Kabul (dpa) – After nearly 20 years, the US and other NATO soldiers have left their largest base in Afghanistan. All coalition forces are outside Bagram Air Force Base, a senior US military official said.
The Afghan Ministry of Defense has confirmed that the base has been handed over to Afghan security forces. The base will be protected and used to fight terrorism.
Full withdrawal before the end of August
The US government plans to complete the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan by the end of August. Defense Department spokesman John Kirby and White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said so today in Washington.
President Joe Biden had previously dismissed speculation that the US troop withdrawal could be completed in just a few days. Biden explicitly denied a corresponding question from a White House reporter today, saying the withdrawal was on track. “Some forces” still remained in the country.
There is no official information on where US or other NATO forces are now. International soldiers should still be at Kabul’s airport, at the headquarters of NATO’s “Resolute Support” mission in the center of the city, and probably at the US embassy next door. The US military official added that the commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, General Austin Scott Miller, still has all the skills and powers to protect the force.
Symbol of the US mission in Afghanistan
The closing of Bagram is symbolic. Over the years, Bagram had become a symbol of the US operation in Afghanistan for many Afghans. The airport was originally built by the Soviet Union in the 1950s. When the US invaded Afghanistan after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the base about an hour’s drive north of Kabul was largely destroyed.
Over the years, it has expanded greatly, employing thousands of Afghans, who sometimes queued at the security gates for an hour or more every day to get to the base in the morning.
Notorious is a prison that is operated on Bagram. There have been repeated allegations of torture and illegal detention. Time and again, Afghans working in Bagram on their way to the base were killed by militant Islamist Taliban.
At the same time, countless western goods entered the country via Bagram, which then ended up at the ‘Bush Bazaar’ in Kabul – from protein shakes to Parmesan. The bazaar is named after US President George W. Bush, who ordered the invasion of Afghanistan.
Demolition of equipment
Recently, Bagram made headlines in Afghan as dozens of trucks loaded with scrap from destroyed vehicles and equipment belonging to US troops left the airport every day. Many Afghans were annoyed that the US military was cutting such amounts and not leaving them to the security forces. The military justified this, among other things, with the fact that the equipment should not fall into enemy hands.
Indeed, huge amounts of US-funded equipment have recently fallen into the hands of the Taliban. As the international forces began to withdraw, the Islamists launched several offensives in the country. Since then, they have captured about 90 of the 400 or so districts from the demoralized Afghan security forces – looting hundreds of rifles, armored vehicles and, in some cases, heavy military equipment.
US fighter jets will be absent
In the past, the Taliban’s offensives were mainly stopped with the help of US air strikes and, in some cases, US special forces. With the withdrawal, government forces will now have to do without such combat support. The Afghan Air Force can only do a fraction of what US warplanes have offered so far.
It is also unclear whether the machines can be kept airworthy without foreign contract workers who repair and maintain them, but who are now also removing them. The Air Force plays a key role in the fight against the Taliban.
The White House has assured the government in Kabul that it will continue to provide “sustainable” security assistance. Washington has thus far remained vague about exactly what this means. A senior US general had ruled out in an interview with Voice of America that the US would support the Afghan armed forces with air strikes after it withdrew.
That does not mean that the Taliban’s military advance in Washington is not a cause for concern. On the contrary, given the developments, the US secret services would have revised their forecasts for Afghanistan, according to the Washington Post. Accordingly, the Afghan government may fall within six to twelve months.
However, Dawud Moradian of the think tank Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies (AISS) in Kabul does not want to agree with such a bleak view. Western judgments have always been wrong in the past, he says. Momentum is with the Taliban right now. But if the government in Kabul manages to break through this, the outlook could soon be very different.
There are early signs of this, such as the recent local uprisings against the Taliban in the country, the change in military leadership or the increasing unity of the political leadership. Now the question is whether Kabul can sustain this countermovement.