Afghans hawk basketballs, stereo speakers after US troops leave base

Afghan looters ransack Bagram Air Base and hawk basketballs, stereo speakers, laptops, and bicycle helmets after US troops bugged out in the dead of night

  • Afghan locals started hawking contraband after looters ransacked Bagram Air Base over the weekend 
  • Bicycles, helmet, laptop computers, and pieces of scrap were sold after the looting over the weekend
  • Massive base includes 50-bed hospital and giant hangar size tents filled with supplies such as furniture 
  • Americans also left a fleet of SUVs without the keys to start them as well as hundreds of armored vehicles 
  • Since 2001, Bagram Air Base north of Kabul served as a linchpin for the US war in Afghanistan 
  • At its peak in 2012, Bagram saw more than 100,000 U.S. and NATO troops pass through sprawling compound 
  • Last week, US soldiers left the base as the 20-year-long war in Afghanistan comes to an end 
  • The soldiers left without telling local officials, meaning its gates were left unsecured 
  • On Friday morning, locals moved in under the cover of darkness and looted several buildings 
  • US-backed Afghan forces gained control of the base, but it remains a shell of its former self 
  • Photos taken on Friday show the base eerily quiet and almost abandoned 
  • There are now fears it will be taken over by the Taliban who are gaining increasing control across Afghanistan 

Afghan locals started hawking basketballs, stereo speakers, laptop computers, bicycles and helmets, desk fans, guitars, and anything else they could get their hands on after looters ransacked a now-former American military base that was vacated by departing US soldiers in the dead of night Friday. 

The US left Afghanistan’s Bagram Air Base after nearly 20 years by shutting off the electricity and slipping away without notifying the base’s new Afghan commander, who discovered the Americans’ departure more than two hours after they left, Afghan military officials said.

Afghanistan’s army showed off the sprawling air base Monday, providing a rare first glimpse of what had been the epicenter of America’s war to unseat the Taliban and hunt down the al-Qaida perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks on America.

The US announced Friday it had completely vacated its biggest airfield in the country in advance of a final withdrawal the Pentagon says will be completed by the end of August.

The Americans left behind a fleet of sport utility trucks and mine-resistant vehicles as well as a notorious prison and fortified walls.

An Afghan man is seen above on Monday resting in his shop as he sells secondhand items from the Bagram US air base after American troops left over the weekend

An Afghan National Army (ANA) soldier take a selfie on Monday inside the Bagram US air base after all US and NATO troops had left

On Monday, an Afghan soldier plays a guitar that was left behind after the American military departed Bagram Air Base

An Afghan scrap dealer on Saturday sorts items discarded by US forces outside Bagram Air Base

After nearly two decades, the US military has left the Bagram airfield in central Afghanistan and has handed it over to Afghan National Defense and Security Forces

Looters ransacked the base after the last of the US soldiers departed Bagram on July 2

Infantry Squad vehicles left behind by departing US troops are seen in Bagram air base north of Kabul, Afghanistan on Monday

‘They (Americans) are completely out now and everything is under our control, including watchtowers, air traffic and the hospital,’ a senior Afghan government official told Reuters.

Reuters journalists on Monday visited the heavily fortified compound, long a symbol of Western forces deployed to shore up the Afghan government against the Taliban’s campaign to regain power after being toppled by a US intervention in 2001.

Dozens of vehicles left behind by the United States stood on the premises while others zipped around with Afghan officials and personnel coming to terms with operating the vast base.

Radars oscillated as soldiers stood on guard, and hundreds of Afghan security personnel moved into barracks that once housed US soldiers.

Where American entertainers had once visited to boost the morale of US troops, an Afghan soldier strummed a guitar, singing a Pashto language epic on the Afghan homeland, while other Afghan soldiers toured the grounds on bicycles. 

A forklift carries a vehicle in Bagram after American troops abandoned it early on Friday morning

An empty bed is seen inside a clinic in Bagram Air Base after American troops vacated it

The image above shows safety bunkers inside the Bagram Air Base after all US and NATO forces evacuated it over the weekend

‘We (heard) some rumor 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,’ Gen. Mir Asadullah Kohistani, Bagram’s new commander said.

Before the Afghan army could take control, the airfield, barely an hour’s drive from the Afghan capital Kabul, was invaded by a small army of looters, who ransacked barrack after barrack and rummaged through giant storage tents before being kicked out, according to Afghan military officials.

