Americans Sneak Out of Bagram in Darkness
A shameful exit from an ill-conceived war.
AP: “US left Afghan airfield at night, didn’t tell new commander“
The U.S. 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 Monday, providing a rare first glimpse of what had been the epicenter of America’s war to unseat the Taliban and hunt down the al-Qaida perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks on America.
The U.S. announced Friday it had completely vacated its biggest airfield in the country in advance of a final withdrawal the Pentagon says will be completed by the end of August.
“We (heard) some rumor 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.
U.S. 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 hour’s 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 the U.S. called from the Kabul airport and said “we are here at the airport in Kabul.”
On display on Monday was a massive facility, the size of a small city, that had been exclusively used by the U.S. and NATO. The sheer size is extraordinary, with roadways weaving through barracks and past hangar-like buildings. There are two runways and over 100 parking spots for fighter jets known as revetments because of the blast walls that protect each aircraft. One of the two runways is 12,000 feet (3,660 meters) long and was built in 2006. There’s a passenger lounge, a 50-bed hospital and giant hangar-size tents filled with supplies such as furniture.
Kohistani said the U.S. left behind 3.5 million items, all itemized by the departing U.S. military. They include tens of thousands of bottles of water, energy drinks and military ready-made meals, known as MRE’s. “When you say 3.5 million items, it is every small items, like every phone, every door knob, every window in every barracks, every door in every barracks,” he said. The big ticket items left behind include thousands of civilian vehicles, many of them without keys to start them, and hundreds of armored vehicles. Kohistani said the U.S. also left behind small weapons and the ammunition for them, but the departing troops took heavy weapons with them. Ammunition for weapons not being left behind for the Afghan military was blown up before they left.
Afghan soldiers who wandered Monday throughout the base that had once seen as many as 100,000 U.S. troops were deeply critical of how the U.S. left Bagram, leaving in the night without telling the Afghan soldiers tasked with patrolling the perimeter.
“In one night, they lost all the goodwill of 20 years by leaving the way they did, in the night, without telling the Afghan soldiers who were outside patrolling the area,” said Afghan soldier Naematullah, who asked that only his one name be used.
Within 20 minutes of the U.S.’s silent departure on Friday, the electricity was shut down and the base was plunged into darkness, said Raouf, the soldier of 10 years who has also served in Taliban strongholds of Helmand and Kandahar provinces. The sudden darkness was like a signal to the looters, he said. They entered from the north, smashing through the first barrier, ransacking buildings, loading anything that was not nailed down into trucks.
On Monday, three days after the U.S. departure, Afghan soldiers were still collecting piles of garbage that included empty water bottles, cans and empty energy drinks left behind by the looters.
Kohistani, meanwhile, said the nearly 20 years of U.S. and NATO involvement in Afghanistan was appreciated but now it was time for Afghans to step up. “We have to solve our problem. We have to secure our country and once again build our country with our own hands,” he said.
This is simply shameful.
Certainly, one understands the reluctance to be fully transparent with Afghan forces, a not insignificant number of whom are Taliban sympathizers. Dozens of American soldiers and Marines have been killed in “green on blue” attacks by Afghan soldiers over the years.
Still, the vast majority of Afghan forces have taken great risks to be our partners in this enterprise. The least we could have done was a gradual handover of the base. And leaving the lights on as we left.
Beyond that, though, Bagram stands as a monument to an ill-conceived effort. We were unlikely to turn Afganistan into a nation-state, much less one modeled on Western ideals. But we certainly weren’t going to do it by building massive facilities that the country could never sustain on its own and that is in such stark contrast with the Afghan way of life.
UPDATE: A Facebook friend points out that the satirical website The Onion foreshadowed this a decade ago.
U.S. Quietly Slips Out Of Afghanistan In Dead Of Night – July 18, 2011
KABUL, AFGHANISTAN—In what officials said was the “only way” to move on from what has become a “sad and unpleasant” situation, all 100,000 U.S. military and intelligence personnel crept out of their barracks in the dead of night Sunday and quietly slipped out of Afghanistan.
U.S. commanders explained their sudden pullout in a short, handwritten note left behind at Bagram Airfield, their largest base of operations in the country.
“By the time you read this, we will be gone,” the note to the nation of Afghanistan read in part. “We regret any pain this may cause you, but this was something we needed to do. We couldn’t go on like this forever.”
“We still care about you very much, but, in the end, we feel this is for the best,” the note continued. “Please, just know that we are truly sorry and that we wish you all the greatest of happiness in the future.”
According to firsthand accounts, the 90,000 American troops stationed in Afghanistan lay in their beds pretending to be asleep until well after midnight Tuesday. They then reportedly tiptoed out to a fleet of awaiting Humvees, tanks, armored cars, and stealth aircraft; gently eased the doors shut; and departed as silently as possible so as not to wake the 30- million-person nation.
Gen. David Petraeus, outgoing commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, acknowledged that while finally leaving Afghanistan the way they did was perhaps not the “most ideal” way of ending things, emotions in the region had been running too high lately to consider any other alternative.
“We could have slowly and steadily withdrawn from Afghanistan, but trust me, that would have needlessly prolonged what we both knew deep down was an unhealthy, dead-end relationship,” Petraeus said. “And we just couldn’t bear to look the Afghan people in the eye and tell them flat out that we were packing up and leaving.”
“So we decided to sneak out the back through Tajikistan while the country was asleep,” Petraeus added. “We’re not proud of it, but it was the least painful option for everyone.”
According to Pentagon sources, years of growing resentment, deep-seated trust issues, and periods of outright hostility had taken their toll on the relationship, leaving both partners hardened and bitter. After reportedly taking a “long look in the mirror” last week, senior defense officials came to the conclusion that they had “wasted a decade of [their] lives” with Afghanistan, prompting them to finally seek an end to their dysfunctional and destructive long-term engagement.