After nearly 20 years, the US military has left Bagram airfield, the epicentre of its war to oust the Taliban and track down the al-Qaida perpetrators of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
The airfield was handed over to the Afghan National Security and Defense Force in its entirety, two US officials said on Friday on condition they not be identified because they were not authorised to release the information to the media.
One of the officials also said the US top commander in Afghanistan, General Austin S Miller, “still retains all the capabilities and authorities to protect the forces”.
The withdrawal from Bagram airfield is the clearest indication that the last of the 2,500-3,500 US troops have left Afghanistan or are nearing a departure, months ahead of President Joe Biden’s promise that they would be gone by 11 September.
It was clear soon after the mid-April announcement that the US was ending its “forever war”, that the departure of US soldiers and their estimated 7,000 Nato allies would be nearer to 4 July, when America celebrates its Independence Day.
Most Nato soldiers have already quietly exited as of this week. Announcements from several countries analysed by the Associated Press show that a majority of European troops has now left with little ceremony – a stark contrast to the dramatic and public show of force and unity when Nato allies lined up to back the US invasion in 2001.
The US has refused to say when the last US soldier would leave Afghanistan, citing security concerns, but also the protection of Kabul’s Hamid Karzai international airport is still being negotiated. Turkish and US soldiers are protecting the airport but that protection is provided under the Resolute Support Mission, which is the mission being wound down.
Until a new agreement for the airport’s protection is negotiated between Turkey and the Afghan government, and possibly the United States, the mission would appear to have to continue in order to give international troops the legal authority.
The US will also have about 650 troops in Afghanistan to protect its sprawling embassy in the capital. Their presence it is understood will be covered in a bilateral agreement with the Afghan government.
The US and Nato leaving comes as Taliban insurgents make strides in several parts of the country, overrunning dozens of districts and overwhelming beleaguered Afghan security Forces.
In a worrying development, the government has resurrected militias with a history of brutal violence to assist the Afghan security forces. At what had all the hallmarks of a final press conference, Gen. Miller this week warned that continued violence risked a civil war in Afghanistan that should have the world worried.
At its peak, Bagram airfield saw more than 100,000 US troops pass through its sprawling compound barely an hour’s drive north of the Afghan capital Kabul.
There was no immediate comment from Afghan officials as to the final withdrawal from Bagram airfield by the US and its Nato allies.
The departure is the second time that an invader of Afghanistan has come and gone through Bagram. The Soviet Union built the airfield in the 1950s. When it invaded Afghanistan in 1979 to back a communist government, it turned it into its main base from which it would defend its occupation of the country.
When the US and Nato inherited Bagram in 2001, they found it in ruins, a collection of crumbling buildings, gouged by rockets and shells, most of its perimeter fence wrecked.