US switched off the lights and left airbase without telling the Afghans

Bagram: The US 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.

Afghan military officials say they discovered the Americans’ departure more than two hours after they left.

Afghanistan’s army showed off the sprawling air base Monday, providing a rare first glimpse of what had been the epicentre of America’s war to unseat the Taliban and hunt down the al-Qaida perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks on America.

An Afghan army soldier walks past Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, MRAP, that were left after the American military left Bagram air base, in Parwan province north of Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, July 5, 2021. Credit:AP

The US announced last Friday that it had completely vacated its biggest airfield in the country in advance of a final withdrawal that the Pentagon says will be completed by the end of August.

“We (heard) some rumour 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,” General Mir Asadullah Kohistani, Bagram’s new commander said.

US military spokesman Colonel 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 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 US called from the Kabul airport and said “we are here at the airport in Kabul”.

Kohistani insisted the Afghan National Security and Defence Force could hold on to the heavily fortified base despite a string of Taliban wins on the battlefield. The airfield also includes a prison with about 5,000 prisoners, many of them allegedly Taliban.

An Afghan soldier plays a guitar that was left behind after the American military departed Bagram air base. Credit:AP

The Taliban’s latest surge comes as the last US and NATO forces pull out of the country. As of last week, most NATO soldiers had already quietly left. The last US soldiers are likely to remain until an agreement to protect the Kabul Hamid Karzai International Airport is completed.

Meanwhile, in northern Afghanistan, district after district has fallen to the Taliban. In just the last two days hundreds of Afghan soldiers fled across the border into Tajikistan rather than fight the insurgents.

“In battle it is sometimes one step forward and some steps back,” said Kohistani.

Kohistani said the Afghan military is changing its strategy to focus on the strategic districts. He insisted they would retake them in the coming days without saying how that would be accomplished.

Afghans carry the body of civilians killed during fighting between the Taliban and security forces, during their funeral in Badakhshan province on Sunday.Credit:AP

A massive facility the size of a small city was on display on Monday, one that had been exclusively used by the US 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. There’s a passenger lounge, a 50-bed hospital and giant hangar-size tents filled with supplies such as furniture.

Kohistani said the US left behind 3.5 million items, all itemised by the departing U.S. military. They include tens of thousands of bottles of water, energy drinks and military ready-made meals, known as MREs.

“When you say 3.5 million items, it is every small item, 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 armoured vehicles. Kohistani said the US. 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.

General Mir Kohistani on the things left behind by the US: “When you say 3.5 million items, it is every small item, like every phone, every door knob, every window in every barracks, every door in every barracks.”Credit:AP

Afghan soldiers who wandered through the base that had once seen as many as 100,000 troops were deeply critical of how the US left Bagram, leaving in the night without telling the Afghan soldiers tasked with patrolling the perimeter.

“In one night they lost all the good will 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 US’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 small army of looters, he said. They entered from the north smashing through the first barrier, ransacking buildings, loading anything that was not nailed down into trucks.

Afghan soldiers charged with guarding the base say they only knew the US troops had gone when the lights switched off. Credit:AP

On Monday, three days after the US 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 US 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.

AP

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