Bagram and its role in Afghanistan's decades of conflict

Abandoned by the Soviets and now the Americans, Bagram has played a pivotal role in the country's modern history

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For nearly 20 years, Bagram Airfield was the heart of American military power in Afghanistan, a sprawling mini-city behind fences and blast walls an hour’s drive north of Kabul.

Initially, it was a symbol of the US drive to avenge the September 11, 2001 attacks, then of its struggle for a way through the ensuing war with the Taliban. Here is a look at the history of the base.

Who built the base?

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 to defend its occupation of the country.

For 10 years, the Soviets fought the US-backed mujahideen, described as freedom fighters by Ronald Reagan, who was US president at the time and saw them as a front-line force in one of the last Cold War battles.

In 1989, the Soviet Union negotiated its withdrawal. Three years later, the pro-Moscow government collapsed and the mujahideen took power, only to turn their weapons on each other and kill thousands of civilians. That turmoil brought to power the Taliban, who overran Kabul in 1996.

The US and Nato presence

When the US 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 mujahideen warlords fleeing to their northern enclaves.

After dislodging the Taliban from Kabul, the US-led coalition began working with their warlord allies to rebuild Bagram, first with temporary structures that then turned permanent. Its growth was explosive, eventually swallowing up roughly 80 square kilometres.

“The closure of Bagram is a major symbolic and strategic victory for the Taliban,” said Bill Roggio, senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defence of Democracies.

“If the Taliban is able to take control of the base, it will serve as anti-US propaganda fodder for years to come,” said Mr Roggio, who is also editor of the foundation’s Long War Journal.

Jonathan Schroden, of the US-based research and analysis organisation CNA, estimates that well over 100,000 people spent significant time at Bagram over the past two decades.

US troops leave Bagram air base

US troops leave Bagram air base

What is the military significance of Bagram?

The enormous base has two runways. The most recent, at 3,600 metres 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 theatres and a modern dental clinic. There are also fitness centres and fast food restaurants. Another section houses a prison, notorious and feared among Afghans.

The prison in the base was handed over to the Afghans in 2012, and they will continue to operate it. In the early years of the war, for many Afghans, Bagram became synonymous with fear, next only to Guantanamo Bay, and parents would threaten their crying children with the prison.

Mr Roggio says the status of the prison is a “major concern”, noting that many of its prisoners are known Taliban leaders or members of militant groups, including Al Qaeda and ISIS. It is believed about 7,000 people are still being held in the prison.

What does the pullout mean for locals?

For Afghans in Bagram district, a region of more than 100 villages supported by orchards and farming fields, the base has been a major supplier of employment. The US withdrawal affects nearly every household, said Darwaish Raufi, district governor.

The Americans have been giving the Afghan military some weaponry and other material. Anything else that they are not taking, they are destroying and selling it to scrap dealers around Bagram. US officials say they must ensure nothing usable can ever fall into Taliban hands.

Last week, the US military’s Central Command said it had junked 14,790 pieces of equipment and sent 763 C-17 aircraft loaded with material out of Afghanistan.

Bagram villagers say they hear explosions from inside the base — apparently the result of Americans destroying buildings and material.

Mr Raufi said many villagers have complained to him about the US leaving their junk behind.

“There’s something sadly symbolic about how the US has gone about leaving Bagram. The decision to take so much away and destroy so much of what is left speaks to the US urgency to get out quickly,” said Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Programme at the US-based Wilson Centre.

“It’s not the kindest parting gift for Afghans, including those taking over the base,” he said.

Inevitably, comparisons to the former Soviet Union have arisen.

AP contributed to this report

Updated: July 02, 2021, 4:50 PM