Bagram, Afghanistan – For nearly 20 years, Bagram Air Base was the heart of American military power in Afghanistan, a small large city surrounded by fences and bomb walls an hour’s drive north of Kabul. What was at first a symbol of the United States’ campaign to avenge the attacks of September 11, 2001, became the center of the war against the Taliban.
In the next few days the last American soldiers will leave Bagram. They leave what everyone who has had a relationship with the base, American or Afghan, considers a bittersweet heritage.
“Bagram became such a gigantic military installation that, like few other bases in Afghanistan and even Iraq, it became a symbol and example of the phrase ‘mission expansion,'” said Andrew Watkins, senior Afghanistan analyst at the International Crisis Group. based in Brussels.RELATED
The Central Command said last week that the shutdown is more than 50% complete and is progressing rapidly. US officials have said the full withdrawal will end by July 4, America’s Independence Day. Afghan forces will occupy Bagram to continue the fight against the Taliban, and what many fear will be a further slide into chaos.
The game is full of symbols. One of them, and not the least, is that for the second time an invader from Afghanistan passes through Bagram.
The Soviet Union built the air base in the 1950s. Invading Afghanistan in 1979 to support a communist government, it used it as a main base to defend the country’s occupation. For nearly 10 years, the Soviets fought the Mujahideen, called freedom fighters by President Ronald Reagan, who saw them as a front-line force in one of the last battles of the Cold War.
The Soviet Union negotiated their withdrawal in 1989. Three years later, the pro-Moscow government collapsed and the Mujahideen seized power, but then clashed with each other and killed thousands of civilians. In that chaos, the Taliban came to power, taking Kabul in 1996.
Inheriting Bagram in 2001, the United States and NATO found it in ruins, a collection of ramshackle buildings, filled with rocket and bullet holes, with most of the perimeter fence destroyed. It was the result of battles between the Taliban and rival warlords who withdrew to their enclaves in the north.
After evicting the Taliban from Kabul, the coalition, with the collaboration of allied warlords, began rebuilding Bagram, initially with temporary structures that became permanent. Its growth was explosive, occupying almost 80 square kilometers.
“The closure of Bagram is a great symbolic and strategic victory for the Taliban,” said Bill Roggio, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.
“If the Taliban succeeds in taking control of the base, it will serve to fuel their propaganda for years,” said Roggio, who runs the foundation’s publication.
It would also be like winning the military lottery.
The large base has two runways. The most recent, 13,120 feet long, was built in 2006 at a cost of $ 96 million. There are 110 places to park airplanes, protected by bomb walls. GlobalSecurity, which studies security issues, says there are three huge hangars, a control tower and several ancillary buildings. The base has a 50-bed hospital, three operating rooms and a modern dental clinic. There are equipped gyms and fast food restaurants. In another sector there is a prison, hated and feared by the Afghans.
Jonathan Schroden of the American Institute for Research and Analysis CNA estimates that more than 100,000 people spent significant time at Bagram over the past 20 years. “Bagram served as the basis for the warfare experience of a large sector of military personnel and contractors in Afghanistan,” said Schroden.
For Afghans in the Bagram district, a region of more than 100 villages that live off their fruit orchards and crops, the base has been a great source of jobs. The American withdrawal affects almost every family, according to District Governor Darwaish Raufi.
The Americans have delivered some weapons and supplies to the Afghan army. What they don’t take, they destroy and sell to the scrap dealers around Bagram. Nothing usable should fall into the hands of the Taliban, they say.
Raufi says that many villagers have complained about the fact that Americans leave their scrap metal.
“There is something sadly symbolic about the way the United States has left Bagram. The decision to take so much and destroy so much of what remains reveals the urgency with which the United States wants to leave, ”said analyst Michael Kugelman of the Wilson Center.
“It is not the best starting gift for Afghans, even those who will occupy the base.”
Roggio says the status of the prison is a “great concern” as many of the prisoners are Taliban leaders or members of Al Qaeda, the Islamic State and other militias. There are believed to be about 7,000 inmates in jail.
“If the base falls and they occupy the prison, those detainees can join the ranks of terrorist groups,” he said.