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By Oren Liebermann and Sandi Sidhu, CNN
According to a US defense official, the last US troops left the Bagram Air Force Base, marking the end of the American presence on the vast area that has become the center of military power in Afghanistan.
The full withdrawal of US troops from the country has not yet been completed but is expected very soon.
Almost two decades after the first American troops arrived at Bagram and helped take control of the field after the 9/11 attacks, the handover of the field to the Afghan military was fanfare-free, a muted finale that marks the impending conclusion of Indicating America’s Longest War.
Once a dilapidated runway with little power in the surrounding buildings, the airfield became a small town with shops, gyms, and classrooms for the thousands of service members and contractors who worked on the base and its facilities.
The two-mile runway, littered with the dark black tire tracks of countless take-offs and landings, was the starting point for military operations across the country, with space for cargo planes, fighter jets, and attack helicopters. Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump visited Bagram during their tenure and pledged victory and a better future for Afghanistan.
But the withdrawal from Bagram, without any pomp or ceremony, is a symbolic victory for the Taliban, who waged a relentless cross-border fight against the Afghan military, pushed back government forces and overran a growing number of districts.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin spoke to Afghan Defense Minister Bismillah Khan Mohammadi on Thursday and said the United States was invested in “Afghanistan’s security and stability” as the withdrawal neared completion.
Bagram was the starting point for tens of thousands of soldiers who entered the country as part of the War on Terror, and the starting point for many of the nearly 2,000 U.S. soldiers killed during 20 years of fighting. Troops stood on the main road through the air base known as Disney Drive as the flag-hung coffins of soldiers killed in Afghanistan passed on their way to the airline for their final homeward journey.
The base has been the target of numerous Taliban attacks for years, including suicide bombings and rocket attacks. In the end, it wasn’t violence that led to the US exit, but diplomacy. The Pentagon had withdrawn its troop presence in Afghanistan for years, but the Doha Agreement signed between the Trump administration and the Taliban in Qatar in February 2020 signaled the beginning of the end. By mid-2011, there were nearly 100,000 U.S. soldiers in the country and another 35,000 U.S. contractors. A decade later that number had dropped to 2,500 soldiers and 18,000 contractors.
The Biden administration made it clear that the last remaining troops would be deposed no later than September 11th, but as the withdrawal progressed it became clear that they would be ours much sooner.
In the final days of the U.S. withdrawal, crews loaded cargo boxes onto cargo planes, reloading the last things considered valuable enough to remove from the country. On Tuesday, U.S. Central Command that oversees Afghanistan said it had removed the equivalent of nearly 900 C-17 cargoes from Afghanistan and destroyed nearly 16,000 pieces of equipment.
According to an Afghan Army source, two planes carrying US and coalition forces and equipment left the base on Thursday evening.
A third plane left the base early Friday morning, the source told CNN.
This story has been updated with additional information.
The CNN Wire
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CNN’s Anna Coren and Barbara Starr contributed to this report.