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Afghanistan turmoil

US troops leave largest Afghan base, ending 20-year stay

Biden says withdrawal 'on track,' but won't be completed in days

A C-17 Globemaster III takes off into the mountains at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan. In 2012, at its peak, Bagram saw more than 100,000 U.S. troops pass through it. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Air Force)

TOKYO/NEW YORK -- All U.S. forces have withdrawn from Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan, the Afghan Defense Ministry said Friday, ending their nearly two-decade deployment at the largest American military base in the country.

The U.S. military had used Bagram, a Soviet-built airstrip about 60 km north of the Afghan capital of Kabul, as an entry point for its forces. The installation also has provided a launch point for air attacks since coalition forces took it over in 2001.

In December 2001, New York City firefighters and police were flown to bury a piece of the World Trade Center in Bagram, days after the Taliban was toppled for harboring Osama bin Laden.

"All Coalition and American troops have departed Bagram Air Base last night," tweeted Fawad Aman, spokesperson for Afghanistan's Ministry of Defense, who added that the base has been handed over to the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces. The withdrawal of forces from the base symbolizes the end of American military involvement in the country.

Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby later told reporters that Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin approved a plan on Friday to transfer command authority over the Afghanistan mission from Gen. Scott Miller, the top U.S. military commander there, to Gen. Frank McKenzie, the commander of the U.S. Central Command, later this month.

Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani, right, meets Gen. Austin "Scott" Miller, commander of U.S. forces and NATO's Resolute Support Mission in Kabul, Afghanistan on July 2.   © Reuters

U.S. President Joe Biden told reporters at the White House: "We're on track, exactly as to where we expected to be."

When asked whether the drawdown of troops will be completed in a few days, the president answered "no."

Biden explained that the Bagram withdrawal at this juncture was "to make sure there was enough, quote, 'running room,' that we could get" ahead of his September deadline. "There will still be some forces left. But it's a rational drawdown with our allies."

"So there's nothing unusual about it," he said.

The U.S. and the Taliban agreed to a peace deal in February 2020 that included an eventual withdrawal of American troops. Biden followed up in April by announcing that 2,500 personnel stationed in Afghanistan would be removed by Sept. 11 -- the 20-year anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks. It marks the end of an operation that once saw up to 100,000 American troops on the ground.

But the American military will keep a small contingent of troops in Afghanistan indefinitely, largely to provide security for the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.

Meanwhile, the Taliban is maintaining its offensive and expanding the territory under its control. Concerns remain that the pullout of U.S. troops will worsen security in Afghanistan.

The United Nations envoy for Afghanistan said last week that the Taliban had taken more than 50 of the country's 370 districts and was positioned to control provincial capitals as the country looked increasingly unstable with foreign military support ending. Beyond its traditional strongholds in the south, the Taliban has taken control of areas like Kunduz, in the north, where it traditionally has not had influence.

U.S. Army soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division prepare the ground to bury a piece of rubble from the World Trade Center at Bagram Airfield in December 2001.    © Reuters

Turkey has offered to take over protection of Kabul's Hamid Karzai International Airport. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made the proposal to Biden at the recent meeting of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Turkey is the sole member of NATO with a Muslim majority, and it has historical ties with Afghanistan. Over 500 Turkish troops are engaged in the NATO mission in Afghanistan.

For Afghanistan, where three-fourths of the land is mountainous, the Kabul airport is a crucial gateway with the outside world. Without an open gateway, it will be difficult for diplomats and aid workers to be based in the country.

Ankara sees an opportunity to improve relations with Washington. Following its decision to purchase Russian S-400 surface-to-air missiles, Turkey has been subject to U.S. sanctions and was kicked out of the F-35 combat aircraft development project.

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