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Nation & World

U.S. Departs Bagram Airbase

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

After two decades of war, the U.S. military has left its largest military base in Afghanistan. Bagram Airfield was the epicenter of the U.S. war. It grew to a sprawling city. Walk around inside - you see American fast food chains. Outside the gates, Afghans set up rows of shops to cater to U.S. troops and Afghans who work there. Bagram held crucial operational significance but symbolic power, too, as a sign of America's presence and commitment to Afghanistan. Now U.S. troops have left. NPR's Diaa Hadid joins us now. Diaa, good morning. What details can you share?

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Good morning. So Rachel, a U.S. defense official and an Afghan defense official both confirmed to NPR this morning that coalition forces had left the Bagram Air Base. This was first reported by Fox News. The American official we spoke to requested anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak to the media. He says they'd been coordinating a handover with Afghans over the past few weeks. And he says that the top American commander in Afghanistan, General Austin Miller, still does retain the capability and authority to protect remaining forces.

MARTIN: What does the departure, though, from Bagram say about the overall withdrawal?

HADID: It says a lot. It says that - it suggests that the American mission in Afghanistan is winding up soon - perhaps within days, certainly months ahead of President Biden's announcement that they'd be gone by the symbolic date of September 11. It's worth recalling most NATO soldiers have already left as of this week.

And then there's the symbolic significance, as you'd noted earlier, Rachel. This is the airfield that's long signaled who controls Afghanistan. The Soviets built it, the mujahedeen destroyed it in the '90s, and the Americans rebuilt it after 2001. You know, it's where tens of thousands of American forces first arrived in Afghanistan. It was the set epicenter of the war to oust the Taliban. So winding up Bagram and handing it over to Afghans is one of those turning points. It's where you can palpably see the American commitment to leaving Afghanistan.

MARTIN: And of course, the Soviets left after a failed war there. Now the U.S. is leaving. Diaa, just a couple days ago, the top U.S. general in Afghanistan, Austin Scott Miller, said the country is on a trajectory that could end in civil war. What's the status of the Afghan fight against the Taliban?

HADID: It is a civil war. What's clear is that - you know, with winding up Bagram and the American forces leaving - is that this is the end of the direct Western involvement in the Afghan war rather than an end to the war itself. In the past few weeks, the Taliban have been surging through Afghanistan. They've doubled the number of districts they hold. A respected think tank, the Afghanistan Analysts Network, reported today that Afghan forces had largely collapsed in the country's north and northeast. So as the last American forces leave, we can expect to see the Taliban trying to overrun provincial cities. And the fear is they'll try to march onto Kabul as well.

MARTIN: All right. NPR's Diaa Hadid covers Afghanistan and Pakistan. Diaa, thank you for this update. We appreciate it.

HADID: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.