A US Air Force airman stands on the ramp of a C-130J Super Hercules before a mission from Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. US Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Paul Labbe, courtesy of DVIDS.
The curtain seems to be closing more rapidly on America’s longest war.
On Tuesday, John Kirby, the Pentagon’s press secretary, told reporters the Afghanistan withdrawal is nearing 50% complete. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin had previously said during a Thursday hearing with lawmakers that the withdrawal is “slightly ahead of schedule.” An Afghan security official told Agence France-Presse that the US will hand over Bagram Airfield to the Afghan government “in about 20 days.”
When pressed for a timeline regarding the airfield — the largest remaining facility in the country in American hands — Kirby declined to comment for “obvious operational security purposes.” Still, he did say the base “clearly” will be turned over to the Afghans at some juncture.
According to a weekly update provided by US Central Command, the withdrawal is between 30% and 44% complete. CENTCOM reported just a week ago that 16% to 25% of the process was complete, suggesting that the pace of the withdrawal is accelerating and that at least six facilities in the country already have been turned over to the Afghan government.
“We anticipate additional transfers of bases and military assets in the future which will support the ANDSF/GIRoA [Afghan National Defense and Security Forces] as they work to stabilize and defend their nation,” CENTCOM announced in a statement.
Last month, Afghan officials said the US had turned over Kandahar Airfield, which once housed about 30,000 US troops, according to Voice of America.
The handover of Bagram Airfield will mark a significant milestone in the US withdrawal. The installation, located to the north of Kabul, has long been the hub of US operations in Afghanistan. For nearly two decades, Bagram has served as the center of command and air operations throughout the country.
Speaking before the House of Representatives on Thursday, Austin said: “We will now transition to a new bilateral relationship with our Afghan partners. One that will not require a US footprint larger than what is required to protect our diplomats.”
It’s not yet clear whether US aircraft will continue to operate out of Bagram. However, the Pentagon is shifting additional US Navy air power to the region from the Pacific, something that hasn’t transpired since the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
The US Naval Institute reported that the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan will move from its usual operating area in the Pacific to support the withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan. The carrier is scheduled to arrive sometime this summer, marking the first time a Japan-based carrier strike group will be in the region since the USS Kitty Hawk deployed to the Persian Gulf in 2003.
“Without speaking to specific operations, the Secretary’s made it very [clear] that we want to make sure that General Miller has the options he needs […] to keep this a safe and orderly withdrawal,” Kirby said.
As the US exits at an accelerated pace, hope is renewed that peace negotiations will soon resume between the Afghan government and the Taliban. According to Agence France-Presse, a group of negotiators from the Afghan government headed to Qatar’s capital of Doha on Tuesday to resume stalled talks with the Taliban.
“Our team is ready for serious negotiations. There is no military solution to this conflict,” Najia Anwari, spokeswoman for the Afghan Ministry for Peace, told the French press agency, adding that a date for such negotiations has not been established.
James Webb served as a US Marine infantryman from 2005 to 2010, completing a combat tour in Iraq. He’s worked as a freelance writer and photojournalist covering US troops in Afghanistan, and Webb spent more than two years in the US Senate as a military legislative assistant and as the personal representative of a member on the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
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