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US troops leave largest military base in Afghanistan after 20 years of failure

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
An American soldier on a CH-47 Chinook helicopter flying over Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital, in May 2021. (Photo by NYT)

Twenty years after invading Afghanistan, US-led coalition troops have vacated the largest military base in the war-torn country, located in the ancient city of Bagram, about 45 miles north of Kabul.

The sprawling airfield, which was once the epicenter of US military operations in Afghanistan, was on Friday formally handed over to the Afghan forces, according to media reports, quoting officials.

The massive airfield with two runways, 110 revetments, three large hangars, a control tower and many support buildings was the main entry point for tens of thousands of foreign troops that came to Afghanistan over the past 20 years. It was also the exit point for nearly 2,000 US service members killed in the fighting.

The base occasionally came under the target of Taliban attacks, which included suicide bombings and rocket attacks, putting at risk many residential areas in its vicinity.

At its peak in mid-2011, nearly 100,000 US troops passed through the compound, apart from some 35,000 US contractors, which have now plummeted to 2,500 troops and 18,000 contractors.

The full withdrawal of some 2,500 US troops from the country is expected to complete by mid or late July, ahead of US President Joe Biden’s September 11 deadline.

It is the second time in recent history that an invading army has come and gone through Bagram. The air base was built by the Soviet Union in 1950s. When it invaded Afghanistan in 1979 to back a communist government, it turned it into its main military base in the country.  

For about 10 years, the Soviets fought the US-backed mujahedeen, whom then-US President Ronald Reagan called ‘freedom fighters’. Some of them would later fight the US and become ‘terrorists’.

The hushed departure of US and NATO forces from their most significant military base in the country comes amidst resurgence of the Taliban and the unprecedented spike in violence.

Experts see it as a symbolic victory for the Taliban, who have upped the ante in recent months, overrunning a large number of districts across the country. The quiet exit also signifies the defeat for US-led coalition forces after 20 years of occupation.

Most NATO troops have already left the country, without pomp or ceremony, in stark contrast to their dramatic emergence in 2001, when they lined up to back the US-led invasion.

The coalition agreed in April to pull out its 7,000 forces from Afghanistan, and 19 countries have announced troop withdrawals totaling more then 4,800. Germany and Italy declared their missions in Afghanistan over on Wednesday and Poland’s last troops have returned home.

The US military, however, is expected to keep about 650 troops in the war-ravaged country, on the pretext of protecting its large embassy in Kabul, while keeping the option of airstrikes open.

According to reports, Gen. Scott Miller, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, will fly out, and his role will be taken over by Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, the top US commander for Middle East, who is based in Florida.

The new US commander in Afghanistan will be Navy Rear Adm. Peter Vasely, who will head the security mission at the US Embassy in Kabul, according to reports.  

In his final press conference in Kabul earlier this week, Miller spoke at length about the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan.

He noted the rapid loss of districts around the country to the Taliban and warned that “a civil war is certainly a path that can be visualized if this continues on the trajectory it’s on right now, that should be of concern to the world.”

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