US military leaves Bagram Airfield in a major step in Biden’s Afghan withdrawal

KABUL, Afghanistan – U.S. forces on Friday left Afghanistan’s Bagram Airbase, once a busy mini-city that saw more than 100,000 U.S. soldiers pass through its gates, three senior U.S. officials told NBC News.

Two of the officials said the airfield had been handed over in its entirety to the Afghan National Security and Defense Forces early Friday.

The US officials, who were directly aware of the withdrawal, spoke to NBC News on condition of anonymity because the decision has not yet been officially announced.

The move is a sharp statement of intent on the part of President Joe Biden’s administration, and an indication that the remaining 2,500 to 3,500 U.S. troops have left or are about to leave the country, months before the president’s September 11 deadline.

In a speech to White House reporters later Friday, Biden said the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan is “on track,” but it will not be completed within the next few days. Some U.S. forces will still be in Afghanistan in September as part of a “rational downturn with our allies,” he added.

Officials from the US-backed Afghan government, which is heavily dependent on foreign aid, especially in light of ongoing Taliban victories across the country, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Afghanistan’s district administrator for Bagram, Darwaish Raufi, told The Associated Press that the US departure happened overnight without coordination with local officials, and as a result, early Friday, dozens of looters stormed through the unprotected gates.

The United States overthrew the Taliban in 2001 after the group protected Osama bin Laden, the founder of al-Qaeda and the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks. The US-led international mission was once full of promises, with armies and governments from around the world coming together in the wake of the attack on the United States and promising a brighter future for the war-torn country.

Nearly 20 years and billions of dollars in civilian and military aid later, some have questioned whether Afghanistan, one of the world’s poorest and most violent countries, is better off.

America’s longest war has claimed the lives of some 2,300 American soldiers, leaving thousands more wounded. More than 100,000 Afghans are estimated to have been killed or wounded since the conflict began.

The country is among the worst places in the world to be born as a woman, with high infant and maternal mortality rates. Millions of children, especially girls, do not go to school and the government of the country is generally considered to be riddled with corruption.

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But many in Afghanistan and the international community see a return of the Taliban as catastrophic for Afghan women, under militant rule some were banned from going to school and others were whipped and stoned for infidelity. In the last two decades, a generation of Afghan women and girls has flocked to schools, and many in urban centers have been able to go to work outside the home.

The Bagram exit is a major step in the midst of a broader withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan. In 2020, then-President Donald Trump promised that all U.S. forces would leave the country by May of last year. In a similar attempt to end America’s “forever wars”, Biden promised that US troops would leave Afghanistan by 9/11.

At its peak around 2012, Bagram Airfield saw more than 100,000 U.S. soldiers pass through its vast area about an hour’s drive north of the capital Kabul.

Home to a hospital and helicopter hangars, Bagram for much of the war also had a detention facility feared by Afghans, which some human rights groups compared to Guantanamo Bay. The plant was closed by US authorities in the country in 2014.

The departure is filled with symbolism. This is the second time an invading army has come and gone through the base after the Soviet Union built the installation in the 1950s. The Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989.

When the United States and NATO inherited Bagram years later, they found it in ruins and largely abandoned.

In response to the U.S. withdrawal from Bagram, members of the Afghan Taliban told NBC News on Friday that while waiting for an official announcement of the move, the outcome was a “result of our victims.”

The militants, however, had no immediate plans to try to capture the base, spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid added.

American soldiers enjoy Christmas lunch in Bagram December 25, 2006.Rafiq Maqbool / AP

Earlier this week, the United States’ top general in Afghanistan gave a sober assessment of the country’s deteriorating security situation as the United States dismantles its presence.

General Austin S. Miller told reporters on Tuesday that the rapid loss of districts around the country to the Taliban was worrying. He also warned that the militias deployed to help the national security forces could lead the country into civil war.

“A civil war is certainly a path that can be visualized if this continues on the path it is on right now,” Miller said. “That should worry the world.”

Some U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan, mainly to protect the sprawling embassy in Kabul and possibly the international airport, according to the State Department.

Richard Engel and Marc Smith reported from Kabul; Courtney Kube of Washington; Mushtaq Yusufzai from Peshawar, Pakistan; and Adela Suliman from London.

Mushtaq Yusufzai and Associated Press the contribution.

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