The last American troops are expected to leave Bagram Air Base on Friday, as the base gets turned over to Afghan forces.

The U.S. withdrawal, after nearly 20 years, marks the end of the American presence at the enormous compound. Bagram Air Base once saw thousands of troops pass through and was the hub of all U.S. military activity in Afghanistan. 

At its peak in 2011, the U.S. had nearly 100,000 troops and 35,000 contractors in Afghanistan. Soon that number will be zero. The full withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country could be completed by this week.

The handover of Bagram Air Base to the Afghan military proceeded quietly with little fanfare, although a ceremony is planned for Saturday to mark the turnover. 

The Rise and Fall of Bagram Air Base

The End of an Era Has Come: US Leaves Bagram Air Base
A C-5A sits on the tarmac at Bagram Air Base during the peak of the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. (Wikipedia photo)

Once, the base boasted 36 flags, representing the different countries of the coalition. Now only the American and British flags remain after the other contingents left quietly this week.

However, the Associated Press reported that the U.S. top commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Austin S. Miller, “still retains all the capabilities and authorities to protect the forces.”

The sprawling base, with all of the improvements that the Americans did to it, is now likely to fall into the same disrepair as when the troops first arrived in 2001.

The Soviets first built an airfield in Bagram in the 1950s. But by the time the U.S. arrived, the infrastructure was crumbling as the Taliban did little to keep it maintained after the Soviets had withdrawn in 1989

In 2006, the U.S. built a 12,000-foot runway and 110 revetments to park aircraft that cost U.S. taxpayers nearly $100 million. The American military also built a large trauma hospital and dental clinic on the premises. These will probably be abandoned by the Afghan government. 

Turkey Might Step in to Provide Security

Now the focus will be on what happens to the main airport in Kabul, the Hamid Karzai International Airport. Currently, the security is handled by a joint Turkish-American agreement. However, the security is linked to the Operation Resolute Support Mission which will end when the last American soldier withdraws. 

At that point, Turkey will assume sole responsibility for the airport’s security. Turkey is currently in negotiations with Afghanistan about providing security; the U.S. may still have a role in the negotiations.

While the staff at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul will be pared down, about 650 troops will remain in Afghanistan to protect the U.S. diplomats. 

Once a sprawling megabase, Bagram Air Base will not fall into disrepair.
President Trump speaks to the troops during a surprise visit to Bagram Air Base on Thanksgiving 2019.

The Taliban March Onward

With the U.S.-led coalition withdrawing from Afghanistan, the fighting between the Taliban and the Afghan security forces has progressed to almost open civil war. Further, all indications point out that contrary to the agreement with the U.S., the Taliban have not cut their ties to al-Qaeda.

Many Afghan units have capitulated en masse as the Taliban sweep across districts and are threatening to take on large population centers. While the U.S. has taken nearly 900 C-17 planeloads of equipment out of the country, the gear that is left behind is rapidly falling into the hands of the Taliban. 

Forbes recently reported that just in June, 700 trucks that the U.S. has left for the Afghan Security Forces were either captured by or turned over to the Taliban. These included 329 M1151, cargo-bed configured M1152 Humvees, and 21 Oshkosh ATV mine-resistant armor-protected vehicles. Most of the vehicles feature enhanced armor protection.