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U.S. Leaves Largest Afghan Base as Full Withdrawal Nears

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U.S. Leaves Largest Afghan Base as Full Withdrawal Nears

With little fanfare, Bagram Air Base was handed over to the Afghan government, ending nearly two decades in which the Americans waged war from there.

KABUL, Afghanistan—American troops and their Western allies have departed Bagram, Afghanistan’s largest air base, officials said on Friday, turning over to the Afghan government the sprawling outpost from which the United States waged war for nearly two decades.

With little fanfare and no public ceremony, American troops left the base on Thursday night, U.S. and Afghan officials said.

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

The closure of Bagram, a symbol of America’s costly operations in Afghanistan, comes just weeks before the planned withdrawal of U.S. troops, who entered the country in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

The U.S. will leave a contingent of 650 troops to protect the United States Embassy in Kabul, the capital.

The departure comes at a perilous time for Afghanistan.

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Some U.S. intelligence estimates predict that the Afghan government could fall to its rivals, the Taliban, in as little as six months after the Americans complete their withdrawal. The Taliban are inching closer to Kabul after having taken about a quarter of the country’s districts in the last two months.

Hundreds if not thousands of members of the Afghan security forces have surrendered in recent weeks, while their counterattacks have taken back little territory from the Taliban. And as the Afghan forces fracture, regional militias have appeared with renewed prominence, in an echo of the 1990s civil war.

“Civil war is certainly a path that can be visualized,” the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Austin S. Miller, told reporters on Tuesday. Though the last 40 years of conflict in Afghanistan could be seen as civil war, a return to the fractious era of warlords and armed fiefdoms has long been feared.

With a line of snow-capped mountains as its backdrop, the Bagram airfield was built in the 1950s by the Soviet Union. It became a vital military hub during the Soviets’ 10-year occupation of Afghanistan. After the Soviets withdrew in 1989, the Taliban and what was known as the Northern Alliance fought for the base, sometimes with their trenches at either end.

By 2001, the United States had inherited rubble at the Bagram site. In January 2002, when the first American service member killed by enemy fire, Sgt. 1st Class Nathan R. Chapman, was sent home, there were no American flags to drape on his casket, so a flag patch from someone’s uniform had to suffice.

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By 2011, at the height of the American war, the base had ballooned into a small city, with two runaways, tens of thousands of occupants, shops and a U.S. military prison that became notorious for its use as a C.I.A. black site.

Author: Thomas Gibbons-Neff
This post originally appeared on NYT > Top Stories

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U.S. Leaves Largest Afghan Base as Full Withdrawal Nears
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