‘At first we thought maybe they were Taliban,’ said Abdul Raouf, a soldier of 10 years. 

He said the US called from the Kabul airport and said ‘we are here at the airport in Kabul.’

Kohistani insisted the Afghan National Security and Defense Force could hold on to the heavily fortified base despite a string of Taliban wins on the battlefield. 

Afghan security forces stand guard after the American military left Bagram Air Base north of Kabul, Afghanistan

A hangar behind barbed wire fencing after the American military left the base north of Kabul

Stretchers outside the clinic in Bagram after the last of the US troops left the area over the weekend

The Bagram Air Base is mostly empty after the last American left the base, winding up its ‘forever war’ in the night without notifying the new Afghan commander until more than two hours after they slipped away

Afghan security forces keep watch after the American military left Bagram Air Base north of Kabul on Monday

An Afghan security forces member keeps watch in an army vehicle in Bagram Air Base Monday

An Afghan soldier is seen above sitting in an army vehicle inside the base that was evacuated by US forces over the weekend

Afghan army soldiers patrol after the American military left Bagram Air Base over the weekend

Afghan army soldiers stand guard after the American military left Bagram Air Base

An Afghan army soldier stands  guard inside the prison after the American military left Bagram Air Base

An Afghan army soldier walks past Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, MRAP, that were left after the American military left Bagram 

The image above shows an American mine-resistant ambush protection vehicle (MRAP) that was left at Bagram by departing US forces over the weekend

Blast walls and a few buildings at Bagram Air Base 

Vehicles are parked at Bagram Airfield after the American military left the base

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 airfield also includes a prison with about 5,000 prisoners, many of them allegedly Taliban. 

The Taliban’s latest surge comes as the last US and NATO forces pull out of the country. As of last week, most NATO soldiers already had quietly left. 

The last US soldiers are likely to remain until an agreement to protect the Kabul Hamid Karzai International Airport, which is expected to be done by Turkey, is completed.

Meanwhile, in northern Afghanistan, district after district has fallen to the Taliban. In just the last two days hundreds of Afghan soldiers fled across the border into Tajikistan rather than fight the insurgents.

‘In battle it is sometimes one step forward and some steps back,’ said Kohistani.

Kohistani said the Afghan military is changing its strategy to focus on the strategic districts. He insisted they would retake them in the coming days without saying how that would be accomplished.

On display Monday was a massive facility, the size of a small city, that had been exclusively used by the US and NATO. 

The once-bustling base has now been abandoned by American troops. Back in 2012, Bagram saw more than 100,000 U.S. troops and NATO service members pass through its sprawling compound. It is pictured looking eerily deserted on Friday

Empty: For two decades, the ever-expanding air base was filled with US troops. This week, the last group of American soldiers there finally departed 

The sheer size is extraordinary, with roadways weaving through barracks and past hangar-like buildings. 

There are two runways and over 100 parking spots for fighter jets known as revetments because of the blast walls that protect each aircraft. 

One of the two runways is 12,000 feet long and was built in 2006. 

There’s a passenger lounge, a 50-bed hospital and giant hangar size tents filled with supplies such as furniture.

Kohistani said the US left behind 3.5 million items, all itemized by the departing US military. 

They include tens of thousands of bottles of water, energy drinks and military ready made meals, known as MRE’s.

‘When you say 3.5 million items, it is every small items, like every phone, every door knob, every window in every barracks, every door in every barracks,’ he said.

The big ticket items left behind include thousands of civilian vehicles, many of them without keys to start them, and hundreds of armored vehicles. 

Kohistani said the US also left behind small weapons and the ammunition for them, but the departing troops took heavy weapons with them. 

US troops are seen loading a helicopter onto a C-17 Globesmaster at Bagram on June 16 as they prepare to leave the base 

A gate at the Bagram base on June 25, as the last US troops prepared to withdraw

Bagram: the abandoned air strip that became America’s main Afghan base

The airfield was built by the Soviet Union back in the 1950s against the backdrop of Afghanistan’s snow-capped mountains. It became a vital post for Soviet Union after it invaded Afghanistan in 1979. 

However, the Soviets withdrew from the country in 1989 and by the late 1990s, the abandoned air strip was composed of bombed-out hangars and watchtowers without electricity.  

