Americans Sneak Out of Bagram in Darkness

A shameful exit from an ill-conceived war.

U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Evelyn Chavez

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.

FILED UNDER: Afghanistan War, Military Affairs, National Security
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. JohnMcC says:

    Was watching the TV news in April ’75, coverage of the collapse of the ARVN. There was a brief scan of Da Nang Airbase and it slowly slipped past the block of barracks where I’d lived. Deserted and waiting for the NVA.

    It was amazingly painful.

    Then the world kept on revolving on it’s axis and orbiting the sun and believing in the likelihood of finding leadership, honor and such just went away.
    I suppose forever.

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  2. OzarkHillbilly says:

    The least we could have done was a gradual handover of the base. And leaving the lights on as we left.

    I wonder who ordered otherwise.

  3. Kathy says:

    This is kind of a superpower feature, or bug, going back to when the Romans left Britain after centuries of domination.

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  4. Scott says:

    Once again, we are stomping around the world without understanding it. Just look at the language Americans (politicians, journalists, commentators, etc) use:

    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.

    No, our war was to hunt down the al-Qaeda perpetrators and then it turned into, after the fact, unseating the Taliban.

    Other writers continually make this war into Afghans vs Taliban. Another misrepresentation. Taliban are Afghans. This is a civil war. Just like Vietnam was. And we got sucked into it at huge cost of blood and treasure much to the delight of our larger geopolitical rivals.

    Glad we are out. If we could only get out of Iraq (another geopolitical mistake) and Syria, then maybe we can regroup and get a coherent foreign policy.

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  5. JohnSF says:

    @Scott:
    Taliban are almost exclusively Pushtuns; a particular group of Afghans.
    Largest ethnic group at c 40%, but not even the majority.
    Less than a tenth of Talibs are non-Pushtun.
    And in fact most are Ghilzai Pushtun, at that i.e. just one of the Pushtun subsets.

    And the primary advantage of the Taliban is their combination of solid Ghilzai tribal support, the religous zealotry of the hardcore fighters, and the unstinting financial, technical and logistic support of the Pakistan ISI/Army cadres.
    Most of said cadres aren’t Pushtun either, though some are, and lot of whom aren’t especially devout on the zealot scale: they have other motivations.

    Above all the Taliban and ISI are willing to kill and kill, and kill, to impose their dominance on Afghanistan.
    Most Afghans will have no choice but submission or death.

    And what would a coherent foreign policy look like anyway?
    Perhaps it could adopt a motto from Animal House: “Don’t make the mistake of trusting in our word.”

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  6. Stormy Dragon says:

    I think the fact the Afghan forces tasked with protecting the perimeter were unable to do so for even a few hours underlines both why we’re leaving and why we’re leaving the way we are.

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  7. JohnSF says:

    @Stormy Dragon:
    Unless the Afghan forces weren’t tasked with perimeter security but just the main gate.

  8. JohnSF says:

    @JohnSF:
    That is, they were only securing part of the perimeter, not all.
    IIRC from a convo with someone who’d been at Bastion, Afghan Army manned an area outside the main entry, thought better as less “intrusive”, plus (more cynically) most at risk.
    Talibs less likely to waste a bomber on the AA than on NATO.
    Both British and Afghan forces did wide patrols outside the perimeter.
    But the main British perimeter patrol was inside the wire.
    Between outer and inner fences IIRC.

    IIRC Bagram is even more massive in extent than Bastion.
    It would take a fair chunk of the entire Afghan army to man the entire perimeter.

  9. gVOR08 says:

    Shameful, but perhaps necessary. But in six months it will be a tiny detail in the collapse of the Afghan government.

  10. JohnMcC says:

    During the earlier period of the Afghan war lots of ink was spilled exploring the relationship between the various factions and the Pakistani ISI. Haven’t heard anything in the media about the Pakistan gov’t in the present. Just sayin’.

  11. JohnSF says:

    @JohnMcC:
    The ISI wants to keep its head down: why shout when you are winning? Also because their policy was not universally liked in Pakistan, even among the elites.
    The civilian leaderships(s) have tended to view the military as having a one track mind.
    And even in the military, some see the Taliban as too risky to be a partner.
    There was for instance a major, and murky, “blow back” of the “Pakistan Taliban”.

