KABUL, Afghanistan – After nearly 20 years, the U.S. military left Bagram Airfield, the epicenter of its war, to oust the Taliban and track down the al-Qaida perpetrators of the September 11 terrorist attacks on the America, two US officials told The Associated Press on Friday.
The airfield was handed over in its entirety to the Afghan National Security and Defense Forces, they said on condition that they were not identified as they were not authorized to release the information to the media.
One of the officials also said that the US commander-in-chief in Afghanistan, General Austin S. Miller, “still retains all capabilities and authorities to protect the forces.”
A senior US military official with direct knowledge of the withdrawal confirmed to NBC News that all coalition forces were off Bagram Air Base.
The withdrawal from Bagram Airfield is the clearest indication that the last of the 2,500 to 3,500 American troops have left Afghanistan or are about to leave, months before President Joe Biden’s pledge that they would have left on September 11.
It was clear shortly after the announcement in mid-April that the United States was ending its “Eternal War,” that the departure of American soldiers and their estimated 7,000 NATO allies would be closer to the end. July 4th, when America celebrates Independence Day.
Most of the NATO troops have already quietly gone out this week. Announcements from several countries analyzed by the Associated Press show that a majority of European troops have now left unceremoniously – a stark contrast to the dramatic and public display of strength and unity when NATO allies aligned to support the American invasion in 2001.
The United States declined to say when the last American soldier would leave Afghanistan, citing security concerns, but the protection of Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport is still being negotiated. Turkish and American soldiers protect the airport. This protection is covered by the Resolute Support mission, which is the military mission being wound up.
Until a new airport protection agreement is negotiated between Turkey and the Afghan government, and possibly the United States, the Resolute Support mission looks set to continue in order to give international troops legal authority.
The United States will also have around 650 troops in Afghanistan to protect its sprawling embassy in the capital. It is understood that their presence will be covered by a bilateral agreement with the Afghan government.
The departure of the United States and NATO comes as Taliban insurgents advance in several parts of the country, invading dozens of districts and overwhelming besieged Afghan security forces.
In a disturbing development, the government has resurrected militias with a history of brutal violence to aid Afghan security forces. In what had all the hallmarks of a final press conference, General Miller this week warned that continued violence risked a civil war in Afghanistan that should worry the world.
At its peak around 2012, Bagram Airfield saw more than 100,000 American troops pass through its sprawling compound just an hour’s drive north of the Afghan capital Kabul.
The departure is loaded with symbolism. Notably, this is the second time that an invader from Afghanistan has passed 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 10 years, the Soviets fought the US-backed Mujahedin, dubbed the Freedom Fighters by President Ronald Reagan, who saw them as a frontline force in one of the last battles of the Cold War.
When the United States and NATO inherited Bagram in 2001, they found it in ruins, a crumbling complex of buildings, carved out by rockets and shells, most of its perimeter fence destroyed. It had been abandoned after being defeated in battles between the Taliban and rival Mujahedin warlords fleeing to their northern enclaves.
The huge base has two tracks. The most recent, 12,000 feet long, was built in 2006 at a cost of $ 96 million. There are 110 pavements, which are essentially parking spaces for airplanes, protected by blast 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 room, three operating rooms and a modern dental clinic. Another section houses a prison, notorious and feared by Afghans.
There was no immediate comment from Afghan officials regarding the final withdrawal from Bagram Airfield by the United States and its NATO allies.