For close to 20 years, Bagram Airfield was the heart of American military power in Afghanistan, a sprawling mini-city behind fences and blast walls just an hour’s drive north of Kabul.
It was initially a symbol of the US drive to avenge the 9/11 attacks and then of its struggle for a way through the ensuing war with the Taliban.
Now, in just a matter of days, the last US soldiers will have departed Bagram.
They are leaving what probably everyone connected to the base – whether American or Afghan – considers a strained legacy.
US Central Command said last week it is well past 50 per cent packing up Bagram and the rest is going fast. American officials have said the entire pullout of US troops will most likely be completely finished by July 4.
The Afghan military will then take over Bagram as part of its continuing fight against the Taliban – and against what many in the country fear will be a new eruption of chaos.
As the withdrawal date for the US troops approaches, thousands of Afghan translators now face being left stranded because they haven’t yet been accepted for a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) into America.
Up to 18,000 translators and interpreters are under constant fear of deadly attacks from the Taliban and have been run out of their homes because of their support for the American government over the last 20 years.
AMERICANS WITHDRAW: Within days, the last US soldiers will depart Bagram (pictured: US troops load up helicopter onto a C-17 Globesmaster at Bagram on June 16). They are leaving what probably everyone connected to the base, whether American, British or Afghan, considers a strained legacy
US forces load a UH-60L Blackhawk helicopter into a C-17 Globemaster III in support of the Resolute Support retrograde mission, the withdrawal from Bagram, on June 16, 2021
A gate is seen at the Bagram Air Base, around 40 miles north of Kabul on Friday, June 25, as the last US troops withdraw from Afghanistan
The US fortress is 40 miles north of the capital, Kabul. It was the heart of American military might in Afghanistan, a sprawling mini-city behind fences and blast walls
The currently US departure from Bagram is rife with symbolism.
Not least, it’s the second time that an invader of Afghanistan has come and gone through Bagram: First the Soviet Union and then the US.
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 it would defend its occupation of the country.
For 10 years, the Soviets fought the US-backed mujahedeen, dubbed freedom fighters by President Ronald Reagan, who saw them as a front-line force in one of the last Cold War battles.
The Soviet Union negotiated its withdrawal in 1989. Three years later, the pro-Moscow government collapsed, and the mujahedeen 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.
More than a decade later, a hundred British troops from Special Boat Service – the Royal Marines’ equivalent of the SAS – flew into Bagram on November 15, 2001 to reconnoiter the area before the deployment of thousands of soldiers from Britain and the US.
Within days, they had the base up and running, including the old control tower which was blasted and bullet-riddled from the previous wars between the Russians and the US-backed mujahedeen.
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 mujahedeen warlords fleeing to their northern enclaves.
TALIBAN GAINS NEW GROUND: A lighting offensive by the Taliban which began in May has seen the group take control of vast swathes of rural Afghanistan and battle their way to the doorstep of major cities such as Kandahar, Herat and Kabul – with attacks on them expected soon
NOVEMBER 2001: BRITS ARRIVE: British Royal Marine Commandos from 45 Commando RM, returning from Operation Ptarmigan, land at Bagram Airbase April 18, 2002 in Afghanistan. It was their brethren in the Special Boat Service – the Royal Marines’ equivalent of the SAS – who flew in to reconnoiter the base in November 2001
NOVEMBER 2019: President Donald Trump delivers remarks to U.S. troops, with Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani standing behind him, during an unannounced visit to Bagram over Thanksgiving
The base has been the subject of a number of deadly Taliban attacks over the last two decades. In April 2019, three US Marines were killed when a Taliban car bomb detonated at the airbase
VICTIMS: Sgt. Benjamin S. Hines, 31, of York, Pa., Staff Sgt. Christopher K.A. Slutman, 43, of Newark, Del., and Cpl. Robert A. Hendriks, 25, of Locust Valley, N.Y were killed in April 2019 when a roadside bomb hit their convoy near Bagram Airfield
After dislodging the Taliban from Kabul, the US-led coalition began working with their warlord allies to rebuild Bagram, with temporary structures that then turned permanent. Its growth was explosive, eventually swallowing up roughly 30 square miles.
‘Bagram grew into such a massive military installation that, as with few other bases in Afghanistan and even Iraq, it came to symbolize and epitomize the phrase ‘mission creep’,’ said Andrew Watkins, a senior analyst at International Crisis Group.
The mood on the ground among the locals, at the time, was described as one of ‘delight’.
One Afghan soldier said at the time: ‘It is so nice to see the British come here. British or Americans, I don’t mind which, both are my friends. Five planes came in last night. When I saw the British planes I thought ‘the British are coming in, so the Taliban are definitely going out’.’
With hindsight, it’s clear that the man’s surety was misplaced.
The base has been the subject of a number of deadly Taliban attacks over the last two decades.
In June 2009, two American soldiers were killed in a rocket attack that also left six US soldiers injured.
Four US troops were killed and several wounded in a Taliban mortar attack in June 2013.
In December 2015, six US troops were killed after a Taliban suicide attacker rammed an explosives-laden motorcycle into a joint NATO-Afghan patrol near Bagram.
And in April 2019, a car bomb attack at Bagram left three Marines dead.
Now, the Taliban are on the cusp of a great comeback, recapturing vast swathes of the Afghani hinterland and drawing close to major cities as US and NATO withdraw.
Bill Roggio, senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, said Bagram’s closure is a ‘major symbolic and strategic victory’ for the Taliban.
