Hasty air base handover sums up America’s hurried exit from its longest war
Located an hour north of Kabul, Bagram was for nearly 20 years the hub of America’s war in Afghanistan. Now it is eerily quiet. The last US combat troops have left and the Afghan government is trying to work out how to use the sprawling complex — and how to secure it.
Afghan officials accompanying CNN on a tour of Bagram on Monday confessed that they were only now getting access to much of the base, and working out what had been left behind. One senior officer said he was notified last Thursday that his forces had less than 24 hours to secure the perimeter of the base.
The last US troops left the base on Friday. Some Afghan soldiers told CNN they only found out the Americans were leaving that very day.
There is a deep sense of abandonment among the Afghans now in possession of Bagram. One Afghan officer said to CNN that it felt like an old friend had left without saying goodbye.
The huge mustard-colored aircraft hangars remain locked. Among the equipment left behind are some 700 vehicles: Humvees, pickup trucks and 4 x 4s, some still littered with half-eaten American snacks like Oreos and partially consumed soda bottles. Beyond the hardware, there are other signs that this was not so long ago a little piece of America in the Hindu Kush mountains. Bagram had its own Burger King and Popeye’s franchises, a radio station and mini shopping mall. Once upon a time, there was even a Harley Davidson store here.
Now some 3,000 Afghan security forces are settling into Bagram. On Monday, a delegation from Afghanistan’s National Security Council were visiting the base, working out how it might be used in the battle against a resurgent Taliban.
Not long ago, the airfield saw dozens of arrivals and departures every day. It was the beating heart of a vast military airlift operation that supplied US and NATO troops in Afghanistan. From Bagram, surveillance aircraft would patrol the skies around the clock watching for the Taliban’s movements.
The twin runways, some two miles long, stretch towards the horizon. But the only noise is that of the wind sweeping across the plains.
Whether the Afghan security forces have the time and resources to exploit Bagram is the big unanswered question.
One unnamed senior Afghan defense official told CNN the base would have what it needed to operate.
“You should understand that we have been provided with adequate equipment to run this whole base,” said the official, speaking anonymously because they were not authorized to comment.
“Afghans have the potential to safeguard its land, take maximal benefit of this base and ensure sovereignty,” he added.
The Pentagon has stressed the US withdrawal will not necessarily mean the end of NATO’s Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan, despite NATO’s decision in April to start and complete its own troop drawdown within a few months.
Across the country, however, Afghan forces are stretched as the Taliban attack on multiple fronts.
Since May, the Taliban claim to have taken control of some 150 districts across Afghanistan, in their southern heartlands of Kandahar and Helmand provinces — but also in the north.
Over the last few days, they have claimed advances in Badakhshan province, bordering China and Tajikistan, and neighboring Takhar. The United Nations reported last week that a total of 56,546 people have been displaced in Kunduz, Takhar, Badakhshan and Baghlan provinces.
Afghanistan’s first vice president, Amrullah Saleh, has said that “tens of thousands of families” have fled the Taliban onslaught to seek shelter in major cities.
Saleh tweeted Monday that “some have found refuge in homes of relatives thanks to our traditions & others are in makeshift tents or street corners awaiting a ‘hand’ of help.”
“We are doing what we can & with what we have,” he added.
The Afghans now have Bagram, but the challenge is they do not have enough planes to make full use of it. And combat aircraft — as both senior Afghan officials and former US commander Gen. David Petraeus have pointed out — will be critical in stemming the Taliban’s surge.
Along with the coalition troops, thousands of military contractors have also left Afghanistan. Many of them were based at Bagram. “They are the ones that keep the fixed- and rotary-wing assets of the Afghan Air Force flying,” Petraeus said last week. “These are US systems that we have provided to them.”
Now, Bagram feels almost like a place without a purpose. For years and probably decades to come, it will be the most obvious reminder in Afghanistan of Operation Enduring Freedom, the clarion call that followed the events of 9/11.