BAGRAM, Afghanistan (AP) – For nearly 20 years, Bagram Airfield has been the heart of US military might in Afghanistan, a sprawling mini-city behind fences and blast walls just an hour’s drive away north of Kabul. It was initially a symbol of the United States’ desire for revenge for the 9/11 attacks, and then of its struggle to fight its way through the ensuing war with the Taliban.
In a few days, the last American soldiers will leave Bagram. They leave what probably all those connected to the base, whether American or Afghan, consider a mixed legacy.
“Bagram has grown into such a massive military installation that, like few other bases in Afghanistan and even Iraq, it has come to symbolize and epitomize the phrase ‘mission drift’,” said Andrew Watkins, Senior analyst in Afghanistan for the international crisis based in Brussels. Group.
The United States Central Command said last week it was well over 50% of its baggage and the rest was moving fast. U.S. officials have said the entire U.S. troop withdrawal will most likely be completely complete by July 4. The Afghan military will then retake Bagram as part of its continued struggle against the Taliban – and what many in the country fear is yet another eruption of chaos.
The departure is loaded with symbolism. Notably, this is the second time that an invader from Afghanistan has passed through Bagram.
The Soviet Union built the airfield in the 1950s. When it invaded Afghanistan in 1979 to support a Communist government, it made it its main base from which it would defend its occupation of the country. For 10 years, the Soviets fought the US-backed Mujahedin, dubbed the Freedom Fighters by President Ronald Reagan, who saw them as a frontline force in one of the last battles of the Cold War.
The Soviet Union negotiated its withdrawal in 1989. Three years later, the pro-Moscow government collapsed and the Mujahedin took power, to turn on each other and kill thousands of civilians. This turmoil brought to power the Taliban who invaded Kabul in 1996.
When the United States and NATO inherited Bagram in 2001, they found it in ruins, a crumbling complex of buildings, carved out by rockets and shells, most of its perimeter fence destroyed. It had been abandoned after being defeated in battles between the Taliban and rival Mujahedin warlords fleeing to their northern enclaves.
After dislodging the Taliban from Kabul, the US-led coalition began working with its warlord allies to rebuild Bagram, first with temporary structures which then became permanent. Its growth was explosive, eventually swallowing up around 30 square miles.
“The closure of Bagram is a major symbolic and strategic victory for the Taliban,” said Bill Roggio, senior researcher at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.
“If the Taliban can take control of the base, it will serve as fodder for anti-American propaganda for years to come,” said Roggio, also editor of the foundation’s Long War Journal.
It would also be a military boon.
The huge base has two tracks. The most recent, 12,000 feet long, was built in 2006 at a cost of $ 96 million. There are 110 pavements, which are essentially parking spaces for airplanes, protected by blast walls. GlobalSecurity, a security think tank, says Bagram includes three large hangars, a control tower and numerous support buildings. The base has a 50-bed hospital with a trauma room, three operating rooms and a modern dental clinic. There are also fitness centers and fast food outlets. Another section houses a prison, notorious and feared by Afghans.
Jonathan Schroden, of the US-based research and analysis organization CNA, estimates that more than 100,000 people have spent significant time at Bagram over the past two decades. “Bagram laid the groundwork for the wartime experience of much of the US military and contractors who served in Afghanistan,” said Schroden, director of the Center for Stability and Development at CNA.
“The departure of the last American troops from there will probably serve as the last page turn for many of these people when it comes to their stay in this country,” he said.
For Afghans in Bagram district, an area of more than 100 villages supported by orchards and agricultural fields, the base has been a major source of employment. The US withdrawal affects almost every household, said Darwaish Raufi, district governor.
The Americans supplied the Afghan army with weapons and other materials. Anything they don’t take they destroy and sell to scrap dealers around Bagram. U.S. officials say they must make sure nothing usable ever falls into the hands of the Taliban.
Last week, the U.S. Central Command said it had thrown 14,790 pieces of equipment and sent 763 loaded C-17 planes out of Afghanistan. Villagers in Bagram say they heard explosions inside the base, apparently Americans destroying buildings and equipment.
Raufi said many villagers complained to him that the United States only left their junk behind.
“There is something sadly symbolic about the way the United States left Bagram. The decision to take so much and destroy so much of what’s left is a testament to the urgency of the United States to get out quickly, ”said Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia program at the US-based Wilson Center.
“This is not the kindest farewell gift for Afghans, including those taking over the base,” he said.
Inevitably, comparisons with the former Soviet Union arose.
Retired Afghan General Saifullah Safi, who worked alongside US forces in Bagram, said the Soviets left all their equipment when they withdrew. They “didn’t take much with them, just the vehicles they needed to bring their soldiers back to Russia,” he said.
The base prison was handed over to the Afghans in 2012, and they will continue to operate it. In the early years of the war, for many Afghans, Bagram became synonymous with fear, right next to Guantanamo Bay. Parents would threaten their crying children with jail.
During the first years of the invasion, Afghans often disappeared for months without any information being given of their fate until the International Red Committee of the Red Cross located them in Bagram. Some have returned home with accounts of torture.
“When someone even mentions the word Bagram, I hear the cries of pain from the prison,” said Zabihullah, who spent six years in Bagram, accused of belonging to the faction of warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar designated as terrorist by the United States at the time. of his arrest, it was an offense to belong to Hekmatyar’s party.
Zabihullah, who bears a name, was released in 2020, four years after President Ashraf Ghani signed a peace deal with Hekmatyar.
Roggio says the prison’s status is a “major concern,” noting that many of its prisoners are known Taliban leaders or members of militant groups, including al-Qaida and the Islamic State group. It is believed that around 7,000 prisoners are still in prison.
“If the base falls and the prison is overrun, these inmates can strengthen the ranks of these terrorist groups,” Roggio said.