After the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, US forces quickly occupied the air strip, using it as the Soviets had before them as their main base in the country.

In the early years of the war under President George W. Bush, the CIA used Bagram as a ‘black site’ detention center for terrorism suspects, subjecting them to abuse that President Barack Obama would later acknowledge as torture.

Later, as the U.S. and NATO presence in Afghanistan grew, so did the base. A second runway was built, as were pools, gyms and classrooms. 

A Pizza Hut, a Subway and a Green Beans coffee shop even popped up on the base. 

By 2007, Bagram had become a huge base, with three rings of security, processing arriving troops before they were flown to frontline positions.

At its peak in 2012, Bagram saw more than 100,000 U.S. troops and NATO service members pass through its sprawling compound. 

US presidents visited frequently to meet the troops, most recently Donald Trump, who dropped in for Thanksgiving in 2019. Robin Williams, Jay Leno and Kid Rock were among the celebrities who visited over the years.

In 2007, while then-Vice President Dick Cheney was in the country, a suicide bomber struck Bagram, killing up to 23 people and injuring 20

Bagram Air Base served as the linchpin for US operations in Afghanistan

Ammunition for weapons not being left behind for the Afghan military was blown up before they left.

Afghan soldiers who wandered Monday throughout the base that had once seen as many as 100,000 US troops were deeply critical of how the US left Bagram, leaving in the night without telling the Afghan soldiers tasked with patrolling the perimeter.

‘In one night they lost all the good will of 20 years by leaving the way they did, in the night, without telling the Afghan soldiers who were outside patrolling the area,’ said Afghan soldier Naematullah, who asked that only his one name be used.

Within 20 minutes of the U.S.’s silent departure on Friday, the electricity was shut down and the base was plunged into darkness, said Raouf, the soldier of 10 years who has also served in Taliban strongholds of Helmand and Kandahar provinces.

The sudden darkness was like a signal to the small army of looters, he said. They entered from the north smashing through the first barrier, ransacking buildings, loading anything that was not nailed down into trucks.

On Monday, three days after the US departure, Afghan soldiers were still collecting piles of garbage that included empty water bottles, cans and empty energy drinks left behind by the looters.

Bagram was built by the US for its Afghan ally during the Cold War in the 1950s

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

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

It has been visited by every US President – apart from Joe Biden – since American troops moved in: George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump. Biden visited when he was Vice President back in 2011

US military spokesman Col. Sonny Leggett on Monday did not address the specific complaints of the many Afghan soldiers who inherited their abandoned airfield, instead referring to a statement last week.

The statement said the handover had been in the process soon after President Joe Biden’s mid-April announcement that America was withdrawing the last of its forces. 

He said in that statement that they had coordinated their departures with Afghanistan’s leaders.

Kohistani meanwhile said the nearly 20 years of US and NATO involvement in Afghanistan was appreciated but now it was time for Afghans to step up.

‘We have to solve our problem. We have to secure our country and once again build our country with our own hands,’ he said.

An Afghan soldier walks around the perimeter of the airbase with the control tower seen behind the barbed-wire wall at Bagram Air Base

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

Explainer: When is the war in Afghanistan really over?

As the last US combat troops prepare to leave Afghanistan, the question arises: When is the war really over?

For Afghans the answer is clear but grim: no time soon. An emboldened Taliban insurgency is making battlefield gains, and prospective peace talks are stalled. Some fear that once foreign forces are gone, Afghanistan will dive deeper into civil war. Though degraded, an Afghan affiliate of the so-called Islamic State extremist network also lurks.

For the United States and its coalition partners, the endgame is murky. Although all combat troops and 20 years of accumulated war materiel will soon be gone, the head of US Central Command, General Frank McKenzie, will have authority until September to defend Afghan forces against the Taliban. He can do so by ordering strikes with US warplanes based outside of Afghanistan, according to defence officials.

US officials said on Friday that the US military has left Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan after nearly 20 years. The facility was the epicentre of the war to oust the Taliban and hunt down the al Qaida perpetrators of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on America. Two officials say the airfield was handed over to the Afghan National Security and Defence Force in its entirety.

Here is a look at the end of the war:

What is left of the combat mission?

Technically, US forces have not been engaged in ground combat in Afghanistan since 2014. But counter-terrorism troops have been pursuing and hitting extremists since then, including with Afghanistan-based aircraft. Those strike aircraft are now gone and those strikes, along with any logistical support for Afghan forces, will be done from outside the country.

