U.S. Hands Over the Giant Bagram Airbase as the 20-Year War Winds Down
The end of the 20-year war in Afghanistan arrived symbolically this Fourth of July weekend with American troops leaving their main military base at Bagram. Troops once buried a piece of debris from the World Trade Center to remind all why they had come there in the first place.
The withdrawal has been under discussion for months, even years. Little about it should feel surprising.
Yet withdrawal from Bagram is drawing plenty of politicking, dire predictions and an as-yet unfulfilled promise to whisk away thousands of Afghans who aided U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
Withdrawal is drawing plenty of politicking, dire predictions and an as-yet unfulfilled promise to whisk away thousands of Afghans who aided U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
The end of an active war for us is merely the onset for a continuing civil war inside Afghanistan, with the Taliban making headway in taking over regional buildings and roadways and isolating those perceived as enemies. Any peace-like talks toward figuring out a more stable government and direction for Afghanistan are hopelessly broken.
And here, where there has been a weird agreement between the administrations of Donald Trump and Joe Biden over quitting Afghanistan right now, there is still plenty of grumbling among members of Congress over the move. Predictions abound that we will be forced to return one day as the Taliban, supported by groups we have accustomed ourselves to calling terrorists of one stripe or other, seem to be merging.
The Pentagon said the turnover of Bagram to Afghan security forces was a “key milestone” in the withdrawal. But it insisted the U.S. military still has the authority—and a couple of thousand troops—as part of what Biden was calling part of a “rational drawdown with allies” to protect Afghan forces.
The New York Times said Biden was sending “Dueling Messages on Afghanistan,” by seeking to end “forever wars” and still signaling to Afghans that the United States is not abandoning them.
Recognizing the Gap
As usual, there is a gap between what’s being said and the reality on the ground.
On the military front, American forces will still be involved, but with armed drones controlled from bases hours away in the Persian Gulf rather than by forces on the ground. Few Pentagon contractors remain to repair Afghanistan’s Black Hawk helicopters. Only two other NATO military allies are staying—Turkey and Britain, with most in fortified embassy compounds or securing Kabul International Airport.
The Biden administration still plans to provide the Afghan government more than $3 billion in security assistance, without much oversight, inviting corruption or the appearance of it.
Meanwhile, the Taliban forces continue to close in on control of most of the rural areas of the country and picking off Afghan forces.
In Congress, there was pressure to help those who had helped us. A bill quickly passed the House —while bipartisan, 46 Republicans opposed it—basically to speed up the process of providing these people with special immigrant visas. There was speculation that Afghans might be relocated to Guam or elsewhere to await the visas in ways yet to be worked out.
Through it all, Biden made clear he didn’t like the “negative” questions coming from reporters any more than Trump had.
The Washington Post editorialized that “Biden, who inherited a difficult situation, chose to pull the plug on the U.S. mission rather than fix it. The president ought to be reconsidering the swift withdrawal he ordered in light of the incipient crumbling of an Afghan government and army that the United States spent two decades helping to build. Instead, he has been cold to the country’s plight.”
Among the odd parts in this ending were potshots from Republicans who warned openly that withdrawal is a strategic mistake, despite a similar view from Trump.
Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Fla.) joined with the likes of Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) in saying that Afghanistan was too big a “strategic asset” to “just give away,” as if we have somehow owned and operated Afghanistan in a uniquely American way for the last 20 years.
“It’s by far the biggest symbol of our 20 years of blood and treasure we have expended for all veterans that have served there,” Waltz said. It’s a message that is likely to be a refrain for Republicans in next year’s midterm elections.
Though Trump and Biden arrived at the same position from very different mindsets, they did come to a decision that it was time to leave Afghanistan. Each judged that the American public no longer supports a long-term military commitment in Afghanistan.
Much of the world’s relationships have shifted over those years, though foreign terrorism by international crazies remains an important threat. The Taliban is bent on turning the clock back in Afghanistan, to remaking the country as a Sharia law state, to end education and liberalizations for women and, probably, to look the other way as identified terror groups move into its many creases.
This withdrawal, and all the questions it raises over terrorism, international dealing and its lack of any way for an understandable military win, has been in the works for years.
It seems like a strange time to suddenly feel odd about the decision to leave.