American forces left Afghanistan’s Bagram Airfield over the weekend without notifying the new commander from the Kabul government — giving looters precious time to swipe anything that was not bolted down, shocking photos show.
The US announced Friday that it had vacated Bagram as part of a final withdrawal the Pentagon says will be completed by the end of August. It is Afghanistan’s largest airfield and was the hub of America’s 20-year campaign to remove the Taliban from government, track down Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda cohorts, and keep the country’s fragile elected government in place amid a Taliban resurgence.
However, they apparently forgot to tell the Afghans, cutting the electricity within 20 minutes of their departure and plunging the base into darkness. That acted as a “go” signal for teams of looters who smashed through the north gate and ransacked barracks and storage tents before security forces who had been patrolling the perimeter managed to evict them.
“We (heard) some rumor that the Americans had left Bagram … and finally by seven o’clock in the morning, we understood that it was confirmed that they had already left Bagram,” said new base commander Gen. Mir Asadullah Kohistani.
“In one night they [the Americans] lost all the good will of 20 years by leaving the way they did, in the night, without telling the Afghan soldiers who were outside patrolling the area,” one Afghan soldier, who identified himself only as Naematullah, told the Associated Press.
“At first we thought maybe they were Taliban,” another soldier, a 10-year veteran named Abdul Raouf, said of the looters. Raouf went on to claim American forces called from the international airport in Kabul — an hour’s drive south of Bagram — to inform their Afghan counterparts that they had left the base.
On Monday, when Afghan forces opened the airfield to the world’s media, soldiers were still collecting piles of garbage that included empty water bottles, cans and empty energy drinks left behind by the looters.
Outside the base gates, scrap dealers and vendors were photographed hawking items left behind by the departing Americans, including basketballs, bicycles and helmets, electric fans, noise-canceling headphones — even laundry detergent.
US military spokesman Col. Sonny Leggett did not address the specific complaints by Afghan soldiers, instead referring to a statement sent out last week.
That statement said the handover had been in the 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 the US forces had coordinated their departures with Afghanistan’s leaders.
Kohistani said the Americans left behind 3.5 million items, a number that he said includes “every phone, every door knob, every window in every barracks, every door in every barracks.”
It also includes thousands of civilian vehicles — many of them without keys to start them — and hundreds of armored vehicles. Kohistani said the US also left behind small weapons and the ammunition for them, but the departing troops took heavy weapons with them. Ammunition for weapons not being left behind for the Afghan military was blown up before they left.
The Afghan security forces are also inheriting a prison on the airfield premises that holds about 5,000 detainees, many of them allegedly Taliban.
Kohistani insisted the Afghan National Security and Defense Force could hold on to the heavily fortified base, despite more reports of battlefield setbacks for the Kabul government. In northern Afghanistan, district after district has fallen to the Taliban, with hundreds of Afghan soldiers fleeing across the border into Tajikistan rather than fighting the insurgents.
“In battle it is sometimes one step forward and some steps back,” said Kohistani, who vowed security forces would recapture certain strategic districts in the coming days without saying how this would be done.
“We [Afghans] have to solve our problem,” the commander said. “We have to secure our country and once again build our country with our own hands.”
With Post wires
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