officially handed over to Afghan forces, but ministry of defence spokesman Rohullah Ahmadzai said government authorities were "fully prepared" to take over the base.

The US military and NATO are in the final stages of winding up involvement in Afghanistan, bringing home an unspecified number of remaining troops by a deadline of September 11.

The Taliban have launched relentless offensives across Afghanistan in the past two months, gobbling up dozens of districts as Afghan security forces have largely consolidated their power in the country's major urban areas.

The ability of Afghan forces to maintain control of Bagram airfield will likely prove pivotal to maintaining security in Kabul and keeping pressure on the Taliban.

The exit of foreign forces from Bagram base "symbolises that Afghanistan is alone, abandoned, and left to defend itself against the Taliban's onslaught", said Australia-based Afghanistan expert Nishank Motwani.

"Having reached home, Americans and allied forces will now watch what they fought so hard to build over 20 years burn down from afar and knowing that the Afghan men and women they fought with risk losing everything." 

- 'A lot of insecurity' -

Media reports say the Pentagon will probably retain about 600 US troops in Afghanistan to guard the vast US diplomatic compound in Kabul.

Residents from Bagram said security will only deteriorate with the exit of foreign forces.

"The situation is already chaotic... there is a lot of insecurity and the government does not have (enough) weapons and equipment," Matiullah, who owns a footwear shop in Bagram bazaar, told AFP.

"Since they started the withdrawal, the situation has got worse. There is no work... there is no business," said Fazal Karim, a bicycle mechanic.

Over the years the mini-city has been visited by hundreds of thousands of US and NATO service members and contractors. 

At one point it boasted swimming pools, cinemas and spas -- and even a boardwalk featuring fast-food outlets such as Burger King and Pizza Hut.

The base also housed a prison that held thousands of Taliban and jihadist inmates.

Bagram was built by the US for its Afghan ally during the Cold War in the 1950s as a bulwark against the Soviet Union in the north.

Ironically, it became the staging point for the Soviet invasion of the country in 1979, and the Red Army expanded it significantly during its near-decade-long occupation.

When Moscow pulled out, Bagram became central to the raging civil war -- it was reported that at one point the Taliban controlled one end of the three-kilometre (two-mile) runway and the opposition Northern Alliance the other.

In recent months, Bagram has come under rocket barrages claimed by the jihadist Islamic State, stirring fears that militants are already eyeing the base for future attacks.

As of May 2021, there were about 9,500 foreign troops in Afghanistan, of which US troops made up the largest contingent of 2,500.

So far Germany and Italy have both confirmed the full withdrawal of their contingents.

Bagram: One of the keys to controlling Afghanistan

For decades Bagram Air Base, north of the Afghan capital, served as both the linchpin for foreign armies fighting insurgents and as a symbol of the brutalities unleashed by years of civil war.

Just 50 kilometres (30 miles) from Kabul, the base is vital to the security of the capital while also providing strategic cover to much of the country's rugged north.  

The sprawling airfield was first built by the Americans for its Afghan ally during the Cold War in the 1950s as a bulwark against the Soviet Union in the north. 

Since its construction, a rotating cast of characters has exchanged control of the base, during decades of conflict that have roiled Afghanistan.

It served as the staging ground for the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan following the Red Army's invasion in 1979, and Moscow vastly expanded it.

Following the Soviet withdrawal nearly a decade later, the base went from being controlled by the Moscow-backed government to being occupied by the shaky mujahideen administration during the civil war. 

It was reported that at one point the Taliban controlled one end of the three-kilometre (two-mile) runway, and the opposition Northern Alliance the other.

Bagram ultimately fell into the Taliban's hands after the hardline jihadist group overran large swathes of the country in the mid-1990s.

Following the September 11 attacks and the US invasion of Afghanistan, the Americans took control of the base.

Washington's long war against the Taliban and their Al Qaeda allies was largely maintained with air strikes and resupply missions stemming from the airfield. 

The past two decades have brought numerous US presidential visits, while the base was also home to a prison that stoked controversy over the treatment of Afghan detainees by foreign forces.

During its heyday, the mini-city was visited by hundreds of thousands of service members and contractors.

It boasted swimming pools, cinemas and spas -- and even a boardwalk featuring fast-food outlets such as Burger King and Pizza Hut.

In recent months, Bagram has come under rocket barrages claimed by the jihadist Islamic State, sparking new fears that militants are already eyeing the base for future attacks.

Following months of consultations, US President Joe Biden in April announced he would end the country's longest war and bring home its remaining troops ahead of the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks.

To this day, the sides of the road from Kabul to Bagram remain littered with the rusting hulks of old Soviet tanks -- a searing reminder of the more than four decades of conflict that has left much of Afghanistan in tatters.

