The United States left Afghanistan’s Bagram Airfield after nearly 20 years by shutting off the electricity and slipping away in the night without notifying the base’s new Afghan commander, who discovered the Americans’ departure more than two hours after they left, Afghan military officials said.
The US announced on Friday it had completely vacated its biggest airfield in the country in advance of a final withdrawal by the end of August of all but a few hundred US troops from Afghanistan.
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“We [heard] some rumour that the Americans had left Bagram … and finally by 7:00 in the morning, we understood that it was confirmed that they had already left Bagram,” General Mir Asadullah Kohistani, Bagram’s new commander, told The Associated Press.
Afghanistan’s army showed off the sprawling airbase on Monday, allowing journalists to visit the heavily fortified compound.
“They (Americans) are completely out now and everything is under our control, including watchtowers, air traffic and the hospital,” a senior Afghan government official told the Reuters news agency.
Bagram had long been a symbol of Western forces deployed to shore up the Afghan government now facing a Taliban offensive as most US and NATO forces withdraw.
The Taliban captured districts in Badakhshan and Kandahar provinces over the weekend, sending Afghan government forces fleeing across the border with Tajikistan. Taliban fighters last week launched an attack on the central Afghan city of Ghazni, on the highway linking the capital Kabul with the southern province of Kandahar.
On Monday at Bagram, dozens of vehicles left behind by the US stood on the premises while others zipped around with Afghan officials and personnel. Radars oscillated as soldiers stood on guard, and hundreds of Afghan security personnel moved into barracks that once housed US soldiers.
Afghan soldiers who wandered throughout the base that had once seen as many as 100,000 US troops were deeply critical of how the US left Bagram.
“In one night they lost all the goodwill of 20 years by leaving the way they did, in the night, without telling the Afghan soldiers who were outside patrolling the area,” said Afghan soldier Naematullah, who asked that only his one name be used.
Before the Afghan army could take control of the airfield, about an hour’s drive from the Afghan capital Kabul, a small group of looters ransacked barrack after barrack and rummaged through giant storage tents before being evicted, Afghan military officials said.
“At first, we thought maybe they were Taliban,” Abdul Raouf, a soldier of 10 years, told the AP. He said the US called from the Kabul airport and said “we are here at the airport in Kabul.”
US Colonel Sonny Leggett, the official spokesman for the US military in Afghanistan, did not address the specific complaints of many Afghan soldiers, instead referring to a US statement issued last week.
The statement said the handover had been in the process soon after President Joe Biden’s mid-April announcement that the US would withdraw its forces from Afghanistan. Leggett said in the statement that they had coordinated their departures with Afghanistan’s leaders.
The US announced on July 2 it had completely vacated its biggest airfield in the country in advance of a final withdrawal the Pentagon said will be completed by the end of August.
Kohistani, the new commander of the airfield, insisted the Afghan National Security and Defense Force could hold on to the heavily fortified base despite a string of Taliban wins on the battlefield. The airfield also includes a prison with about 5,000 prisoners, many of them allegedly members of the Taliban.
Meanwhile, neighbourhoods and markets in the shadow of the base were bracing for what comes next.
“It is not a problem for us if there are foreign forces [here] or they leave, but the fact that the Taliban are taking over districts at any moment affects our work,” Wasim Shirzad, a shopkeeper, told Reuters.
Another shopkeeper, Nematullah Ferdaws, agreed: “Most shopkeepers do not invest … because they are hesitant about the country’s future.”