    Last month Pakistan’s Prime Minister Khan stated bluntly that Pakistan would not permit the US to use Pakistani territory to support any ongoing operations in Afghanistan.
    That’s one reason the Bagram evac is major: the US now seems to have little local basing for sustaining air operations any more.

    Also Khan for once said the quiet bit out loud:

    Khan explained the only leverage his country could use with the Taliban is that their families reside in Pakistan.

    Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid also told a local television network earlier this week that families of the Afghan Taliban live in the suburbs of Islamabad, the national capital. He added that “sometimes, dead bodies of the Taliban arrive in Pakistan, while wounded insurgents also are brought for treatment in local hospitals.”

    The whole business is enormously complicate.
    For instance, one reason the Taliban was happy to host lots of Islamic insurgent/terrorist groups was not (mainly) “former comrades in the Mujahedin” sentimentality.
    The Taliban came to power by happily slaughtering former mujahadin, and continued to do so on an industrial scale.

    It was partly Islamist fellow-feeling; but also the ISI were very interested in having a secure base, behind their own defense belt, but “deniable”, that could host “independent” Kashmiri militants for use in the simmering conflict with India. For which a general hosting of other groups provided a nice cover.
    Very clever. Not.

    (Arguably Islamabad and the Talibs were “lucky”: had the poster boys of Afghan jihad not been al Qaeda but a Chechen group who scored a mega-strike on Russia…)

    Incidentally, Afghan government, Pakistan and China recently concluded a summit. Outcome: ?

  12. JohnSF says:

    @JohnSF:
    Oh, and “the families live in the outskirts of Islamabad”
    And they are quite aware of it.
    Remind anyone of anyone?

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  13. R. Dave says:

    @James Joyner in OP: We were unlikely to turn Afganistan into a nation-state, much less one modeled on Western ideals.

    True, but I think it’s a mistake to make that the standard for whether it would be morally defensible to intervene and/or remain in an unstable or despotic foreign country or conflict when our own strategic interests aren’t really at stake. A line that’s always stuck with me is this from Razib Khan (which I believe was itself a repurposing of an earlier line from a former UN Secretary-General): “Intervention in some fashion may be inevitable in the world, but our goal should be to prevent hell, not to create heaven on earth. The former is possible, the latter is not.” By that standard, removing the Taliban regime in 2001 and continuing to maintain a relatively limited presence even now to prevent their return to power were and are justified, valuable, and eminently achievable goals.

    Also, from a purely self-interested perspective, having a large, well-equipped, and fully manned airbase smack in the middle between Iran, Russia and China seems like it actually would be pretty strategically valuable to the US over the coming years, no? Anyone with greater knowledge of the military capabilities and strategy (e.g., aircraft ranges, value of pre-staged equipment in that location, etc.) able to comment on whether Bagram would actually be useful in a conflict with any those three?

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  14. JohnSF says:

    @R. Dave:
    Precisely.
    Afghanistan is not, and cannot be made into, a “western” nation state (it might become, over a long period an “Asian” style “quasi-nation” state.
    For instance Tajiks and Pushtun are both Indo-European speakers and generally rather “Indo-Iranic” in looks and culture but generally not very fond of each other.
    Whereas Uzbeks, Turkmen and Kirgiz are speakers of the entirely disconnected Turko-Altaic languages, and often quite visibly Turkish Central Asian in looks and culture.
    Not to mention Hazara, who are Indo-Iranic but Shia.
    And the Nuristani who sometimes claim to be descendants of Alexander’s Greeks! (unlikely; the language seems to be Dardic Indo-Iranian)

    What the US might have achieved, and just possibly still could, is a conglomeration of cantons agreeing to leave each other alone, and maintain some minimal shared services.
    And compelling the ISI to get it’s damn fingers out of the pie.

  15. Michael Reynolds says:

    And compelling the ISI to get it’s damn fingers out of the pie.

    As long as we were in Afghanistan we couldn’t say anything to the ISI, they had their hands around our logistics jugular.

    Long term Afghanistan is strategically irrelevant. Long term Pakistan is a problem due to the mutual hatred between India and Pakistan. We gain nothing by getting along with Pakistan, it’s India we need on our side as a counterweight to China. We need to control the Indian Ocean and we can do that a whole lot easier with a strong Indian navy, and leases to some Indian bases.