‘If the Taliban is able to take control of the base, it will serve as anti-U.S. propaganda fodder for years to come,’ said Roggio who is also editor of the foundation’s Long War Journal.
It would also be a military windfall.
The enormous base has two runways. The most recent, at 12,000 feet long, was built in 2006 at a cost of $96 million. There are 110 revetments, 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 centers and fast food restaurants. Another section houses a prison, notorious and feared among Afghans.
An Afghan soldier walks around the perimeter of the airbase with the control tower seen behind the barbed-wire wall at Bagram Air Base
A watchtower along the perimeter of the heavily-fortified base, the hub of US operations in Afghanistan for the last 20 years
After dislodging the Taliban from Kabul, the US-led coalition began working with their warlord allies to rebuild Bagram, with temporary structures that then turned permanent. Its growth was explosive, eventually swallowing up roughly 30 square miles complete with a hefty border fence
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.
Parents would threaten their crying children with the prison.
The US withdrawal effects nearly every household, said Darwaish Raufi, district governor. He explained many villagers have complained to him about the U.S. leaving just their junk behind
In the early years of the invasion, Afghans often disappeared for months without any reports of their whereabouts until the International Committee of the Red Cross located them in Bagram. Some returned home with tales of torture.
‘When someone mentions even the word Bagram I hear the screams of pain from the prison,’ said Zabihullah, who spent six years in Bagram, accused of belonging to the faction of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a warlord designated a terrorist by the US. At the time of his arrest it was an offence to belong to Hekmatyar’s party.
Zabihullah, who goes by one name, was released in 2020, four years after President Ashraf Ghani signed a peace deal with Hekmatyar.
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-Qaida and the Islamic State group. It’s believed about 7,000 detainees are still held there.
‘If the base falls and the prison is overrun, these detainees can bolster the ranks of these terror groups,’ Roggio said.
Jonathan Schroden, of the US-based research and analysis organization CNA, estimates that well over 100,000 people spent significant time at Bagram over the past two decades.
‘Bagram formed a foundation for the wartime experience of a large fraction of US military members and contractors who served in Afghanistan,’ said Schroden, director of CNA’s Center for Stability and Development.
‘The departure of the last US troops from there will likely serve as the final turn of the page for many of these folks with respect to their time in that country,’ he said.
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 (pictured, a junkyard near the base)
District Governor Darwaish Raufi said many villagers have complained to him about the U.S. leaving just their junk behind (pictured, a man holds a teddy bear as people look for useable items at a junkyard near the Bagram Air Base)
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 (pictured, a junkyard near Bagram Air Base)
Bagram villagers say they hear explosions from inside the base, apparently the Americans destroying buildings and material (pictured, people selecting items from a junkyard near Bagram Air Base)
Last week, the U.S. Central Command said it had junked 14,790 pieces of equipment (pictured, a policeman stands guard as workers unload a container at a junkyard in Bagram)
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 effects nearly every household, according to district governor Darwaish Raufi.
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 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 have been hearing explosions from inside the base, which is apparently the Americans destroying buildings and materials.
Raufi said many villagers have complained to him about the US leaving just 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 U.S. urgency to get out quickly,’ said Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program at the US-based Wilson Center.
‘It’s not the kindest parting gift for Afghans, including those taking over the base.’
Inevitably, comparisons to the former Soviet Union have arisen.
Retired Afghan Gen. Saifullah Safi, who worked alongside US forces at Bagram, said the Soviets left all their equipment when they withdrew. They ‘didn’t take much with them, just the vehicles they needed to transport their soldiers back to Russia,’ he said.
Militiamen gather near Kabul on June 23 this year to pledge their allegiance to the Afghan government in preparation for a Taliban assault that is threatening to overwhelm major cities
Hundreds of militiamen shout ‘death to the Taliban’ as they join government forces in Kabul on June 23 ahead of what is expected to be a major jihadist assault
Meanwhile, Afghan translators and interpreters who have worked alongside all US military branches and against the insurgents for the last 20 years now fear they could be left behind.
They have served with the CIA, the State Department, the Army and the Marines on the frontlines in one of the most dangerous battle zones in the world – but have been left in limbo by the slow process to get accepted for a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV).
They are the cooks, drivers and cultural advisors who were essential in supporting ground operations – even though they knew siding with American military would put their livelihoods in imminent danger.
They are all under threat, and when the U.S. ends its military presence on September 11, they will be even more exposed to the violence of the Taliban, who have grown increasingly aggressive since Biden announced he was pulling out U.S. forces.
Many have already seen relatives killed and others fear they will be decapitated. They are now reaching out to Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris to give them safe haven in the United States.
Some have been waiting years to have their application approved, with the longest dating back to 1981, according to No One Left Behind, the non-profit charity fighting to make sure the U.S. government keeps their promise to those who supported the military during some of the most intense fighting in Helmand Province.
The organization says 300 Afghan interpreters have been killed in targeted attacks while waiting to secure their visas since 2014, but the exact numbers are unknown.
The process should take nine months, but has been hampered by a myriad of setbacks including the COVID pandemic and the need for translators to get paperwork.
SIVs are available to those who have helped the U.S. military and now face serious threats as a result of their employment.
The U.S. has handed out 50 special visas per year to be issued to Afghan and Iraqi interpreters and translators.
There have also been 26,500 visas allocated to Afghans employed by the government since December 2014, but the process for those who haven’t had their applications accepted is slow.