As American Forces Leave Afghanistan’s Bagram Airbase After 20 Years, Criticisms Abound

As of 2 July, American military forces officially left Afghanistan’s Bagram airbase, located 30 miles north of Kabul. Control was transferred to the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces in a ceremony on the third, ending 20 continuous years of its occupation by the United States. This withdrawal of American troops, as well as those of NATO allies, is the clearest sign that international involvement in Afghanistan is winding down, with the responsibility for Afghanistan’s counterinsurgency being shifted to the Afghan military. However, the U.S. withdrawal is already being criticized as the Taliban seize control of key districts in Afghanistan’s north.

In Washington, DC, U.S. President Joe Biden said that after 20 years of support, he expects Afghanistan’s government leaders and military will handle rising attacks by the Taliban. He said “[T]hey have the capacity to be able to sustain the government,” and that more negotiations are needed. He said he was also “concerned that they deal with the internal issues.” Afghan General Mir Asadullah Kohistani, newly in command of Bagram airfield, concurred with Joe Biden, saying “[W]e have to solve our problem.”

Afghan military officials have criticized the U.S. withdrawal from the region, accusing them of failing to communicate properly. On 5 July, officials announced the departure from Bagram without notifying Kohistani, who did not discover it until two hours after the Americans had left. Before the Afghan army could take control of the airfield, a group of looters managed to gain access, rummage through storage tents, and ransack barracks. Afghan soldiers who spoke to The Associated Press revealed their disappointment – Naematullah, a soldier who asked that only one name be used, told reporters, “[I]n one night they 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.”

Afghan civilians hold mixed views on the withdrawal. Malek Mir, a mechanic in Bagram who saw Soviet and then American forces come and go, said he was deeply saddened by the lacking foreign presence. “[T]hey came with bombing the Taliban and got rid of their regime.” Since they left “when the Taliban are so empowered… they will take over any time soon.” Fears of Taliban control are reiterated by Kabul shopkeepers. One highlighted that many people are worried about a Taliban takeover in the absence of foreign forces, asking “[T]hen what will we do?” However, not all civilians believe the withdrawal is bad. A Bagram shop owner, Sayed Naqibullah highlighted American failures in “containing the Taliban or corruption.” Some Afghans became wealthy, but many live in extreme poverty. As a result, he concluded “we’re happy they’ve gone.”

Over 3,500 foreign troops were killed in a two-decade war, which has claimed more than 100,000 civilian lives since 2009, according to United Nations records. While the withdrawal of American (and NATO) forces seems to mark the end of the international conflict, it appears that civil war in Afghanistan will rage on for some time. Currently, the Taliban contains approximately a third of all 421 districts and district centers in Afghanistan, with recent conflict in the nation’s north and southern province of Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban. The group appears to be making rapid gains throughout the country, and this raises concerns that they will be able to regain political control of vast swathes of the nation 20 years after they were initially ousted from power.