Inside Afghanistan, US troops will no longer be there to train or advise Afghan forces. An unusually large US security contingent of 650 troops, based at the US embassy compound, will protect American diplomats and potentially help secure the Kabul international airport. Turkey is expected to continue its current mission of providing airport security, but Gen McKenzie will have authority to keep as many as 300 more troops to assist that mission until September.

It is also possible that the US military may be asked to assist any large-scale evacuation of Afghans seeking Special Immigrant Visas, although the State Department-led effort may not require a military airlift. The White House is concerned that Afghans who helped the US war effort, and are thereby vulnerable to Taliban retribution, not be left behind.

When he decided in April to bring the US war to a close, President Joe Biden gave the Pentagon until September 11 to complete the withdrawal. The army general in charge in Kabul, Scott Miller, has essentially finished it already, with nearly all military equipment gone and few troops left.

Gen Miller himself is expected to depart in coming days. But does that constitute the end of the US war? With as many as 950 US troops in the country until September and the potential for continued air strikes, the answer is probably not.

How wars end

Unlike Afghanistan, some wars end with a flourish. The First World War was over with the armistice signed with Germany on November 11 1918 – a day now celebrated as a federal holiday in the US – and the later signing of the Treaty of Versailles.

The Second World War saw dual celebrations in 1945 with Germany’s surrender marking Victory in Europe (VE Day) and Japan’s surrender a few months later marking Victory Over Japan (VJ Day) following the US atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In Korea, an armistice signed in July 1953 ended the fighting, although technically the war was only suspended because no peace treaty was ever signed.

Other endings have been less clear-cut. The US pulled troops out of Vietnam in 1973, in what many consider a failed war that ended with the fall of Saigon two years later. And when convoys of US troops drove out of Iraq in 2011, a ceremony marked their final departure. But just three years later, American troops were back to rebuild Iraqi forces that collapsed under attacks by IS militants.

Victory or defeat?

As America’s war in Afghanistan draws to a close, there will be no surrender and no peace treaty, no final victory and no decisive defeat. Mr Biden says it was enough that US forces dismantled al Qaida and killed Osama bin Laden, the group’s leader considered the mastermind of the September 11 2001 terrorist attacks.

Lately, violence in Afghanistan has escalated. Taliban attacks on Afghan forces and civilians have intensified and the group have taken control of more than 100 district centres. Pentagon leaders have said there is ‘medium’ risk that the Afghan government and its security forces collapse within the next two years, if not sooner.

US leaders insist the only path to peace in Afghanistan is through a negotiated settlement. The Trump administration signed a deal with the Taliban in February 2020 that said the US would withdraw its troops by May 2021 in exchange for Taliban promises, including that they keep Afghanistan from again being a staging arena for attacks on America.

US officials say the Taliban are not fully adhering to their part of the bargain, even as the US continues its withdrawal.

Nato mission

The Nato Resolute Support mission to train, advise and assist the Afghan security forces began in 2015, when the US-led combat mission was declared over. At that point the Afghans assumed full responsibility for their security, yet they remained dependent on billions of dollars a year in US aid.

At the peak of the war, there were more than 130,000 troops in Afghanistan from 50 Nato nations and partner countries. That dwindled to about 10,000 troops from 36 nations for the Resolute Support mission, and as of this week most had withdrawn their troops.

Some may see the war ending when Nato’s mission is declared over. But that may not happen for months.

According to officials, Turkey is negotiating a new bilateral agreement with Afghan leaders in order to remain at the airport to provide security. Until that agreement is completed, the legal authorities for Turkish troops staying in Afghanistan are under the auspices of the Resolute Support mission.

Counter-terror mission

The US troop withdrawal does not mean the end of the war on terrorism. The US has made it clear that it retains the authority to conduct strikes against al Qaida or other terrorist groups in Afghanistan if they threaten the US homeland.

Because the US has pulled its fighter and surveillance aircraft out of the country, it must now rely on manned and unmanned flights from ships at sea and air bases in the Gulf region, such as al-Dhafra air base in the United Arab Emirates. The Pentagon is looking for basing alternatives for surveillance aircraft and other assets in countries closer to Afghanistan. As yet, no agreements have been reached.

Reporting by Associated Press  

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