USA leave Bagram Airfield after 20 years – NBC Boston


For almost 20 years, Bagram Airfield was the heart of the American military power in Afghanistan, a sprawling small town behind fences and explosive walls, just an hour’s drive north of Kabul. First, it symbolized America’s vengeance for the 9/11 attacks, then its struggle to find a way through the ensuing war with the Taliban.

In a few days the last US soldiers will leave Bagram. You are leaving what probably everyone with grassroots ties, whether American or Afghans, considers a mixed heritage.

“Bagram grew into such a massive military facility that it symbolized and embodied the term ‘Mission Creep’ like few other bases in Afghanistan and even Iraq,” said Andrew Watkins, Afghanistan senior analyst at Brussels-based International Crisis group.

US Central Command said last week that well over 50% managed to grab Bagram and the rest is quick. American officials said the entire withdrawal of US troops will most likely be completed by July 4th. The Afghan military will then take over Bagram as part of its ongoing fight against the Taliban – and against what many in the country fear it will be a new outbreak of chaos.

The farewell is full of symbolism. Last but not least, it is the second time that an Afghan intruder has come and gone through Bagram.

The Soviet Union built the airfield in the 1950s. When it invaded Afghanistan in 1979 to support a communist government, it made it its main base from which it would defend its occupation of the country. For ten years the Soviets fought against the US-backed mujahideen, who were described as freedom fighters by President Ronald Reagan, who saw them as a frontline force in one of the final battles of the Cold War.

The Soviet Union negotiated its withdrawal in 1989. Three years later, the pro-Moscow government collapsed and the mujahideen took power only to turn their weapons against each other and kill thousands of civilians. This unrest brought the Taliban to power, who overran Kabul in 1996.

When the US and NATO inherited Bagram in 2001, they found it in ruins, a cluster of crumbling buildings ripped apart by missiles and grenades and destroyed most of the fencing. It was abandoned after it was defeated in the fighting between the Taliban and rival mujahideen warlords who fled to their northern enclaves.

After the Taliban were driven from Kabul, the US-led coalition began working with its warlord allies to rebuild Bagram, initially with temporary structures that then became permanent. Its growth was explosive, eventually consuming about 30 square miles.

“The closure of Bagram is a great symbolic and strategic victory for the Taliban,” said Bill Roggio, Senior Fellow of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

“If the Taliban manage to take control of the grassroots, it will serve as anti-American propaganda fodder for years to come,” said Roggio, who is also editor of the foundation’s Long War Journal.

It would also be a military godsend.

The huge base has two runways. The youngest, at 12,000 feet in length, was built in 2006 for $ 96 million. There are 110 revetments, which are essentially aircraft parking spaces protected by explosive walls. GlobalSecurity, a security think tank, says Bagram includes three large hangars, a control tower, and numerous support buildings. The base has a 50-bed hospital with a trauma ward, three operating theaters and a modern dental clinic. There are also fitness centers and fast food restaurants. Another section is home to a prison that is notorious and feared among Afghans.

Jonathan Schroden of the US research and analysis organization CNA estimates that well over 100,000 people have spent a lot of time at Bagram over the past two decades. “Bagram provided a foundation for the war experience of much of the US military and contractors who served in Afghanistan,” said Schroden, director of the CNA Center for Stability and Development.

“The withdrawal of the last US troops from there will likely be the last change of sides for many of these people in terms of their time in this country,” he said.

For Afghans in the Bagram district, a region with more than 100 villages supported by orchards and fields, the base was an important employer. The US withdrawal affects almost all households, said District Governor Darwaish Raufi.

The Americans have made weapons and other materials available to the Afghan military. Anything else they don’t take, they destroy and sell to scrap dealers in Bagram. US officials say they need to make sure nothing useful can ever fall into the hands of the Taliban.

Last week, US Central Command announced it had scrapped 14,790 pieces of equipment and dispatched 763 C-17s loaded with material from Afghanistan. Bagram villagers say they heard explosions from inside the base, apparently the Americans destroyed buildings and materials.

Raufi said many villagers had complained to him about the US just leaving their trash behind.

“There’s something sadly symbolic about the way the United States left Bagram. The decision to take so much away and destroy what’s left speaks to the urgency of the US to get out quickly, ”said Michael Kugelman, assistant director of the Asia program at the US Wilson Center.

“It’s not the nicest parting gift for Afghans, including those taking over the grassroots,” he said.

Inevitably, comparisons with the former Soviet Union have emerged.

Retired Afghan General Saifullah Safi, who worked alongside US forces in Bagram, said the Soviets left all their equipment behind when they withdrew. They “didn’t take much with them, just the vehicles they needed to bring their soldiers back to Russia,” he said.

The prison in the base was handed over to the Afghans in 2012 and is still operated by them. In the early years of the war, Bagram became synonymous with fear for many Afghans, just next to Guantanamo Bay. Parents would threaten their crying children with jail.

In the first years of the invasion, Afghans often disappeared for months without giving any details of their whereabouts, until they were located in Bagram by the International Red Committee of the Red Cross. Some returned home with stories of torture.

“If someone even mentions the word Bagram, I hear the screams of pain from prison,” said Zabihullah, who spent six years in Bagram and was accused of belonging to the faction of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a warlord who was then called a terrorist by the United States after his arrest it was an offense to belong to Hekmatyar’s party.

Zabihullah, who has only one name, was released in 2020, four years after President Ashraf Ghani signed a peace agreement with Hekmatyar.

Roggio says the prison’s status is a “major problem” and points out that many of his prisoners are well-known Taliban leaders or members of militant groups including al-Qaeda and the Islamic State Group. It is believed that around 7,000 prisoners are still in prison.

“If the base falls and the prison is overrun, these inmates can strengthen the ranks of these terrorist groups,” said Roggio.

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