Era ends, war looms as US forces quit main base in Afghanistan

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American troops pulled out of their main military base in Afghanistan on Friday, leaving behind a piece of the World Trade Center they buried 20 years ago in a country that the top US commander has warned may descend into civil war without them.

“All American soldiers and members of NATO forces have left the Bagram air base,” said a senior US security official on condition of anonymity.

Though a few more troops have yet to withdraw from another base in the capital Kabul, the Bagram pullout brings an effective end to the longest war in American history.

The base, an hour’s drive north of Kabul, was where the US military has coordinated its air war and logistical support for its entire Afghan mission. The Taliban thanked them for leaving.

“We consider this withdrawal a positive step. Afghans can get closer to stability and peace with the full withdrawal of foreign forces,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told Reuters.

Other Afghans were more circumspect. “The Americans must leave Afghanistan and there should be peace in this country,” said Kabul resident Javed Arman. But he added: “We are in a difficult situation. Most people have fled their districts and some districts have fallen. Seven districts in Paktia province have fallen and are now under Taliban control.”

For the international forces, more than 3 500 of whom died in Afghanistan, the exit came with no pageantry. A Western diplomat in Kabul said the United States and its NATO allies had “won many battles, but have lost the Afghan war”.

It was at Bagram, by a bullet-ridden Soviet-built air strip on a plain hemmed in by the snow-capped peaks of the Hindu Kush, that New York City firefighters and police were flown to bury a piece of the World Trade Center in December, 2001, days after the Taliban were toppled for harbouring Osama bin Laden.

It was also here that the CIA ran a “black site” detention centre for terrorism suspects and subjected them to abuse that President Barack Obama subsequently acknowledged as torture.

Later it swelled into a sprawling fortified city for a huge international military force, with fast food joints, gyms and a cafe serving something called “the mother of all coffees”. Two runways perpetually roared. Presidents flew in and gave speeches; celebrities came and told jokes.

An Afghan official said the base would be officially handed over to the government at a ceremony on Saturday.

The US defence official said General Austin Miller, the top US commander in Afghanistan “still retains all the capabilities and authorities to protect the force” stationed in the capital, Kabul.

Earlier this week, Miller told journalists in Kabul that civil war for Afghanistan was “certainly a path that can be visualised”, with Taliban fighters sweeping into districts around the country in recent weeks as foreign troops flew home.