Bagram will soon be the final stop for all U.S. troops. They will leave what most Americans and Afghans consider a mixed legacy.
Andrew Watkins (Afghan senior analyst at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group) said that Bagram became a huge military base.
U.S. Central Command stated last week that they have already packed up Bagram at over 50%, and that the rest of the process is moving quickly. According to American officials, the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops is expected to be completed by July 4. As part of the ongoing fight against the Taliban, the Afghan military will take control of Bagram. This is in response to what many fear will be an eruption of chaos.
There is much symbolism in the departure. Bagram is being invaded by an invading force of Afghanistan for the second time.
In the 1950s, the Soviet Union constructed the airfield. It turned the airfield into its main base to defend Afghanistan's occupation after it invaded Afghanistan in 1979. The Soviets fought the U.S. backed mujahedeen for 10 years. They were called freedom fighters by Ronald Reagan who considered them a front-line force in one the last Cold War battles.
1989 saw the Soviet Union negotiate its withdrawal. Three years later, the pro Moscow government fell and the mujahedeen seized power. They turned their weapons against each other and killed thousands of civilians. This turmoil saw the Taliban take control of Kabul in 1996.
Bagram was left in ruins by the U.S., NATO, and other countries when they took over in 2001. They found a number of buildings in disrepair, and most of its perimeter fence had been destroyed. After being battered by the Taliban and rival mujahedeen warriors fleeing to northern enclaves, it was abandoned.
After removing the Taliban from Kabul the U.S.-led alliance began to work with its warlord allies in rebuilding Bagram. At first, temporary structures were used, but then they became permanent. It grew rapidly and eventually occupied approximately 30 square miles.
Bill Roggio, senior fellow with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, stated that "The closing of Bagram is an important symbolic and strategic victory for the Taliban."
Roggio, who is also the editor of the foundation’s Long War Journal, stated that "if the Taliban is able take control of this base it will serve anti-U.S. propaganda fodder forever."
It could also be a military win.
Two runways are available at the base's enormous size. The longest, measuring 12,000 feet, was constructed in 2006 at a cost $96 million. There are 110 revetments which are basically aircraft parking spaces, and are protected by blast walls. GlobalSecurity, an international security think tank, states that Bagram has three large hangars and a control tower, as well as many support buildings. There is a 50-bed hospital, three operating theatres and a modern dental office. You will also find fitness centers and fast-food restaurants. A prison is also located in this section, which is well-known and highly feared by Afghans.
Jonathan Schroden of the U.S.-based analysis and research organization CNA estimates that over 100,000 people spent time at Bagram in the past 20 years. Schroden, the director of CNA’s Center for Stability and Development, stated that Bagram was a key element in the wartime experiences of many U.S. military personnel and contractors who served as Afghan soldiers.
He stated that "the departure of the last U.S. soldiers from there will likely serve to mark the end of many of these people's time in that country."
Bagram district is home to more than 100 Afghan villages. The base has provided a significant source of employment for the residents. Darwaish Rafi, the district governor, stated that almost every household will be affected by the U.S. withdrawal.
The Americans have provided weapons and other materials to the Afghan military. They are selling any other material they don't want to take, and destroying it. Officials from the United States say they have to ensure that nothing useful is ever lost to the Taliban.
The U.S. Central Command announced last week that it had discarded 14,790 pieces and sent 763 C-17 planes loaded with material out to Afghanistan. Bagram residents claim they hear loud explosions coming from the base. It is believed that the Americans are destroying material and buildings.
Raufi stated that many villages have complained about the U.S. leaving behind only their trash.
"There is something sadly symbolic about the U.S.'s approach to leaving Bagram. According to Michael Kugelman (deputy director of the Asia Program, U.S.-based Wilson Center), the U.S. has taken so much away and destroyed so much of what is left.
He said, "It's certainly not the kindest gift for Afghans,"
There are always comparisons to the Soviet Union.
Retired Afghan General Saifullah Safi said that all Soviet equipment was left behind when the Soviets withdrew. He said that they "didn’t take much with themselves, only the vehicles they required to transport their soldiers to Russia."
In 2012, the Afghans took over the prison at the base and will continue to run it. Bagram was a symbol of fear for many Afghans in the first years of war. The prison was a place where parents would threaten their children who were crying with violence.
In the beginning of the invasion, Afghans disappeared for months and never reported their location until the International Committee of the Red Cross found them in Bagram. Many returned home telling tales of torture.
Zabihullah was a Bagram resident for six years. He was accused of belonging the Gulbuddin Hekmatyar faction. Hekmatyar was a warlord and terrorist.
Zabihullah was released in 2020 four years after President Ashraf Ghani had signed a peace agreement with Hekmatyar.
Roggio stated that the prison's current condition is a major concern, noting that many prisoners are Taliban leaders or members militant groups like al-Qaida. The prison holds approximately 7,000 prisoners.
Roggio stated that detainees could be used to support terror groups if the prison falls or the base is destroyed.