The Last Americans Have Left Bagram Airfield

July 2, 2021James R. Webb
bagram rangers

Rangers assigned to 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, provide security on McChord Airfield during a Multilateral Airborne Training exercise, Oct. 8, 2014. US Army photo by Spc. Gabriel Segura, courtesy of DVIDS.

In an exodus that one source described as akin to an “EXFIL for airfield seizure,” the last US forces at Bagram Airfield departed Friday. The unannounced and hasty withdrawal of American troops marks the end of major US military operations in Afghanistan, which began in late September 2001. According to The New York Times, the US handed the facility over to the Afghan government on Thursday night.

A source in the special operations community provided Coffee or Die Magazine with text messages describing the 75th Ranger Regiment’s dramatic departure from Bagram. Army officials would not verify information in the texts, but one message described a huge one-day airlift of over 700 people, and close to 40 Air Force C-17s and C-130s rapidly sortieing in and out of the airfield in the final hours. The messages said at least one helicopter gunship patrolled the skies nearby as the planes loaded and left, and that mortars were fired as troops loaded the aircraft.

Three of the 160th’s MH-47D Chinooks on the flight line in Bagram, Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of Matt Rogie.

Fawad Aman, a spokesman for Afghanistan’s Ministry of Defense, told The New York Times that the Afghan military “will protect the base and use it to combat terrorism.”

The sprawling base ringed by mountains an hour north of Kabul has been the hub of three wars over the last four decades. Initially built by the Soviets in the 1950s, the base hosted its first US president in 1956, when Dwight Eisenhower arrived on a goodwill visit to the region. Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump all visited US troops at Bagram during their presidencies. President Joe Biden passed through the base during his time as vice president. 

In the 1980s, the airfield was a substantial logistical and operational base for the Soviet Union during its occupation of Afghanistan, a role the base would play again for 20 years with American forces. American and coalition forces began operations at the airfield when US Army Rangers seized the facility from the Taliban in October 2001. By then, much of the Soviet-era buildings at Bagram had been reduced to mostly rubble in the grinding civil war between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance.

us troops bagram
Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, in 2002. US and coalition forces handed the airfield over to the Afghan government on Thursday evening. Photo courtesy of Brandon Young.

Under the US, Bagram — or “BAF” to most who passed through it — quickly grew into a small walled city, enclosing 6 square miles. According to The Guardian, some 40,000 military personnel and civilian contractors were stationed there at its peak.

While Bagram was a central logistical and operational hub for coalition forces in Afghanistan, it wasn’t without controversy. Bagram housed a notorious “black site” used by intelligence agencies to interrogate prisoners. According to NBC News, while the site was closed in 2014, it was part of a secretive network of more than 20 sites run by Joint Special Operations Command, and the Bagram site was said to be the “most secretive.”

With Bagram closed, US forces in Afghanistan are now almost entirely confined to Kabul. According to The New York Times, a contingent of 650 troops will remain at the US embassy in Kabul and US Central Command Commander Gen. Frank McKenzie will keep an additional 300 troops in Afghanistan until September. 

With the US’s largest remaining airfield in Afghanistan now closed, questions remain about what will happen to the nearly 70,000 Afghans waiting for special visas to enter the US. The closure of Bagram significantly diminishes US logistical capabilities for a mass airlift. While US officials have said they intend to evacuate those Afghans to neighboring countries, details on how that will be accomplished remain thin. 

Read Next: ‘Human-Rights Catastrophe in the Making’ Without Presidential Action, Afghan Allies Could Be Doomed

James R. Webb
James R. Webb

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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