The only notice was on July 8. The Afghan commander was informed that he had 24 hours to put up a perimeter guard around Bagram Air Base. He wasn’t told that US personnel would sneak away the next day.  

There was no training for the Afghans to run Bagram. Indeed, some parts of Bagram had been off-limits to Afghan personnel. Even keys to start trucks and vehicles left behind were, well, missing.

It is hard to imagine more ignominious behavior by US forces. Was it done to assure the safety of American and allied personnel? Even if that was the case, there surely were better ways to conduct a base handover that assured Afghan allies that the US would continue to support them.

Prior to the Bagram episode, President Joe Biden called both former presidents Barack Obama and George W Bush to explain his withdrawal decision. While Bush remained silent about the call last April, he obviously did not support Biden’s decision. 

Biden, in an intentional snub, did not call former president Donald Trump, so by his action and by default he has earned the opposition of all US Republicans. 

Bagram was the largest US base in Afghanistan. It hosted runways capable of handling C-5 Galaxy and formerly Russian An-225 aircraft. It is a poorly kept secret that heavy US and NATO supplies were often delivered on chartered 225s, the world’s largest transport aircraft.

The one operational An-225 is owned by a charter service in Ukraine and based at Gostomel Antonov Airport there.

Along with US military personnel who left Bagram, contractors working there also departed ahead of the final US pullout from the base. These personnel provided a variety of services including supporting Afghan aircraft, most notably helicopters. Without that support, it will be perhaps an insurmountable challenge for the Afghan military to maintain its air wing.

Afghan National Army soldiers inspect a vehicle after US forces left Bagram airfield in the north of Kabul on July 5, 2021. Photo: AFP / Haroon Sabawoon / Anadolu Agency

The Afghans have now taken control of a very large property that will be hard for them to defend, and not of great use for supporting Afghan ground forces. It is not clear what systems still function or remain in place, such as air warning radars, or even if the hardware to run the airport’s control tower is still there. 

When the US troops left in the middle of the night, power on the base was shut down and the Afghan perimeter guards were left, in more than one way, in the dark.

The US invaded Afghanistan on October 7, 2001 and has remained in Afghanistan since then, with the final withdrawal of US forces expected to be completed in September. The war has cost the US more than US$1 trillion by some estimates. 

Approximately 2,000 US soldiers – and many more wounded – and hundreds of thousands of Afghan combatants were killed over the years, not counting even heavier civilian losses.

The Afghan war, in parallel in part to the wars in Iraq and Syria, drained US supplies and wore out much combat equipment, including front-line fighter aircraft and long-range strategic bombers including the B-1 bomber. 

The US was never able to work out an effective counter-offensive capability against the Taliban, which has survived and gained strength as the US began reducing troop strength and effective coverage in Afghanistan.

Some military experts think the Taliban will gain full control of Afghanistan in six months to a year, but a collapse could come even sooner as government officials and managers retreat from the country. 

There are already reports in some provinces of Afghan troops surrendering to the Taliban and officials secretly getting on planes and leaving the country. A number of Afghani troops have headed to Tajikistan.

CENTCOM says it has already handed over seven other bases in Afghanistan, increasing the power vacuum in the country.  

An Afghan National Army helicopter takes off inside Bagram US airbase after all US and NATO troops left. How much longer they can keep flying is an unanswered question. Photo: AFP / Wakil Kohsar

While the US has made a major effort in the past few years to train up Afghan forces, it would appear that with the US out, there isn’t much chance that the Afghan army will hold together as a fighting force.

It no longer has effective US or NATO air cover, no assured resupply of needed ammunition and spare parts, a paucity of technicians to maintain equipment and, more importantly, not much evidence of fighting spirit and a national outlook amongst the Afghan troops. 

Even the Kabul government understands the situation is extremely dangerous and is engaging old-time warlords in the country to fight the Taliban, including in the capital Kabul. There is a worry that the Taliban may stage an attack on the US embassy in Kabul, which has about 400 American personnel and 4,000 locals working in its large compound.

The manner of the US pullout – abrupt, unceremonious and without any apparent lifeline to the Kabul government – is bound to cause problems for the US worldwide, where the currency of US resolve and support has been badly devalued first in the Middle East and now in Afghanistan.

America’s Asian allies also have to be worried about Washington’s reliability. One can expect urgent high-level assessments in Taipei, Tokyo and Seoul, among others, and maybe a shift away from relying on the US for security.

As for Afghanistan, Biden has consigned the Kabul government to the dustbin of history.