KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan – A gray American transport plane rolled down the runway carrying ammunition, a giant flat screen TV from a CIA base, pallets of equipment, and departing troops. It was one of several aircraft that night that removed the remains of the American War from this sprawling military base in the south of the country.
President Biden has said the United States will withdraw from Afghanistan by September 11th to end the country’s longest war on foreign soil – but the withdrawal has already begun.
For decades, the United States and its NATO allies have built Kandahar Airfield into a war city of tents, operations centers, barracks, basketball courts, ammunition dumps, aircraft hangars and at least one post office.
As soon as the base is cleared of anything that is classified as sensitive by its American and NATO landlords, its skeleton will be handed over to the Afghan security forces.
And the message will be clear: you are alone in the fight against the Taliban.
The weekend scenes were almost like a multi-billion dollar war machine turned into a flea market. At the height of the airfield in 2010 and 2011, the famous and much-derided boardwalk was home to snack shops, chain restaurants, a hockey rink, and jewelry stores. Tens of thousands of US and NATO troops were stationed here, and many more passed when it became the main installation for the US-led war in southern Afghanistan. It stood next to rural villages from which the Taliban emerged; The province has remained an insurgent stronghold everywhere.
Now half-ruined gyms and empty hangars have been filled with material worth nearly 20 years. The passenger terminal, where service members once paced back and forth between different parts of the war, was pitch black and filled with empty, dust-covered chairs. A fire alarm – the batteries are weak – chirped continuously. The exhibition halls were closed.
The boardwalk consisted of only a few remaining boards.
An Afghan transport plane from Kabul arrived on the other side of the base that morning. It was loaded with mortar shells, small arms cartridges and 250-pound bombs to supply Afghan troops, who were frequently attacked by the Taliban in the countryside.
The American retreat, almost calm and with a veneer of order, belies the desperate circumstances just behind the base wall. At one end of Kandahar Airfield that day, Maj.Mohammed Bashir Zahid, an officer in charge of a small Afghan air command center, sat in his office with a phone in each ear and a third in hand while typing messages on WhatsApp . seek air support for Afghan security forces on the ground and at nearby outposts that are threatened by Taliban fighters.
“You couldn’t have sat down yesterday because things were so chaotic,” he said. “I fell asleep with my boots and my gun in my holster.”
Major Zahid sat in his US-built, air-conditioned office and said he expected that one day the Americans would answer his request for help with silence. On Saturday he didn’t even ask. Instead, he focused on what Afghan helicopters and bombers he could reach.
His anger about the departure in the USA was not about the lack of air support, but about the pictures that the Americans had destroyed on the airfield because they could not leave with them.
“Well, that’s what really upsets me,” said Major Zahid, looking exhausted and epitomizing the desperation of most Afghan soldiers. The Americans most likely destroyed the vehicles to keep them from being sold, given the widespread corruption in many ranks.
Major Zahid believed the Americans destroyed more of these vehicles when an explosion echoed down the runway around 2 p.m.
The explosion was a missile that was fired from somewhere outside the base and landed somewhere inside and didn’t kill anyone. The announcement from the base loudspeaker was far away and practically indecipherable in the can-shaped building in which Major Zahid’s operations center was located. Nobody moved, phones rang, work went on.
Although the rockets landed on the Afghan side, the Americans saw it as an attack by the Taliban on them. The Trump administration had agreed to completely withdraw all armed forces from Afghanistan by May 1 under an agreement signed with the Taliban in February 2020. For the past few weeks, the Taliban have said any American presence in the country on or after that date would be considered a violation of the deal.
The US military had expected some sort of attack – despite diplomatic remarks by American negotiators in Doha, Qatar, who tried to convey to the Taliban that the military is indeed leaving and that it is a fool to attack American troops on assignment.
The American response was not subtle.
A flight of F / A-18 fighter planes stationed aboard the USS Eisenhower, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, was in the air and flew from the Arabian Sea to Afghanistan – approximately a two-hour flight on what is known as “the Boulevard” , an airspace corridor in western Pakistan that serves as an air route.
After getting permission to strike, the jets pushed forward and dropped GPS-guided ammunition – a bomb costing well over $ 10,000 – on rudimentary rails on the extra missiles that were located somewhere in Kandahar were aimed at the airfield.
At the American headquarters of the airfield, two Green Berets – part of the shrinking contingent now working there – checked the video of the airstrike that afternoon on one of their phones.
“Make sure that goes into the nightly letter,” said one of them. The Special Forces soldiers, bearded and dressed in T-shirts, ball caps and tattoos, looked out of place between the cubicles and office furniture around them, much of which was being torn apart.
Televisions had been removed from the walls, office printers sat on the curb, the insignia had once been glued to the stone wall that announced who was in charge of headquarters had long since disappeared. Though there would be fewer and fewer service members each day, one soldier noted that the flow of care packages from random Americans hadn’t slowed. He now had a seemingly endless supply of pop tarts.
A group of American soldiers tasked with loading an incoming cargo flight did not know when they were going home. Tomorrow? September 11? Their job was to shut down Kandahar before moving on to the nearest U.S. base, but there were only so many facilities left to dismantle. A trio of them played Nintendo while they waited. One was talking about the dirt bike he would buy when he got home. Another was trading cryptocurrency on his iPhone.
When asked about Maiwand, a district only 80 km away where Afghan forces were trying to repel a Taliban offensive and Major Zahid was desperately trying to send air support, a US soldier replied: “Who is Maiwand?”
In the evening the base loudspeaker sounded as one of the transport aircraft took off. “Watch out,” said someone from line of sight. “It will run out for the next 15 minutes.” The thud of mortar fire began. What was unclear about.
The end of the war did not look like the beginning. What began as an operation to overthrow the Taliban and kill the terrorists responsible for the attacks on September 11, 2001, had developed over 20 years into a multi-billion dollar military-industrial company filled with so much money that it seemed impossible for years ever close or dismantle.
The often repeated adage of the Taliban surfaced during the day: “You have the clocks, we have the time.”
In one of the many garbage bags on the base was a discarded wall clock with the second hand still ticking.
Najim Rahim and Jim Huylebroek contributed to the coverage.