The last US troops are packing up and leaving Bagram in Afghanistan

The last US troops are packing up and leaving Bagram in Afghanistan

June 29, 2021

Operation Get Out of Bagram: Final remaining US troops pack up and prepare to leave military mini-city as Taliban sweep across Afghanistan 20 years after British troops swooped in to secure the base and helped turn it into American fortress

  • Nearly 20 years ago, the base was secured by a hundred British troops from the Special Boat Service (SBS)
  • The base, a mini-city behind blast walls, became the heart of American military operations in Afghanistan
  • It was a fortress symbolising the US will to avenge 9/11 – and latterly its struggle to defeat the Taliban
  • Within days the last US soldiers will depart Bagram Air Base, leaving what many consider a strained legacy

Nearly 20 years ago, a hundred British troops from Special Boat Service – the Royal Marines’ equivalent of the SAS – flew into Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, to reconnoitre the area before the deployment of thousands of soldiers from Britain and the United States.

The air base would become the heart of American military might in Afghanistan, a sprawling mini-city behind fences and blast walls just an hour’s drive north of Kabul. 

Initially, it was a symbol of Washington’s desire to avenge the 9/11 attacks, then of its struggle for a way through the interminable war with the Taliban.

But within days, the last US soldiers will depart Bagram. They are leaving what probably everyone connected to the base, whether American, British or Afghan, considers a strained legacy.

‘Bagram grew into such a massive military installation that, as with few other bases in Afghanistan and even Iraq, it came to symbolise and epitomise the phrase “mission creep”,’ said Andrew Watkins, a senior analyst at International Crisis Group.

AMERICANS WITHDRAW: Within days, the last US soldiers will depart Bagram (pictured: US troops load up helicopter onto a C-17 Globesmaster at Bagram on June 16). They are leaving what probably everyone connected to the base, whether American, British or Afghan, considers a strained legacy.

BRITS ARRIVE: British Royal Marine Commandos from 45 Commando RM, returning from Operation Ptarmigan, land at Bagram Airbase April 18, 2002 in Afghanistan. It was their brethren in the Special Boat Service – the Royal Marines’ equivalent of the SAS – who flew in to reconnoitre the base in November 2001

The US fortress is 40 miles north of the capital, Kabul. It was the heart of American military might in Afghanistan, a sprawling mini-city behind fences and blast walls

TALIBAN GAINS NEW GROUND: A lighting offensive by the Taliban which began in May has seen the group take control of vast swathes of rural Afghanistan and battle their way to the doorstep of major cities such as Kandahar, Herat and Kabul – with attacks on them expected soon

On November 15, 2001, an advance party of SBS troops flew in a Hercules from Britain to the airfield 40 miles north of the Afghan capital.

Within days, they had the base up and running, including the old control tower which was blasted and bullet-riddled from previous wars between the Russians and the US-backed mujahedeen.

The mood on the ground among the locals was described as one of ‘delight’ at the time.

One Afghan soldier said at the time: ‘It is so nice to see the British come here. British or Americans, I don’t mind which, both are my friends. Five planes came in last night. When I saw the British planes I thought “the British are coming in, so the Taliban are definitely going out”.’

With hindsight, it’s clear that the man’s surety was misplaced. The Taliban today are on the cusp of a great comeback, recapturing vast swathes of the Afghani hinterland and drawing close to major cities as US and NATO withdraw. 

Although British troops officially left the country in 2014, around 1,000 stayed on, largely drawn from the 2nd Battalion The Rifles and the Yorkshire Regiment, who were deployed in and around Kabul in non-offensive roles.

A 40-strong force of SAS and SBS soldiers were also barracked at Bagram, working alongside the US coalition. However, with the US withdrawal, the Ministry of Defence announced late last year that their deployment would be ‘untenable.’ 

US Central Command said last week it is well past 50 per cent packing up Bagram, and the rest is going fast. American officials have said the entire pullout of U.S. troops will most likely be completely finished by July 4.

The Afghan military will then take over Bagram as part of its continuing fight against the Taliban – and against what many in the country fear will be a new eruption of chaos.

The departure is rife with symbolism. Not least, it’s the second time that an invader of Afghanistan has come and gone through Bagram.

Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff speaks during a ceremony on Christmas Eve 2017 at Bagram Air Base, in Afghanistan

US forces load a UH-60L Blackhawk helicopter into a C-17 Globemaster III in support of the Resolute Support retrograde mission, the withdrawal from Bagram, on June 16, 2021

Soldiers load a Blackhawk onto a Globemaster for transportation from Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan back to the US earlier this month

What has America’s longest war cost? 

After 20 years of fighting in Afghanistan, US and NATO forces are on the verge of withdrawing from the country – a move that could hand control back to the Taliban.

That would undo decades of work that has seen western governments pour trillions of dollars into the country and killed tens of thousands of troops and civilians.

Here is what America’s longest war has cost…

US troops killed: 2,500 

UK troops killed: 450 

Other coalition troops killed: 650 

Afghan gov. forces killed: At least 60,000

Taliban forces killed: At least 51,000, though no official records exist

Cost of US mission: At least $2trillion, though some have estimated as much as $6trillion

Cost of NATO mission: At least $825billion on combat operations, plus billions more annually on rebuilding

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.

For 10 years, the Soviets fought the US-backed mujahedeen, dubbed freedom fighters by President Ronald Reagan, who saw them as a front-line force in one of the last Cold War battles.

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

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. 

It had been abandoned after being battered in the battles between the Taliban and rival mujahedeen warlords fleeing to their northern enclaves.

After dislodging the Taliban from Kabul, the US-led coalition began working with their warlord allies to rebuild Bagram, with temporary structures that then turned permanent. Its growth was explosive, eventually swallowing up roughly 30 square miles.

