After nearly 20 years, the U.S. military left Bagram Airfield, the epicenter of its war to oust the Taliban and hunt down the al-Qaida perpetrators of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on America, two U.S. officials said Friday.
The airfield was handed over to the Afghan National Security and Defense Force in its entirety, they said on condition they not be identified because they were not authorized to release the information to the media.
One of the officials also said the U.S. top commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Austin S. Miller, “still retains all the capabilities and authorities to protect the forces.”
A senior U.S. military official, with direct knowledge of the withdrawal, confirmed to NBC News that all coalition forces were off Bagram Air Base.
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Miller met Afghan President Ashraf Ghani Friday and according to a Dari-language tweet by the presidential palace the two discussed “continued U.S. assistance and cooperation with Afghanistan, particularly in supporting the defense and security forces."
There were no specifics but the U.S. is already committed to paying nearly $4 billion annually until 2024 to finance the Afghani national security forces. While no one was calling Miller’s visit a farewell, in the backdrop of the evacuation of Bagram Airfield it had the hallmarks of a goodbye.
Meanwhile, Afghanistan's district administrator for Bagram, Darwaish Raufi, said the American departure was done overnight without any coordination with local officials, and as a result early Friday dozens of local looters stormed through the unprotected gates before Afghan forces regained control.
“They were stopped and some have been arrested and the rest have been cleared from the base,” Raufi told The Associated Press, adding that the looters ransacked several buildings before being arrested and the Afghan National Security and Defense Forces (ANDSF) took control.
“Unfortunately the Americans left without any coordination with Bagram district officials or the governor's office," Raufi said. "Right now our Afghan security forces are in control both inside and outside of the base.”
The deputy spokesman for the defense minister, Fawad Aman, said nothing of the early morning looting. He said only the base has been handed over and the “ANDSF will protect the base and use it to combat terrorism."
The Taliban too welcomed the American withdrawal from Bagram Airfield. In a tweet by spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, they called it a “positive step," urging for the “withdrawal of foreign forces from all parts of the country.”
The previous U.S. administration had signed an agreement with the Taliban promising to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan.
The withdrawal from Bagram Airfield is the clearest indication that the last of the 2,500-3,500 U.S. troops have left Afghanistan or are nearing a departure, months ahead of President Joe Biden's promise that they would be gone by Sept. 11.
It was clear soon after the mid-April announcement that the U.S. was ending its “forever war,” that the departure of U.S. soldiers and their estimated 7,000 NATO allies would be nearer to July 4, when America celebrates its Independence Day.
Most NATO soldiers have already quietly exited as of this week. Announcements from several countries analyzed by The Associated Press show that a majority of European troops has now left with little ceremony — a stark contrast to the dramatic and public show of force and unity when NATO allies lined up to back the U.S. invasion in 2001.
The U.S. has refused to say when the last U.S. soldier would leave Afghanistan, citing security concerns, but also the protection of Kabul's Hamid Karzai International Airport is still being negotiated. Turkish and U.S. soldiers currently are protecting the airport. That protection is currently covered under the Resolute Support Mission, which is the military mission being wound down.
Until a new agreement for the airport's protection is negotiated between Turkey and the Afghan government, and possibly the United States, the Resolute Support mission would appear to have to continue in order to give international troops the legal authority.
The U.S. will also have about 650 troops in Afghanistan to protect its sprawling embassy in the capital. Their presence it is understood will be covered in a bilateral agreement with the Afghan government.
The U.S. and NATO leaving comes as Taliban insurgents make strides in several parts of the country, overrunning dozens of districts and overwhelming beleaguered Afghan security Forces.
In a worrying development, the government has resurrected militias with a history of brutal violence to assist the Afghan security forces. At what had all the hallmarks of a final press conference, Gen. Miller this week warned that continued violence risked a civil war in Afghanistan that should have the world worried.
At its peak around 2012, Bagram Airfield saw more than 100,000 U.S. troops pass through its sprawling compound barely an hour's drive north of the Afghan capital Kabul.
The departure is rife with symbolism. Not least, it’s the second time that an invader of Afghanistan has come and gone through Bagram.
The Soviet Union built the airfield in the 1950s. When it invaded Afghanistan in 1979 to back a communist government, it turned it into its main base from which it would defend its occupation of the country. For 10 years, the Soviets fought the U.S.-backed mujahedeen, dubbed freedom fighters by President Ronald Reagan, who saw them as a front-line force in one of the last Cold War battles.
When the U.S. and NATO inherited Bagram in 2001, they found it in ruins, a collection of crumbling buildings, gouged by rockets and shells, most of its perimeter fence wrecked. It had been abandoned after being battered in the battles between the Taliban and rival mujahedeen warlords fleeing to their northern enclaves.
The enormous base has two runways. The most recent, at 12,000 feet long, was built in 2006 at a cost of $96 million. There are 110 revetments, which are basically parking spots for aircraft, 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 bay, three operating theaters and a modern dental clinic. Another section houses a prison, notorious and feared among Afghans.
There was no immediate comment from Afghan officials as to the final withdrawal from Bagram Airfield by the U.S. and its NATO allies.
Associated Press Writer Lolita Baldor in Washington, Farid Tanha, in Bagram, Afghanistan and Rahim Faiez in Kabul, Afghanistan contributed to this report.