The United States has closed at least 10 bases around Afghanistan. But drawdown details remain murky.

November 28, 2020
A U.S. Marine keeps watch during a meeting between Afghan commanders and U.S. advisers at Camp Bost in Helmand province, Afghanistan, in September 2017.
KABUL — The United States has closed at least 10 bases across Afghanistan since the signing of a deal with the Taliban in February, according to Afghan and U.S. officials, part of a drawdown process so murky that many here say they are uncertain of what’s to come despite a fast-approaching deadline.

The base closures are part of the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan outlined in the deal. An Afghan official and a U.S. official confirmed the closure of the bases, several of which were previously unreported. The officials, like others in this report, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive topic.

Little is known about what remains of those bases, many in Afghanistan’s most volatile provinces where U.S. support for Afghan operations has been critical in pushing back the Taliban. Some have been completely handed over to Afghan security forces. Others may have been vacated and left in place in a way in which they could be occupied again in the future if U.S. and Afghan officials consider it necessary. It is also unclear how much equipment — more difficult to move than people — is left at each of the closed installations.

In interviews, half a dozen former and current U.S. and Afghan officials said uncertainty still surrounds the plans to bring down troop numbers from roughly 5,000 to 2,500 by Jan. 15, days before President Trump leaves office. The abrupt announcement of the drawdown last week has forced decision-making on a shortened timeline.

A second U.S. official familiar with ongoing discussions around the drawdown said details are still being worked through on what equipment — ranging from spare vehicle parts to ammunition — needs to be sent back to the United States and what can be turned over to the Afghan government.

Members of the U.S. military walk to a meeting with then-U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel in December 2014 at Forward Operating Base Gamberi in Laghman province.

Despite the drawdown in people and equipment, the second U.S. official said, the United States will retain the ability to carry out airstrikes against the Taliban in defense of Afghan forces. U.S. troops will also remain able to carry out some counterterrorism strikes against the Islamic State, the official said.

A third U.S. official with knowledge of ongoing discussions said that a number of significant decisions are to be made or finalized over the next two weeks, including which other bases will close, what equipment will be turned over to the Afghan government, and how U.S. equipment will be ticketed to leave.

The decisions will be made in consultation with both NATO allies and Afghan partners, the official said.

The U.S. drawdown announcement prompted a warning from NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who said an abrupt departure risks allowing Afghanistan to become a haven for terrorists.

“We went into Afghanistan together. And when the time is right, we should leave together in a coordinated and orderly way,” he said Nov. 17.

The closing of U.S. bases also hands Taliban fighters symbolic and tangible victories, said Ashley Jackson, an expert on the militant group with the Overseas Development Institute.

And, as the United States closes smaller outposts that helped government forces hold territory, she said the Taliban would probably move in and expand its reach.

There were hundreds of bases and outposts at the height of the military’s surge a decade ago, and dozens in recent years as the military shrunk its presence over time.

Analysts and Afghan officials say further closures show that the United States is collapsing its forces in Afghanistan back into its bigger military installations to save on the large number of troops needed to secure the perimeter of multiple small outposts. The move also brings U.S. troops closer to medical facilities as the American footprint in Afghanistan shrinks, and would make it easier to evacuate the country rapidly if security disintegrates.

Those initial bases included Tarin Kowt in Uruzgan province, Bost in Helmand, Gamberi in Laghman and Lightning in Paktia. Others closed this year include Jones in Kunduz, DeAlencar in Nangahar, Shaheen in Balkh, Bishop in Kabul, Maymana in Faryab and Qalat in Zabul.

U.S. soldiers sort mail and packages at Forward Operating Base Lightning, in the Gardez district of Paktia province in August 2014.

It is unclear how many bases remain open in Afghanistan, in part because the total number of military sites has not been made public. Even the bases that were once the largest in the country, like Kandahar Air Field and Jalalabad Air Base, now house a handful of U.S. troops, according to Afghan officials.

Some Afghan officials concerned by the swifter withdrawal point to violence already rising across Afghanistan since the signing of the U.S.-Taliban deal, fearing that pulling more troops out faster will only further embolden the Taliban. Many of the places where the United States has closed bases or reduced troop levels have witnessed a spike in targeted killings or, in some cases, deadly Taliban offensives.

“With fewer U.S. bases within [Afghan army] bases, there is less of a safety net” for Afghan forces, said one Afghan official. Without the presence of U.S. forces nearby to provide support like medical evacuations or airstrikes, Afghan ground forces will be less likely to launch operations, allowing the Taliban to become stronger, he said.

One of the concerns raised by senior military officials focuses on how much support and security the remaining U.S. service members can provide to the State Department, U.S. intelligence agencies and aid organizations, two other U.S. officials said.

The Pentagon has continued to withdraw forces throughout the year despite language in the February deal stating that further withdrawals must be linked to conditions met by the Taliban. The central condition of the deal, one that calls on the Taliban to break ties with international terrorists including al-Qaeda, has not yet been met, according to testimony by U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and United Nations research papers.

One retired senior U.S. military official familiar with ongoing discussions said the new drawdown plan is more politically sustainable in the United States because it leaves the option that the military could keep a small foothold for an open-ended period of time.

The lack of a full military withdrawal also shows that despite concerns from Trump and other U.S. officials, the United States has decided to keep its military deployed while negotiations between the Afghan government and Taliban continue, the official added.

“That to me is a clear statement: We’re not leaving until we know we can keep the lid on this thing here,” the official said.

Trump’s decision to continue withdrawing troops from Afghanistan despite its potential to undermine ongoing negotiations with the Taliban is “clearly such an ego and timeline-driven mood,” said Jason Dempsey, a senior adjunct fellow with the Center for a New American Security who served as an infantry officer in Afghanistan.

Dempsey, who has frequently criticized the U.S. military’s efforts in Afghanistan, said he believes the Afghan government is being “hung out to dry” by the administration with the manner in which it is withdrawing.

“I don’t think we have a path to solid victory,” he said. “But I’d like to think that we had an obligation as we withdrew to our Afghan partners to at least leave them in the best position possible.”

U.S. Marines rest on benches in the gym at Camp Bost in September 2017.

Lamothe reported from Washington. Aziz Tassal and Sharif Hassan in Kabul and Shane Harris in Washington contributed to this report.

The United States has closed at least 10 bases around Afghanistan. But drawdown details remain murky.