US left Bagram at night, didn’t tell commander

Published July 7, 2021
This file photo taken on July 5 shows a general view of the runway tarmac inside the Bagram US air base after all US and Nato troops left. — AFP
This file photo taken on July 5 shows a general view of the runway tarmac inside the Bagram US air base after all US and Nato troops left. — AFP

BAGRAM: The US 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.

Afghanistan’s army showed off the sprawling air base on Monday, providing a rare first glimpse of what had been the epicentre of Americas war to unseat the Taliban and hunt down the Al Qaeda perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks on America.

“We (heard) some rumours that the Americans had left Bagram ... and finally by seven o’clock in the morning, we understood that it was confirmed that they had already left Bag­ram,” Gen Mir Asadullah Kohistani, Bagram’s new commander said.

US military spokesman Col Sonny Leggett did not address the specific complaints of many Afghan soldiers who inherited the abandoned airfield, instead referring to a statement last week.

The statement said the handover of the many bases had been in the process soon after President Joe Biden’s mid-April announcement that America was withdrawing the last of its forces. Leggett said in the statement that they had coordinated their departures with Afghanistan’s leaders.

Before the Afghan army could take control of the airfield, about an hours drive from the Afghan capital Kabul, it was invaded by a small army of looters, who ransacked barrack after barrack and rummaged through giant storage tents before being evicted, according to Afghan military officials.

“At first we thought maybe they were Taliban,” said Abdul Raouf, a soldier of 10 years. He said the US called from the Kabul airport and said “we are here at the airport in Kabul”.

Kohistani insisted the Afghan National Security and Defence 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 Taliban.

The Taliban’s latest surge comes as the last US and Nato forces pull out of the country. As of last week, most Nato soldiers had already quietly left. The last US soldiers are likely to remain until an agreement to protect the Kabul Hamid Karzai International Airport, which is expected to be done by Turkey, is completed.

Meanwhile, in northern Afghanistan, district after district has fallen to the Taliban. In just the last two days hundreds of Afghan soldiers fled across the border into Tajikistan rather than fight the insurgents.

In battle it is sometimes one step forward and some steps back, said Kohistani.

He said the Afghan military was changing its strategy to focus on the strategic districts. He insisted they would retake them in the coming days without saying how that would be accomplished.

On display on Monday was a massive facility, the size of a small city, that had been exclusively used by the US and Nato.

Published in Dawn, July 7th, 2021

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