‘The closure of Bagram is a major symbolic and strategic victory for the Taliban,’ said Bill Roggio, senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

‘If the Taliban is able to take control of the base, it will serve as anti-U.S. 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 windfall.

The enormous base has two runways. The most recent, at 12,000 feet long, was built in 2006 at a cost of $96 million. There are 110 revetments, parking spots for aircraft, 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 bay, three operating theatres and a modern dental clinic.

There are also fitness centres and fast food restaurants. Another section houses a prison, notorious and feared among Afghans. 

Jonathan Schroden, of the US-based research and analysis organisation CNA, estimates that well over 100,000 people spent significant time at Bagram over the past two decades. 

‘Bagram formed a foundation for the wartime experience of a large fraction of U.S. military members and contractors who served in Afghanistan,’ said Schroden, director of CNA’s Center for Stability and Development.

‘The departure of the last US troops from there will likely serve as the final turn of the page for many of these folks with respect to their time in that country,’ he said.

For Afghans in Bagram district, a region of more than 100 villages supported by orchards and farming fields, the base has been a major supplier of employment.

The US withdrawal effects nearly every household, said Darwaish Raufi, district governor.

The Americans have been giving the Afghan military some weaponry and other material. Anything else that they are not taking, they are destroying and selling it to scrap dealers around Bagram. US officials say they must ensure nothing usable can ever fall into Taliban hands.

Last week, the US Central Command said it had junked 14,790 pieces of equipment and sent 763 C-17 aircraft loaded with material out of Afghanistan. 

Bagram villagers say they hear explosions from inside the base, apparently the Americans destroying buildings and material.

Raufi said many villagers have complained to him about the US leaving just their junk behind. 

The US withdrawal effects nearly every household, said Darwaish Raufi, district governor. He explained many villagers have complained to him about the U.S. leaving just their junk behind

The Americans have been giving the Afghan military some weaponry and other material. Anything else that they are not taking, they are destroying and selling it to scrap dealers around Bagram (pictured, a junkyard near Bagram Air Base)

District Governor Darwaish Raufi said many villagers have complained to him about the U.S. leaving just their junk behind (pictured, a man shows motherboards founds at a junkyard near the Bagram Air Base)

Last week, the U.S. Central Command said it had junked 14,790 pieces of equipment and sent 763 C-17 aircraft loaded with material out of Afghanistan

The Americans have been destroying and selling anything they are not taking with them to scrap dealers around Bagram. US officials say they must ensure nothing usable can ever fall into Taliban hands (pictured, a girl carries a metal box she picked up from a junkyard near Bagram)

Bagram villagers say they hear explosions from inside the base, apparently the Americans destroying buildings and material (pictured, people selecting items from a junkyard near Bagram Air Base)

Last week, the U.S. Central Command said it had junked 14,790 pieces of equipment (pictured, a policeman stands guard as workers unload a container at a junkyard in Bagram)

After dislodging the Taliban from Kabul, the US-led coalition began working with their warlord allies to rebuild Bagram, with temporary structures that then turned permanent. Its growth was explosive, eventually swallowing up roughly 30 square miles complete with a hefty border fence

Militiamen gather near Kabul on June 23 this year to pledge their allegiance to the Afghan government in preparation for a Taliban assault that is threatening to overwhelm major cities

‘There’s something sadly symbolic about how the US has gone about leaving Bagram. The decision to take so much away and destroy so much of what is left speaks to the U.S. urgency to get out quickly,’ said Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program at the US-based Wilson Center.

‘It’s not the kindest parting gift for Afghans, including those taking over the base,’ he said.

Inevitably, comparisons to the former Soviet Union have arisen. 

Retired Afghan Gen. Saifullah Safi, who worked alongside US forces at Bagram, said the Soviets left all their equipment when they withdrew. They ‘didn’t take much with them, just the vehicles they needed to transport their soldiers back to Russia,’ he said.

The prison in the base was handed over to the Afghans in 2012, and they will continue to operate it. In the early years of the war, for many Afghans, Bagram became synonymous with fear, next only to Guantanamo Bay. Parents would threaten their crying children with the prison.

In the early years of the invasion, Afghans often disappeared for months without any reports of their whereabouts until the International Committee of the Red Cross located them in Bagram. Some returned home with tales of torture.

Retired Afghan Gen. Saifullah Safi (pictured) who worked alongside U.S. forces at Bagram, said the Soviets left all their equipment when they withdrew. They ‘didn’t take much with them, just the vehicles they needed to transport their soldiers back to Russia’

Hundreds of militiamen shout ‘death to the Taliban’ as they join government forces in Kabul on June 23 ahead of what is expected to be a major jihadist assault

A US soldier leaves his post in Afghanistan as American and NATO forces prepared for complete withdrawal on September 11 this year after two decades of conflict

Zabihullah (pictured), who goes by one name, was released from Bagram in 2020. He spent six years in the prison after he was accused of belonging to the faction of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a warlord designated a terrorist by the U.S

‘When someone mentions even the word Bagram I hear the screams of pain from the prison,’ said Zabihullah, who spent six years in Bagram, accused of belonging to the faction of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a warlord designated a terrorist by the US. At the time of his arrest it was an offence to belong to Hekmatyar’s party.

Zabihullah, who goes by one name, was released in 2020, four years after President Ashraf Ghani signed a peace deal with Hekmatyar.

Roggio says the status of the prison is a ‘major concern,’ noting that many of its prisoners are known Taliban leaders or members of militant groups, including al-Qaida and the Islamic State group. It’s believed about 7,000 detainees are still held there.

‘If the base falls and the prison is overrun, these detainees can bolster the ranks of these terror groups,’ Roggio said.

Source: Read Full Article