Deadliest June

Afghan authorities claim that the Afghan National Security and Defence Forces (ANDSF) have killed over 6,000 Taliban fighters in approximately one month, and the Taliban have said that the group has also inflicted major casualties on government forces.

If these claims are translated into facts then the month of June was the deadliest since the US forces launched a war in Afghanistan.

During this period the government also evacuated 120 districts following offensives by the Taliban. In the latest development, the Taliban have captured the centre of Tagab district in the northern province of Kapisa.

Numbers gathered by TOLOnews show that 638 military personnel and civilians were also killed in Taliban attacks during this period and 1,060 others were wounded.

“The main reason for the collapse of the districts is poor leadership at the leadership level of the security and defence forces,” said MP Khan Agha Rezayee.

Based on the figures, although the number of targeted attacks and explosions decreased during this period, the level of casualties among the security personnel and civilians continued to rise.

The majority of casualties were reported in Baghlan, Faryab, Badakhshan, Ghazni, Takhar, Balkh, Ghor, Herat, Farah, Kunduz, Badghis and Sar-e-Pul provinces.

“The lines (personnel) of the war changed, people were serving in the provinces as security commanders who weren’t familiar with the war because the government had sent the war commanders home,” said MP Ibdallullah Mohammadi. “There was no preparation to confront such a big war, we weren’t prepared for guerrilla warfare,” said MP Arif Rahmani.

Meanwhile, Afghanistan’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) said that the Afghan security forces have increased airstrikes on Taliban positions in Nangarhar, Herat, Balkh, Jawzjan, Helmand, Takhar, Badakhshan, Kunduz, Baghlan and Kapisa provinces in a move to recapture the districts lost to the Taliban.

“258 Taliban fighters were killed and 100 more were wounded in the operations conducted by the security and defense forces in the past 24 hours,” said Fawad Aman, deputy spokesman for the Ministry of Defense.

Imran Khan’s two cents

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan in reference to a possible worsening of the situation in Afghanistan said that Pakistan will face a difficult time in view of the potential impact of Afghanistan at war.

During a speech in Pakistan's national assembly, he also criticized past policies that led to Pakistan's joining the US intervention in Afghanistan. "When we gave so many services, did they (US) praise us or acknowledge our sacrifices? Instead, they called us a hypocrite and blamed us. Instead of appreciating us, Pakistan was bad-mouthed,” he said.

He mentioned that had never felt more "insulted" than when Pakistan decided to join the United States' war on terror. "We decided to become a frontline state for the American war on terror. I questioned repeatedly, what did we have to do with the war?” he asked.

Khan said he wanted the nation to remember that period forever and the "idiocy" of the policies at the time.

"Does any country get involved in another's war and lose 70,000 lives?" he asked. "What they said, we kept doing. Former president Pervez Musharraf said in his book that he took money and sent people to Guantanamo."

US commmander warns Taliban

The top US commander in Afghanistan did not rule out conducting airstrikes against the Taliban if they pressed on with their campaign of capturing new territory across the violence-wracked country.

Fighting has surged across the rugged countryside since early May when the US military began its final withdrawal of troops, with the Taliban claiming to have recently captured more than 100 of the over 400 districts across Afghanistan.

"What I like to see is no airstrikes, but to get to no airstrikes, you stop all violence," General Scott Miller told reporters in Kabul on Tuesday, according to video footage obtained by AFP from US-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

"The best way to stop those, and I have actually told the Taliban this, is stop the offensive operations and airstrikes," he said, insisting that the US military still has the firepower to conduct airstrikes against the insurgents even as it continues the withdrawal.

The remaining US troops are expected to be out by the September 11 deadline announced by President Joe Biden to end America's longest war.

The Taliban's claims of capturing districts are often disputed by government officials and are difficult to independently verify.

But experts say one of the main reasons the Taliban has been able to capture scores of new districts in recent weeks is the lack of US air support to Afghan ground forces fighting across rural terrains.

Miller, who is soon to transition to another commander, acknowledged that any loss of territory has an impact on the overall security in the country.

"Because districts start representing key terrain as it relates to security of the people, of the provincial capitals and certainly security of the capital," he said.

The Taliban recently captured a key border crossing with Tajikistan in the north along with other districts surrounding the city of Kunduz, effectively laying a siege to the city.

The insurgents have also encircled almost all major cities in the country, raising fears that they would also make a military push to capture Kabul after the US and NATO forces leave.

"A military takeover is not in the interest of anyone, certainly not for the people of Afghanistan," Miller said, adding that the overall security situation was "not good".

"That's something that's recognised by the Afghan security forces and they are making the appropriate adjustments as we move forward," he said.

Faced with the Taliban's blistering assault, Afghan interior ministry said Tuesday it has created a 4,000 member "rapid reaction force" to be led by retired army generals who would fight the Taliban along with regular security forces.

With inputs from AFP.