U.S. leaves Bagram Airfield, its military epicentre in Afghan war, after nearly 20 years
But U.S. in talks with Turkey about arrangement for maintaining security at the Kabul airport
Nearly 20 years after invading Afghanistan to oust the Taliban and hunt down al-Qaeda, the U.S. military has vacated its biggest airfield in the country, advancing a final withdrawal that the Pentagon on Friday said will be completed by the end of August.
U.S. President Joe Biden had instructed the Pentagon to complete the military withdrawal by Sept. 11, the 20th anniversary of the attacks on the United States, but the Pentagon now says it can finish the drawdown a little earlier.
In fact, the drawdown is already largely completed, but a number of related issues need to be worked out in coming weeks, including talks with Turkey on an arrangement for maintaining security at the Kabul airport.
"A safe, orderly drawdown enables us to maintain an ongoing diplomatic presence, support the Afghan people and the government, and prevent Afghanistan from once again becoming a safe haven for terrorists that threatens our homeland," Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said.
Kirby said U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin on Friday approved a new command structure in Afghanistan to transition the U.S. military mission from warfighting to two new objectives — protecting a continuing U.S. diplomatic presence in Kabul and maintaining liaison with the Afghan military.
A satellite military office based in Qatar and headed by a U.S. one-star general will be established to administer U.S. financial support for the Afghan military and police, plus maintenance support provided for Afghan aircraft from outside Afghanistan.
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Kirby said Miller, who already is the longest-serving commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan in the 20 years of warfare, will remain in command for "a couple of weeks" longer but Kirby was not more specific. He said Miller will be preparing for and completing the turnover of his duties to McKenzie and also will be travelling inside and beyond Afghanistan.
Miller met Afghan President Ashraf Ghani Friday, and according to a Dari-language tweet by the presidential palace, the two discussed "continued U.S. assistance and co-operation with Afghanistan, particularly in supporting the defence and security forces."
Meanwhile, Afghanistan's district administrator for Bagram, Darwaish Raufi, said the American departure was done overnight without any co-ordination with local officials, and as a result early Friday dozens of local looters stormed through the unprotected gates before Afghan forces regained control.
"They were stopped and some have been arrested and the rest have been cleared from the base," Raufi told The Associated Press, adding that the looters ransacked several buildings before being arrested and the Afghan forces took control.
However, U.S. military spokesman Col. Sonny Leggett said the handover was an "extensive process" that spanned several weeks and began soon after Biden's mid-April announcement that America was withdrawing the last of its forces.
Taliban welcomes withdrawal
The Taliban welcomed the American withdrawal from Bagram Airfield. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid tweeted that Friday's departure was a "positive step," urging the "withdrawal of foreign forces from all parts of the country."
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As of this week most other NATO soldiers have already quietly exited. Announcements from several countries analyzed by The Associated Press show that a majority of European troops have now left with little ceremony — a stark contrast to the dramatic and public show of force and unity when NATO allies lined up to back the U.S. invasion in 2001.
The U.S. has refused to say when the last U.S. soldier would leave Afghanistan, citing security concerns, but also the protection of Kabul's Hamid Karzai International Airport is still being negotiated. Turkish and U.S. soldiers currently are protecting the airport. That protection is currently covered under the Resolute Support Mission, which is the military mission currently closing.
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Until a new agreement for the airport's protection is negotiated between Turkey and the Afghan government, and possibly the United States, the Resolute Support mission would appear to continue in order to give international troops the legal authority.
The U.S. will also have about 650 troops in Afghanistan to protect its sprawling embassy in Kabul. It is understood their presence will be covered in a bilateral agreement with the Afghan government.
The U.S. and NATO leaving comes as Taliban insurgents make strides in several parts of the country, overrunning dozens of districts and overwhelming beleaguered Afghan security forces.
- An earlier version of the story said the U.S. will have about 6,500 troops to protect its embassy in the Afghan capital. In fact, the U.S. will have about 650 troops there.Jul 02, 2021 9:55 AM ET