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, who discovered the Americans’ departure more than two hours after they left, Afghan military officials said.
Afghanistan’s army showed off the sprawling airbase on Monday, providing a rare first glimpse of what had been the centre of America’s war.
The US announced on Friday it had completely vacated its biggest airfield in the country in advance of a final withdrawal which the Pentagon says will be completed by the end of August.
“We [heard] some rumour that the Americans had left Bagram … and finally by 7am, we understood that it was confirmed that they had already left” Gen Mir Asadullah Kohistani, Bagram’s new commander, said.
US military spokesman Col Sonny Leggett did not address the specific complaints of Afghan soldiers who inherited the abandoned airfield, instead referring to a statement last week.
The statement said the handover of the many bases had been in 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 barracks and storage tents before being evicted, according to Afghan military officials.
Kohistani insisted the Afghan forces could hold on to the heavily fortified base despite a string of Taliban victories on the battlefield. The airfield also includes a prison with about 5,000 prisoners, many of them allegedly Taliban.
The militants’ 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 airport, which is expected to be undertaken by Turkey, 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.
The general 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.
On display on Monday was a massive facility, the size of a small city, that had been exclusively used by the US and Nato.
Kohistani said the US left behind 3.5m objects, all itemised by the departing military. They include tens of thousands of water bottles, energy drinks and military ready-made meals.
They also 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.
The Afghan soldiers who wandered through the base that had once seen as many as 100,000 US troops were deeply critical of how they had left Bagram, going in the night without telling the Afghan soldiers who were patrolling the perimeter.
“In one night, they lost all the goodwill of 20 years by leaving the way they did,” said Naematullah, an Afghan soldier 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 Abdul Raouf, a 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 looters, he said. They entered from the north, smashing through the first barrier, ransacking buildings, loading anything that was not nailed down into trucks.
On Monday, three days after the US departure, Afghan soldiers were still collecting piles of rubbish that included empty water bottles, cans and empty energy drinks left behind by the looters.