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Nation & World

U.S. Military Has Withdrawn From Largest Base In Afghanistan, Handed Over Control

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Bagram Airfield, north of Kabul, closed yesterday with little fanfare. The base was turned over to Afghan forces, marking the end of the U.S. combat mission that began 20 years ago. This comes as the Taliban are taking over large swaths of territory, worrying members of Congress and Afghan officials. Joining us to talk about all this is NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Hi, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: You know the name Bagram Airfield sounds unassuming, but it was a massive base, the last major U.S. base in Afghanistan. Tell us about the significance of its closure.

BOWMAN: You know, Ari, it's very significant. Again, this is the last big base the Americans had. The other large base, Kandahar Airfield, closed a few weeks back. So Bagram closing really tells you this is the end.

And Bagram has quite a history. The Soviets built some huge aircraft hangars there. And when the U.S. Special Operations Forces went in to overthrow the Taliban in 2001, they were actually running gun battles all around Bagram. And over the years, it just grew and grew, with flight operations around the clock - cargo planes, attack aircraft, drones. And they set up many more buildings, everything from a hospital to a prison to several dining facilities, souvenir shops. They even had a shop where you could, Ari, order cars and motorcycles that would be delivered to you when you got home.

Now, tens of thousands of soldiers passed through here over the past two decades. And I've been going to Bagram almost every year since 2008. The first time I went there, I met this one-star general named Mark Milley, who was with 101st Airborne. Now, he's chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

SHAPIRO: What a history. President Biden mentioned today that the U.S. will continue to help Afghans. What does that help look like?

BOWMAN: Well, it's going to be largely financial. Some $3.3 billion has been set aside to help Afghan forces. And the U.S. talks about helping over the horizon. And that includes, for example, aircraft maintenance that can be done in Qatar. The U.S. is also sending dozens more Blackhawk helicopters to beef up the Afghan air force, but they still need a lot more pilots. The Taliban has been targeting them. So the U.S. and other countries will likely be training more pilots, but no detail on that right yet.

The real challenge will be that maintenance part. One hundred percent of the maintenance on the Blackhawks is done by American contractors, and they're all leaving with the American troops. So I'm told it's possible some contractors could remain in Afghanistan to be paid through the Afghan government. That's all being worked out. They may also do - get this telemaintenance from Qatar.

SHAPIRO: Is that help from the U.S. enough to keep Afghanistan from falling to the Taliban?

BOWMAN: You know, it depends who you talk with. It's a great concern. The Taliban now are surrounding urban areas throughout the country, cutting off major roads. So military officials are saying it's a 50/50 chance that Kabul could fall in the coming months.

I spoke with an Afghan general just the other day. His name is Sami Sadat. He leads Afghan forces in southern Helmand province. He was trained in the U.S. and Great Britain, highly respected by American officers. And he was upbeat about the way ahead. Let's listen.

SAMI SADAT: Lashkar Gah and Kandahar cities are safe, and we have enough forces and manpower and determination to defend it. And we plan to expand our security bubble beyond Lashkar Gah into the west, east and south.

BOWMAN: So he's talking about his area in Helmand Province. Now, not everyone is as upbeat or as competent as General Sadat. In other parts of the country, the Afghan forces are either falling to the Taliban or just, frankly, giving up.

SHAPIRO: Now that Bagram, the largest U.S. air base in Afghanistan, has closed, are there other U.S. military facilities that are still in the country?

BOWMAN: Well, you still have the headquarters in Kabul, where the top commander, General Scott Miller, is based. He had a small press briefing in the last week and said he was concerned there could be a civil war. Now, General Miller is expected to leave sometime in the next week or two with some sort of a ceremony, and that will really be the end, Ari, of the American fighting role.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Thank you.

BOWMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.