US Reportedly Didn’t Tell Afghan Army of Plans to Slink Out of Bagram Due to Fear of Taliban Attacks
19:07 GMT 28.09.2021 (Updated: 19:17 GMT 28.09.2021)
© AP Photo / Rahmat GulБаза Баграм в Афганистане
© AP Photo / Rahmat Gul
US forces left Bagram Air Base in the dead of night on 1 July, handing the strategic facility over to Afghan forces, who soon lost it to the Taliban. At the height of the US occupation, the base housed tens of thousands of US and NATO troops, and served as a logistics hub for the delivery of equipment and personnel across the country.
The Pentagon made the decision to quietly retreat from Bagram Air Base along a timetable approved by the White House, and did so in secret, without telling America’s Afghan partners ahead of time, due to fears that the Taliban would launch attacks on the base if they found out its defenses were weakened, Politico reports, citing current and former officials.
The decision to evacuate Bagram quickly was reportedly made at a meeting of senior military and civilian leaders in the basement of the Pentagon on 8 May, with the base’s handover to the Afghan Army to be taken when it was determined that there were no longer enough US troops on the ground to secure the strategic facility against potential Taliban attacks.
“All of them made the same argument: Speed equals safety,” one defence official present at the meeting said.
“They just decided they lost the argument, and OK fine let’s get the heck out of dodge,” a former senior defence official added, referring to a Pentagon plan to withdraw from the country in as little as 60 days, rather than the 11 September deadline originally presented by the White House in April.
Officials told Politico that the unexpected handover of Bagram to the Afghan side “spooked” the country’s security forces, while also making it more difficult to carry out the evacuation of Kabul starting in mid-August after the capital fell to the Taliban. Situated about 60 km outside Kabul, Bagram had two runways, rather than the one runway available in Kabul.
Austin Miller, commander of US Forces – Afghanistan, was a key proponent of a rapid retreat from Bagram, hatching a plan to do so as far back as March, before Biden announced that US troops would be withdrawing, according to officials.
Former Trump UN Envoy Haley Fears China Poised to Take Over Afghanistan’s Strategic Bagram Air Base
4 September 2021, 10:36 GMT
“General Miller made clear that speed mattered, and that if directed to withdraw, that his preference was to move as quickly as possible,” one defence official said, pointing to the dangers of possible Taliban attacks if US forces failed to leave the country by the original 1 May deadline outlined by the Trump administration in its February 2020 peace deal with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar.
US planners reportedly expected Afghan forces to keep control of the base for "at least a few months" after it was handed over, thereby allowing American forces to continue using the facility if necessary.
In June, amid a Taliban advance across the country, the Pentagon reportedly briefly put the Bagram withdrawal on pause to inform senior civilian leaders on the strategic situation. The White House apparently wasn’t convinced, and pushed the Pentagon to stick to its original deadlines. One defence official said that any changes to the withdrawal by that point would have effectively required a “reversal of policy” and the sending of more troops back into the country, with an estimate of “thousands of additional troops” reportedly thrown around.
Afghan forces took control of Bagram shortly after US forces left on 1 July, but not before looters managed to make off with office equipment, gas canisters, and other items before troops could secure the facility. The Taliban praised the evacuation at the time, calling it a “positive step” in the interests of both Washington and Kabul in achieving peace and security. Now-former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani toured Bagram a week after the handover, with officials saying they were “deeply impressed” by the “professionalism” of the Afghan security forces that took charge, and praising their “calm and discipline” in “handling this mammoth job.”
2 July 2021, 23:39 GMT
The Taliban captured Bagram on 15 August, the same day that Kabul collapsed and Ghani fled. Thousands of prisoners, including militants with suspected ties to al-Qaeda and Daesh (ISIS)*, were reportedly freed from the base’s detention facility.
Last month, sources close to the Biden administration told The Telegraph that the president ignored warnings regarding the speed of the withdrawal, with aides reportedly urging the “stubborn-headed” president to at least keep Bagram open due to its dual runways, but to no avail.
Republican lawmakers including Senators Ted Cruz and Lindsey Graham called the Bagram pullout a “catastrophic” decision and possibly “the biggest mistake in [the Afghan] debacle.”
22 August 2021, 17:04 GMT
* Terrorist groups outlawed in Russia and many other countries.