The US military has almost completed its withdrawal from Afghanistan, officials said on Tuesday, after the last American forces left the Bagram airbase outside Kabul.
The pace of the US departure from Afghanistan, where an entire generation has grown up under a foreign military presence, has astonished many in the battered country. For nearly two decades, beleaguered local forces have relied to a major extent on western support but are now being left to fend for themselves in the face of sweeping Taliban advances.
“We have completed more than 90 per cent of the entire withdrawal process,” US Central Command said.
President Joe Biden in April said American troops would be out of Afghanistan by September 11 — the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks that precipitated the US-led invasion — but the withdrawal appears to be a few weeks ahead of schedule.
“We expect it to be completed by the end of August,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said last week.
Since Mr Biden's decision to end America's longest war, the Pentagon has “retrograded” — or withdrawn — the equivalent of about 1,000 C-17 cargo planes filled with equipment while dumping thousands of tonnes of gear in Afghanistan. With the Bagram departure, the US has now officially handed over its seven facilities to the Afghan military.
The Bagram withdrawal took place on Friday with no fanfare and US forces did not tell local partners the final hour of their departure, underscoring the desperate fragility of Afghanistan's security.
Afghan military officials told The Associated Press they were not given prior notice for the Bagram evacuation. Instead, electricity was shut off and US forces slipped away in the night.
“We [heard] some rumour 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 Gen Mir Asadullah Kohistani, Bagram’s new commander.
On Tuesday, the Pentagon insisted it had coordinated with Afghan authorities but did not provide the exact hour of the final US departure from the base for security reasons.
“This wasn’t done in a vacuum,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said.
“Afghan leaders — civilian and military — were appropriately coordinated with and briefed about the turnover of Bagram Airbase.”
Still, some Afghans were astonished that local military commanders seemed to have been caught flat-footed by the American departure.
“This is Afghan territory and the responsibility of the Afghan government. The incident [at Bagram Airbase] shows how the government does not know anything and has been corrupted,” said Aemal Sanjeeda, an Afghan now living in the US.
“I’m not saying that all high-ranking officials in the Afghan Army or government are corrupt, but the majority are corrupt and the US government knows who they are,” he told The National.
The Afghan military has for years struggled with endemic graft, poorly resourced troops, high absenteeism and low morale, as well as a string of insider attacks.
Few western diplomats hold out any hope the security forces will be able to stand on their own against a resurgent Taliban that appear to have battlefield momentum and motivation on their side.