BAGRAM, Afghanistan (AP) — The U.S. left Afghanistan's Bagram Airfield after nearly 20 years by shutting off the electricity and slipping away in the night without notifying the base's new Afghan commander, who discovered the Americans' departure more than two hours after they left, Afghan military officials said.
Afghanistan’s army showed off the sprawling air base Monday, providing a rare first glimpse of what had been the epicenter of America’s war to unseat the Taliban and hunt down the al-Qaida perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks on America.
The U.S. announced Friday it had completely vacated its biggest airfield in the country in advance of a final withdrawal the Pentagon says will be completed by the end of August.
“We (heard) some rumor that the Americans had left Bagram ... and finally by seven o'clock in the morning, we understood that it was confirmed that they had already left Bagram," Gen. Mir Asadullah Kohistani, Bagram's new commander said.
Kohistani said the U.S. left behind 3.5 million items, all itemized by the departing U.S. military. They include tens of thousands of bottles of water, energy drinks and military ready-made meals, known as MRE's.
“When you say 3.5 million items, it is every small items, like every phone, every door knob, every window in every barracks, every door in every barracks,” he said.
The big ticket items left behind include thousands of civilian vehicles, many of them without keys to start them, and hundreds of armored vehicles. Kohistani said the U.S. also left behind small weapons and the ammunition for them, but the departing troops took heavy weapons with them. Ammunition for weapons not being left behind for the Afghan military was blown up before they left.
Afghan soldiers who wandered Monday throughout the base that had once seen as many as 100,000 U.S. troops were deeply critical of how the U.S. left Bagram, leaving in the night without telling the Afghan soldiers tasked with patrolling the perimeter.
"In one night, they lost all the goodwill of 20 years by leaving the way they did, in the night, without telling the Afghan soldiers who were outside patrolling the area,” said Afghan soldier Naematullah, who asked that only his one name be used.
Within 20 minutes of the U.S.'s silent departure on Friday, the electricity was shut down and the base was plunged into darkness, said Raouf, the soldier of 10 years who has also served in Taliban strongholds of Helmand and Kandahar provinces.
The sudden darkness was like a signal to the looters, he said. They entered from the north, smashing through the first barrier, ransacking buildings, loading anything that was not nailed down into trucks.
On Monday, three days after the U.S. departure, Afghan soldiers were still collecting piles of garbage that included empty water bottles, cans and empty energy drinks left behind by the looters.
Kohistani, meanwhile, said the nearly 20 years of U.S. and NATO involvement in Afghanistan was appreciated but now it was time for Afghans to step up.
“We have to solve our problem. We have to secure our country and once again build our country with our own hands,” he said.