WASHINGTON: Keen to avoid a repeat of the Saigon fiasco and the traumatic pictures it yielded as Americans exited Vietnam in 1975, US forces on Friday quietly and abruptly packed up from the Bagram airbase outside Kabul and turned the facility over to the Afghan government.
The handover brought to an end, for now, Bagram’s status as a military hub for foreign intervention: The former Soviet Union controlled it for a decade from 1978 to 1988, and after a 13-year interregnum when various Afghan factions fought over it, the Americans occupied it for almost two decades after the 9/1 terrorist attack on the United States.
A spokesman for Afghanistan’s ministry of defense told reporters that the Afghan military “will protect the base and use it to combat terrorism,” even as there have been reports of Taliban overrunning several towns and districts amid projections by US analysts that Kabul itself could fall to within months.
The Taliban was restrained in its celebration notwithstanding the perception that the US exit was a victory for the fundamentalist forces, with its spokesman describing it as a “positive step” that would allow Afghans “to move closer to peace and security.”
US troops leave Bagram after two decades of war
American soldiers approach the United Nations planes on the tarmac of the Bagram airbase in Bagram.
An Afghan National Army soldier stands guard at a check post near Bagram US airbase, on the day the last of American troops vacated it, Parwan province, Afghanistan.
Many Americans saw it differently, including the US military leadership that eventually had to bow to a political decision. “Civil war is certainly a path that can be visualized if it continues on the trajectory it’s on. That should be a concern for the world.” General Austin Miller, the top US commander who led the US war in Afghanistan told reporters in what is expected to be the last US military briefing in Kabul.
Most other allied forces — from 36 countries — have already exited Afghanistan. The United States is expected to retain a contingent of around 650 troops to protect its embassy in Kabul. At the peak of the American presence, more than 100,000 US troops were scattered across the country, almost all entering and exiting through Bagram, which, about 70 km north of Kabul, was itself was something of a mini-city, featuring among other things, American fast food outlets.
Technically, the Biden administration’s deadline for full and complete withdrawal is September 11, the 20th anniversary of the terrorist event that led to the US invasion of Afghanistan. US analysts and planners who support the exit maintain that Washington has succeeded in eviscerating Al Qaeda, which carried out the attack and sending a strong message to the Taliban not to host them again. Skeptics warn that the Taliban will be back in control soon, and they will continue to patronize Al Qaeda and spin-offs such as ISIS.
“Biden’s Afghan pullout is an unforced error, likely to have very bad consequences. Trump began the process and would have carried it out even more recklessly. But this is on Biden, and all we who supported him can do is urge him, again, to reverse course,” the conservative commentator Bill Kristol said.
For now, the US plans to protect its interests in Afghanistan with what is called “over the horizon” missions – air support from aircraft carriers in the Arabian Sea and the Gulf, and bases in Qatar or UAE. Whether that will be effective, given that the US could not tame the Taliban even with troops on the ground over two decades, is doubtful.
The US lost close to 2400 troops in Afghanistan, with another 1000 casualties from coalition allies. Afghan casualties were many times the western toll.