    Once we’re out of Afghanistan we can tell Pakistan to drop dead. They’re already crawling into bed with China, let Beijing deal with their bullshit. Let’s see how much the Pashtuns like watching China strip-mine their mountains. We want to be selling arms and ships to India. We want to see Indian aircraft carriers and subs in the Indian Ocean.

  16. Teve says:

    @Michael Reynolds: I imagine part of the problem is that India is an extremely poor country. In terms of income it’s #122. The GDP per capita is around US $2,200.

  17. JohnSF says:

    @Michael Reynolds:
    Ideally, yes.
    However, Modi is liable to be an awkward partner.
    He’s rather impulsive, driven by internal party issues, and sometimes reckless.
    The best way to neuter the ISI-ist faction in Pakistan is to bolster internal counters.
    It’s not impossible; by a combination of coercion and bribery and coalition building Pakistan did give up the jihadis. At considerable cost: see the “Pakistan Taliban” insurgency.
    But Modi is likely to stamp on Pakistani corns and drive them toward China.
    While India and China are rivals, and China might like a sea base at Karachi, Pakistani Muslims and Chinese party-autocrats are not natural partners either.

    The main lure for Pakistan is due to their economic failure relative to India.
    India, after all, already has a carrier task force, and a 15 boat sub fleet, and is building a nuclear powered ballistic missile submarine.
    By comparison the Pakistani navy is a joke, and likely to remain so. as they simply don’t have the resources to compete.

    Ceding Afghanistan to the Talib/ISI axis, and Pakistan to Chinese alliance, allows the dominance of minority (20% max), but highly motivated and ruthless factions in both countries.
    It may be unavoidable; but it’s worth trying to avoid.

    As for strip mining the Hindu Kush: a lot of the mineral resources there are highly speculative.
    Unless the Chinese want a shitload of building rubble.
    And several of the best known mineral deposits are actually in non-Pushtun/anti-Taliban areas.
    Compare the mineralogy map to an ethnic/tribal one

  18. JohnSF says:

    @Teve:
    By global standards c.$2k isn’t extremely poor.
    It’s two to ten time the income levels of say central Africa.
    And growing formidably fast: after stagnating under “Indian autarky” approach from the 1940s to 80’s, it has climbed steeply post 2000.
    Most significantly it is about double Pakistan per capita.
    And crucially, regardless of individual poverty levels, it’s total GDP at $3.87 trillion and industrial/technical resources, puts it resources as a state firmly in the Power category.
    In the global top ten, roughly on a par with the UK and France, and ahead of Russia.
    Whereas Pakistan is around rank 45, on a par with say Colombia.
    In short, India can afford to be a Great Power (though not a USA or China class superpower); Pakistan cannot.
    Not long term.
    And that’s what gives Islamabad fits.

  19. Teve says:

    @JohnSF: Scott Galloway is fond of saying that Russia is just a mafia-run gas station posing as an economy. 😛

  20. JohnSF says:

    Actually, you don’t even need India for air/naval bases, though it’s nice to have a local defence net and high tech industrial infrastructure onside.
    But as a nuke carrier/sub naval power, Diego Garcia gives the USN a lot of what it requires.
    (And we don’t even charge you rent!)

    Though arguably best of all for Indian Ocean is Trincomalee in Sri Lanka; there’s a reason it was always the Royal Navy East Indies Station main Imperial base in the region.

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  21. JohnSF says:

    @Teve:

    “…a mafia-run gas station…”

    True but add “… with nukes.”
    The nukes really do count.

    Snarks aside though, Russia still comes in around number 11 or 12 (albeit counting Russian economics is very iffy). It’s within the regional Power category, economically; similar GDP to Australia or Brazil (not GDP per capita note; raw GDP is more important for hard power potential).

    The main thing though is that it’s a bare tenth of Chinese GDP, and about a twentieth of the USA. (and for that matter only a quarter of Germany or Japan).

    That’s why IMHO President Biden is treating Russia with relative disdain.
    They’re not a serious rival.
    China is.

  22. Michael Cain says:

    The press conference today might have been more embarrassing, since it was basically our military didn’t trust the Afghan Armed Forces to maintain operational or physical security if they knew when we were leaving.