WASHINGTON – American military troops have left Bagram Airfield and handed the base over to Afghan security forces, the Associated Press reported on Friday.
The U.S. departure from the base – which served for nearly two decades as the hub of the American-led war against al-Qaida and the Taliban – suggests a full American withdrawal is imminent, even as some U.S. officials warn that a resurgent Taliban could soon topple the Afghan government.
The American withdrawal – except those troops needed to protect the U.S. embassy in Kabul – could be finished by July 4, although U.S. officials have not specified a timeline and President Joe Biden suggested it would be longer.
Asked if the withdrawal would be done in a matter of days, Biden answered “no,” and said, “I wanted to make sure there was enough ‘running room’,” so the Pentagon didn’t face a crunch ahead of his September deadline. He said the drawdown was “on track” with expectations.
Most European troops have pulled out of Afghanistan in recent days, quietly withdrawing months before the U.S.-led mission officially ended — part of an anticlimactic close to the “forever war” that risks leaving the country on the brink of civil war.
NATO agreed to withdraw its roughly 7,000 forces from Afghanistan in April, after Biden’s announced his decision to pull all American troops from the country by Sept. 11 – the 20-year anniversary of the terrorist attacks that triggered America’s longest war.
Biden’s national security advisers have emphasized that U.S. will continue to support Afghanistan with humanitarian and economic assistance.
“We’re going to stick with you,” Biden said in a June 25 meeting with Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani and other officials. Ghani said Biden’s decision to withdraw would mark a “new chapter” in the U.S. relationship with Afghanistan.
But the security situation in Afghanistan has grown increasingly dire, as Taliban fighters rout Afghan forces in districts across the country. The commander of the U.S.-led mission in Afghanistan, Gen. Austin Miller, recently offered a stark public assessment of Afghanistan’s future.
“Civil war is certainly a path that can be visualized if it continues on the trajectory it’s on,” Miller told reporters during a June 29 news conference in Afghanistan. “That should be a concern for the world.”
Republicans in Congress have echoed those concerns and warned the U.S. withdrawal could jeopardize hard-fought gains in the fight against al-Qaida.
In his remarks to reporters Friday, Biden said he believed the Afghan government could sustain itself and noted the U.S. will continue to provide Afghan forces some support from outside the country.
“We have worked out an over-the-horizon capacity,” the president said, though how the U.S. will execute that is still unclear.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki noted last week that the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan was set in motion by former President Donald Trump. Under a deal Trump’s advisers brokered with the Taliban, the U.S. agreed to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan and the Taliban promised to sever its ties with al-Qaida and end its attacks on American forces.
Biden announced the Sept. 11 deadline earlier this year, arguing the U.S. had achieved its goal of routing al-Qaida and that it was “time for American troops to come home.”
At the war’s peak, the U.S. and NATO military numbers surpassed 150,000. The conflict has cost more than $2 trillion, according to a Brown University analysis released in April. More than 2,400 American service members were killed, along with scores of allied troops, humanitarian workers, journalists and tens of thousands of civilians.
Biden’s decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan “is consistent with his view over the last 20 years about the war,” Psaki said. But she also noted that the Taliban had threatened to renew its attacks on American forces if the U.S. failed to adhere to the Trump administration’s agreement.
“That was not something, as the Commander-in-Chief, that he felt was acceptable,” she told reporters last week.
Contributing: Tom Vanden Brook, Associated Press