It’s a quiet but symbolic end to America’s longest war. All U.S. and coalition troops have left a key site in Afghanistan: Bagram Air Base.
That departure part of President Biden’s plan to withdraw by Sept. 11. But on Friday the president wasn’t willing to share much more:
"The Afghans are going to have to be able to do it themselves with the air force they have, which we’re helping them maintain. ... I’m not going to answer any more questions on Afghanistan. Look, it’s the Fourth of July," President Biden told reporters Friday.
Bagram Airfield helped U.S. troops gain control of Afghanistan after invasion in 2001. It served as a hub for air operations -- also attracting Taliban rockets, mortars and a suicide bomber who killed four Americans. Now, the question of what lies ahead for the fragile country, as only about 1,000 troops will remain -- mainly to protect the U.S. Embassy.
“Afghan security forces, like any soldiers anywhere in the world, will generally continue to fight as long as they think there’s someone coming to the rescue, a quick reaction force and that there will be supporting fire, close air support being the most important of those of course in Afghanistan,” Ret. Gen. David Petraeus, the former director of the CIA said at a recent event.
The Afghan Ministry of Defense has vowed to protect the base, some 40 miles north of Kabul. But recent months have seen the Taliban taking more districts as fighters move closer to the capital.
“I fear that once the Afghan forces realize that there is nobody coming to the rescue, there is going to be no air medical evacuation, no air resupply, no close air support, that they will begin to either surrender, desert or not fight very hard," Petraeus went on to say. "We’ve seen some of that already.”
The U.S. has provided support, like C-130s and Blackhawk helicopters. But security experts say maintaining them will be difficult -- not just because the Afghans don’t have trained maintenance personnel but because the aircraft are being flown more often than even during the busiest months of the surge, with forces already stretched thin.
On Friday, a Taliban spokesperson embraced the evacuation, calling it “a positive step” toward peace and security. Adding to fears of collapse, a revival of regional militias and the potential for Al-Qaeda and ISIS to resurge. Meanwhile, Afghans near the air base tell reporters looters have been ransacking the grounds.