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Bagram abandoned

Updated: Jul 20, 2021

Last week’s images of the abandoned Bagram airbase are striking. For most of the last 20 years, the Cold War-era military compound more closely resembled a small city than a barracks. Since being secured by the British Special Boat Service in the initial 2001 invasion, the US military built it up into the largest military base in Afghanistan, complete with a new 2.2-mile-long runway, fast-food outlets, gyms, swimming pools, and a cinema, for the benefit of the hundreds of thousands of NATO troops who have been stationed there over the last two decades. But as of 3am, 2nd July, the vast concrete sprawl was all but deserted.

The US military reportedly counted 3.5 million items it was leaving in Bagram. It is unclear if these were left due to the rushed nature of withdrawal or if the harsh topography and security concerns of Afghanistan would make extraction more expensive than the items itself. In either case, the US withdrawal looks all the more chaotic given the multitude of vehicles and equipment the Army left in its wake. Tens of thousands of field rations, bottles of water, energy drinks, and even small arms and ammunition was left behind.

Even following a weekend of looting, which inevitably came shortly after local residents became aware that the base was abandoned, thousands of American-made cars are still parked on the tarmac at the airbase, waiting for their drivers to return with the keys. In a country where a Chevrolet Silverado costs twenty times a good annual salary, their abandonment seems all the more perverse.

It's reminiscent of footage of the American withdrawal from Saigon in 1975. Despite the many differences between the war in Afghanistan and Vietnam, in both cases the nature of America’s final retreat said something about the conflict as a whole.

One of the most memorable images of the chaotic American withdrawal from Saigon is that of American sailors pushing Huey helicopters, which had become such a symbol of the war, off the deck of an aircraft carrier and into the sea to make room for new arrivals. The sight of groups of men pushing those mighty American military machines into the ocean was unavoidably allegorical.

So too do the photos of America’s state-of-the-art military base left abandoned, strewn with crates of energy drinks and new American cars all air lifted in from abroad, say much about how America fought, and ultimately lost, this war. Since 2001, the solutions to the many problems that beset the invasion have invariably been money. Billions of dollars were pumped into one of the world’s poorest countries for the use of American forces behind tall barbed wire fences and concrete blast shields. The wealthiest nation history has known leveraged its resources to maintain a 20-year operation that peaked at 100,000 troops, and to insulate those soldiers from the dangers and discomfort that lurked outside their bases.

The Americans aimed to have as little to do as possible with the country they were there to liberate as possible. To that end, money was no object. The US spent $2 trillion in Afghanistan. $80 million was spent on exploring the possibility of a new consulate before the project was abandoned over fears it would be too difficult to defend. Another $34 million was spent on a new US Marine Core HQ that commanders on the ground said was unnecessary even at the time and which was handed over to the Afghan Army shortly after completion – like in Bagram, the US left or destroyed millions of dollars of its equipment including 3,500 military computers. The most recently built runway at Bagram alone cost $96 million.

Very little of this money went to ordinary Afghans. NATO forces tended to use Western contractors to build and maintain their vast military bases. The same went for civilian projects. President Ashraf Ghani has recalled the frustration in trying to persuade officials from USAID to use locally produced Afghan produce rather than flood the market with American-grown wheat depressing prices for Afghan farmers.

How could these policies not alienate the Afghan people? Journalist and historian of the Vietnam War Max Hastings has written about flying in coalition helicopters over Afghan residences. That so much of the coalition’s travel in country was made using helicopters rather than much cheaper overland options was down to security concerns. Hastings wondered what the housewives below must think of the Western soldiers who flew above them, whipping gusts of reddish dirt onto the washing on their lines.

While the footprint of America’s war was large, the Taliban, by contrast, trod lightly. A few years into the conflict, Taliban operations had become limited to the vast provincial lands of Afghanistan into which coalition forces rarely ventured. Far from living in heavily defended encampments, the Taliban lived in such close proximity to Afghan civilians that many of the latter were swept up by coalition raids of the last two decades. I would like to know what those threadbare troops will say when they inevitably take control of Bagram and see firsthand the comforts that their defeated enemy enjoyed.

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