U.S. Leaves Its Last Afghan Base, Effectively Ending Operations

The New York Times

With little fanfare, Bagram Air Base — once the military’s nerve center — was handed over to the Afghans, after nearly 20 years of waging war from the hub.

An American soldier in 2019 at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan.
Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

KABUL, Afghanistan — American troops and their Western allies have departed Bagram, the last active air base used by the U.S. military in Afghanistan, officials said on Friday, effectively ending major U.S. military operations in Afghanistan.

With little fanfare and no public ceremony, American troops left the base on Thursday night, U.S. and Afghan officials said, even as the Taliban sweeps through the country’s northern provinces, capturing large swathes of territory. The closure, a symbol of the United States’ costly operations in Afghanistan, turned over to the Afghan government the sprawling installation from which the United States waged war for nearly two decades.

The departure from the base weeks before the planned withdrawal of American troops in mid July, and months ahead of President’s Biden announced Sept. 11 departure, highlights Washington’s efforts to signal two different messages: one to the U.S. public that its longest foreign war is ending, and another to the Afghan government that the United States is not abandoning the country in the middle of a Taliban offensive.

Bagram was operating at full capacity until the end on Thursday. Fighter jets, cargo planes and surveillance aircraft relied on the twin runways until it was no longer feasible to keep them in the country.

Now, air support for the Afghan forces and overhead surveillance will be flown in from outside the country, from bases in Qatar or the United Arab Emirates, or from an aircraft carrier in the Arabian Sea. A contingent of 650 troops will remain to protect the United States embassy in Kabul, the capital. How long that type of support will continue is unclear, but the Pentagon has until Sept. 11 — when the American military mission is supposed to formally conclude — to decide.

The departure comes at a perilous time for Afghanistan.

Some U.S. intelligence estimates predict that the Afghan government could fall to its rivals, the Taliban, in as little as six months after the Americans complete their withdrawal. The Taliban are inching closer to Kabul after having taken about a quarter of the country’s districts in the past two months.

Hundreds if not thousands of members of the Afghan security forces have surrendered in recent weeks, while their counterattacks have taken back little territory from the Taliban. And as the Afghan forces fracture, regional militias have appeared with renewed prominence, in an echo of the country’s path toward civil war in the 1990s.

“Civil war is certainly a path that can be visualized,” the top American commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Austin S. Miller, told reporters on Tuesday.

Early Friday morning, looters entered the base, grabbing gas canisters and some laptops, said Darwaish Raufi, a district administrator for Bagram, adding that some were arrested by the police.

Mr. Raufi said the Americans had failed to coordinate their departure with the Afghan forces, leaving a gap in security at the base. But Col. Sonny Leggett, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan, said the transfer of the base had been “closely coordinated.”

An Afghan soldier standing guard on Friday at the gate of the Bagram Air Base.
Credit…Mohammad Ismail/Reuters

Though the past 40 years of conflict in Afghanistan could be seen as civil war, a return to the fractious era of warlords and armed fiefs has long been feared.

With a line of snow-capped mountains as its backdrop, the Bagram airfield was built in the 1950s by the Soviet Union. It became a vital military hub during the Soviets’ 10-year occupation of Afghanistan. After the Soviets withdrew in 1989, the Taliban and what was known as the Northern Alliance fought for the base, sometimes with their trenches at either end.

By 2001, the United States had inherited rubble at the Bagram site. In January 2002, when the first American service member killed by enemy fire, Sgt. First Class Nathan R. Chapman, was sent home, there were no American flags to drape on his coffin, so a flag patch from someone’s uniform had to suffice.

By 2011, at the height of the American war, the air base had ballooned into a small city, with two runways, tens of thousands of occupants, shops and a U.S. military prison that became notorious. The thunder of jets and other aircraft, armed with hundreds of pounds of munitions that were dropped across the country, sometimes killing civilians, became a constant soundtrack for local residents throughout the conflict.

The base was also more violently attacked over the years, often by Taliban rockets and mortars, but sometimes by other means. In one of the worst strikes, in November 2016, a suicide bomber sneaked onto Bagram Air Base, hidden among a group of workers. The blast killed four Americans and wounded more than a dozen others.

Other foreign forces that helped guard the base as part of the U.S.-led coalition, like those from Georgia and the Czech Republic, saw their own casualties during their deployments.

In 2014, as the United States concluded its first official drawdown after the surge of troops in the years before — which brought the number of American and other international forces into the country to well over 100,000 — Bagram began to shrink.

Local contractors were fired, troops left and the surrounding town of the same name went into a downward economic spiral. Many residents had been reliant on the base for employment, and others had sorted through the camp’s refuse for goods that could be sold or shipped to Kabul.

On Friday, Zabihullah Mujahida Taliban spokesman, called the departure from Bagram a “positive step.”

With Bagram gone, what is left of the American forces in the country remain in Kabul. After General Miller leaves in the next several days, his authorities to carry out airstrikes against Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, and, in very limited circumstances, against the Taliban, will be assumed by Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the head of the military’s Central Command.

Rear Adm. Peter G. Vasely, a former member of SEAL Team 6, will be in charge of the security mission at the United States Embassy in Kabul, and will report to General McKenzie. Admiral Vasely, who is already in Kabul for the transition, will command the American troops that will be largely based at the embassy and remain there indefinitely.

Through September, General McKenzie will also be authorized to keep about 300 additional troops in Afghanistan, if needed for security, Pentagon officials said.

Fatima Faizi contributed reporting from Kabul, and Eric Schmitt from Washington.

U.S. Leaves Its Last Afghan Base, Effectively Ending Operations