U.S. forces have left Bagram Airfield, the main American base in Afghanistan, and handed control over to Afghan National Security Forces, a U.S. defense official confirmed to VOA.
For nearly two decades the base, 60 kilometers north of Kabul, served as the center of the U.S. fight to remove Taliban forces from power and take down al-Qaida terrorists responsible for killing thousands of Americans on Sept. 11, 2001.
An Afghan Defense ministry spokesman Friday confirmed the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Bagram.
“All coalition and American troops have departed Bagram Air Base last night. The base was handed over to the ANDSF,” tweeted Fawad Aman. He said the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces will protect base and use it to combat terrorism.”
All Coalition and American troops have departed Bagram Air Base last night. The base was handed over to the ANDSF. ANDSF will protect base and use it to combat terrorism.
— Fawad Aman (@FawadAman2) July 2, 2021
General Austin “Scott” Miller, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, is still in the country overseeing American forces there, according to the official.
“General Miller still retains all the capabilities and authorities to protect the force,” the official told VOA, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Additional U.S. announcements on Afghanistan were not expected over the weekend, according to the official. Other media reports have suggested the withdrawal from Afghanistan could be completed by the U.S. Independence Day on Sunday, July 4.
Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, welcomed the reported announcement.
“We consider this withdrawal a positive step. Afghans can get closer to stability and peace with the full withdrawal of foreign forces,” he said, adding that the withdrawal was also beneficial for the U.S. government.
Pro-Taliban social media outlets erupted into celebrations in response to reports of the U.S. military vacating Bagram became public early Friday, declaring it the insurgent victory.
Tamim Asey, executive chairman of the Kabul-based Institute of War and Peace Studies, said Bagram airfield has been the entry and exit points of both the Soviets and the Americans.
“As a strategic base and airfield, it symbolizes everything that has gone right and wrong with the American intervention in Afghanistan,” Asey told VOA.
“Its grandeur and command at its peak once symbolized American dominance in the country and now its empty camps with equipment that Afghans can’t operate or maintain because it is too costly symbolizes abandonment and defeat,” he observed.
Miller told reporters in Kabul on Tuesday that the security situation was “not good right now” and cautioned the Taliban against attempting to take control of the country by force.
“A military takeover is not in the interest of anyone, certainly not for the people of Afghanistan,” said Miller.
Since May 1, when the withdrawal began, the Taliban has doubled the number of districts it controls, according to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Long War Journal. The Taliban has grabbed hold of more than 80 districts in the last two months, for a total of 157 Taliban-controlled districts.
Bradley Bowman, a defense expert with FDD and an Afghanistan veteran, said he expects the Taliban gains to “really pick up steam” once the withdrawal is complete.
“I fear and believe that we’re going to be back in Afghanistan in a few years, if not months,” he told VOA. “Clearly President (Joe) Biden made a political decision, that he’s entitled to as commander-in-chief, that was conditions-ignoring and ignored the advice of his commanders on the ground.”
Former U.S. Central Command head Ret. Gen. Joseph Votel told VOA last month the “forever war” narrative in the U.S. played heavily in the political dialogue surrounding the withdrawal decision, which he called disappointing.
“We still have forces in Japan. We still have forces in Korea decades and decades after the conflict has ended. And the reason we have them is because it demonstrates our resolve, it demonstrates our desire to support our interests, and it demonstrates our strong support for our partners on the ground,” he told VOA.
“I don’t think we’re in a situation where this is an immediate collapse type of scenario, but the Afghan forces are going to need support,” Votel added.
The United States has vowed to continue financially aiding the Afghan military, along with providing “over-the-horizon” advising and aircraft maintenance support. NATO has said it will continue training Afghan forces in a location outside of Afghanistan.
But the United States does not plan to support Afghan forces with air strikes after the U.S. troop withdrawal is complete, Gen. Frank McKenzie, the head of U.S. Central Command, told VOA in an interview two weeks ago. He added that counterterrorism strikes in Afghanistan will be limited to instances when attack plans have been discovered to strike the U.S. homeland or the homelands of its allies.
“That would be the reason for any strikes that we do in Afghanistan after we leave, (it) would have to be that we’ve uncovered someone who wants to attack the homeland of the United States, one of our allies and partners,” McKenzie told VOA.
Asked Tuesday whether the United States was reconsidering its post-withdrawal strategy to include defensive strikes against the Taliban, Kirby declined to “hypothesize” but stressed “the violence remains too high.”
“What we’d like to see is the Taliban returned to the peace process in a credible way. And as we see the events on the ground unfolding it certainly calls into question the sincerity of their efforts to be a legitimate credible participant in the peace process,” he said.
The Associated Press reported last week that roughly 650 U.S. troops are expected to remain in Afghanistan to provide security for diplomats after the withdrawal and several hundred additional American forces will remain at the Kabul airport, potentially until September, to assist Turkish troops providing security.
The officials were not authorized to discuss details of the withdrawal and spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity.
“Afghanistan is not going to be treated like any other nation where we have a Marine security guard. I mean, it’s Afghanistan, and we understand the dynamic nature of the security threat there,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told reporters Tuesday, declining to confirm specific numbers.
Ayaz Gul contributed to this story.