Friday, July 2nd, 2021
Headquarters in Afghanistan
US and NATO leave Bagram military base
All NATO troops are to be withdrawn from Afghanistan by September 11th at the latest. An important step has now been taken: The coalition soldiers have handed over their largest military base, Bagram, to the local security forces. Now it could be quick.
The US and NATO have withdrawn their remaining soldiers from their main military base in Bagram in Afghanistan after almost 20 years. “All coalition forces have left Bagram,” said a US Army official. The move suggests that the full withdrawal of international troops from Afghanistan is imminent.
When exactly the last US and NATO soldiers left Bagram, the US Army representative, who wanted to remain anonymous, did not say. US media reports said the base had been handed over to the Afghan security forces. The Afghan Ministry of Defense did not initially comment on this. The official added that the commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, Gen. Austin Scott Miller, continues to have all the skills and powers to protect the force.
This means that the withdrawal of international troops, which began at the beginning of May, is about to be completed. The USA had officially announced that it would withdraw all troops by September 11th at the latest. However, there have long been reports that the withdrawal could be completed around July 4th, the US national day. The Bundeswehr flew its last remaining soldiers from the north of the country on Tuesday. There is no official information on where US or other NATO troops are now. International soldiers should still be at Kabul airport, at the headquarters of the NATO mission “Resolute Support” in the center of the city and probably also in the US embassy next to it.
A symbol for the US mission
Bagram is the largest US and NATO military base in Afghanistan. At times up to 30,000 soldiers were stationed at the base 50 kilometers from the capital Kabul. The closure of Bagram, which has now been completed, is symbolic. Over the years, Bagram had become a symbol of the US operation in Afghanistan for many Afghans. The airfield was originally built by the Soviet Union in the 1950s. When the USA 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 been massively expanded and employed thousands of Afghans, who sometimes spent an hour or more in queues in security gates every day to get to the base in the morning. Notorious is a prison operated on Bagram. There have been repeated allegations of torture and illegal detention. Again and again, Afghans who worked in Bagram were killed on the way to the base by militant Islamist Taliban. At the same time, innumerable western goods came into the country via Bagram, which subsequently ended up at the “Bush Bazaar” in Kabul – from protein shakes to parmesan. The bazaar was named after US President George W. Bush, who ordered the invasion of Afghanistan.
Most recently, Bagram hit the Afghan headlines because dozens of trucks loaded with scrap from destroyed vehicles and equipment from US troops left the airfield every day. Many Afghans were annoyed that the US military scrapped such quantities and did not leave 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, vast amounts of US-funded equipment have recently fallen into the hands of the Taliban. When the international troops began to withdraw, the Islamists launched several offensives in the country. Since then, they have been able to conquer around 90 of the 400 or so districts from the demoralized Afghan security forces – and in the process captured hundreds of assault rifles, armored vehicles and, in some cases, heavy military equipment.
In the past, Taliban offensives were stopped primarily with the help of US air strikes and, in some cases, American special forces. The withdrawal means that government troops will now have to do without such combat support. The Afghan Air Force can only do a fraction of what American fighter planes have so far offered.
USA promises “sustainable” security aid
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 is key in the fight against the Taliban. The White House has given assurances to the government in Kabul that it will continue to provide “sustainable” security assistance. So far, Washington has remained vague about what this means. A high-ranking US general in an interview with “Voice of America” had ruled out that the US would support Afghan armed forces with air strikes after their withdrawal.
That does not mean that the Taliban’s military advance in Washington is not causing concern. On the contrary: In view of the developments, the US secret services are said to have revised their forecasts for Afghanistan, according to the Washington Post. Accordingly, the Afghan government could fall in six to twelve months.
Dawud Moradian from the Kabul think tank Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies does not want to agree with such a gloomy outlook. Western assessments have consistently been wrong in the past, he says. The momentum is currently with the Taliban. But if the government in Kabul succeeds in breaking this, the outlook could quickly be completely different. There are first signs of this – such as the recent local uprisings against the Taliban in the country, the change in military leadership or increasing unity of the political leadership. Now the question is whether Kabul can maintain this counter-momentum.