Day 1 of the End of the U.S. War in Afghanistan

by akoloy

KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan — A grey American transport airplane taxied down the runway, carrying munitions, a large flat display tv from a C.I.A. base, pallets of kit and departing troops. It was one among a number of plane that night time eradicating what remained of the American battle from this sprawling navy base within the nation’s south.

President Biden has mentioned that the United States will withdraw from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, ending the nation’s longest battle on international soil — however the pullout has already begun.

The United States and its NATO allies spent a long time constructing Kandahar Airfield right into a wartime metropolis, full of tents, operations facilities, barracks, basketball courts, ammunition storage websites, plane hangars and no less than one publish workplace.

Once the bottom is stripped of the whole lot deemed delicate by its American and NATO landlords, its skeleton can be handed over to the Afghan safety forces.

And the message can be clear: They are on their very own within the battle in opposition to the Taliban.

The scenes over the weekend had been nearly as if a multitrillion-dollar battle machine had morphed right into a storage sale. At the airfield’s peak in 2010 and 2011, its well-known and far derided boardwalk housed snack outlets, chain eating places, a hockey rink and trinket shops. Tens of 1000’s of U.S. and NATO troops had been based mostly right here, and lots of extra handed by way of because it grew to become the primary set up for the U.S.-led battle in Afghanistan’s south. It stood beside rural villages from which the Taliban emerged; all through all of it, the province has remained an rebel stronghold.

Now, half-demolished out of doors gyms and empty hangars had been full of practically 20 years’ value of matériel. The passenger terminal, the place service members as soon as transited between totally different components of the battle, was pitch black and full of empty, dust-covered chairs. A fireplace alarm detector — its batteries weak — chirped incessantly. The mess halls had been shuttered.

The boardwalk was nothing quite a lot of remaining boards.

On the opposite facet of the bottom that morning, an Afghan transport plane arrived from Kabul. It was loaded with mortar shells, small-arms cartridges and 250-pound bombs to produce Afghan troops underneath frequent assault by the Taliban within the countryside.

The American withdrawal, nearly quiet, and with a veneer of orderliness, belies the determined circumstances simply past the bottom’s wall. On one finish of Kandahar Airfield that day, Maj. Mohammed Bashir Zahid, an officer in control of a small Afghan air command heart, sat in his workplace, a telephone to every ear and a 3rd in his fingers as he typed messages on WhatsApp, making an attempt to get air assist for Afghan safety forces on the bottom and in close by outposts threatened by Taliban fighters.

“Yesterday, you wouldn’t have been able to sit down because things were so chaotic,” he mentioned. “I fell asleep with my boots on and my gun in my holster.”

Sitting in his U.S.-built air-conditioned workplace, Major Zahid mentioned he anticipated that sooner or later quickly his requests for assist from the Americans can be met with silence. On Saturday, he didn’t even ask. He concentrated as a substitute on what Afghan helicopters and bombers he may attain.

His anger on the U.S. departure was not in regards to the lack of air assist however fairly, pointing to footage on his telephone, in regards to the sport utility autos that he mentioned the Americans had destroyed on the airfield as a result of they couldn’t go away with them.

“Now, this is what really upsets me,” Major Zahid mentioned, wanting exhausted and encapsulating the sense of desperation of most Afghan troopers. The Americans most definitely destroyed the autos to forestall them from being offered off, given the rampant corruption in a lot of the ranks.

Major Zahid thought that the Americans had been destroying extra of these autos when an explosion echoed throughout the runway at round 2 p.m.

The blast was a rocket, fired from someplace outdoors the bottom and touchdown someplace inside, killing nobody. The announcement from the bottom loudspeaker was distant and virtually indecipherable within the can-shaped constructing that housed Major Zahid’s operations heart. Nobody moved, telephones rang, work continued.

Even although the rockets landed on the Afghan facet, the Americans considered it as a Taliban assault on them. The Trump administration had agreed to completely withdraw all forces from Afghanistan by May 1 in a cope with the Taliban signed in February 2020. In current weeks, the Taliban mentioned that any American presence within the nation on or past that date can be thought of a breach of the deal.

The U.S. navy had been anticipating some sort of assault because it left — regardless of the diplomatic overtures from American negotiators in Doha, Qatar, who had tried to convey to the Taliban that the navy was in truth leaving, and that attacking American troops was a idiot’s errand.

The American response was not delicate.

A flight of F/A-18 fighter jets, stationed aboard the usS. Eisenhower, a nuclear-powered plane service, had been within the air, making their approach towards Afghanistan from the Arabian Sea — a roughly two-hour flight up what is named “the boulevard,” a hall of airspace in western Pakistan that serves as an air transit route.

Having acquired approval to strike, the jets swooped in, dropping a GPS-guided munition — a bomb that prices nicely over $10,000 — on the extra rockets that had been someplace in Kandahar, mounted on rudimentary rails and aimed on the airfield.

Inside the American headquarters constructing on the airfield, two Green Berets — a part of the shrinking contingent who work there now — pulled up the video of the afternoon airstrike on one among their telephones.

“Make sure that goes in the nightly brief,” one among them mentioned. The Special Forces troopers, bearded and clad in T-shirts, ball caps and tattoos, appeared misplaced amongst what was left of the cubicles and workplace furnishings round them, a lot of which was being torn aside.

Televisions had been faraway from partitions, workplace printers sat on the curb, the insignia as soon as plastered on the stone wall that heralded who was in control of the headquarters, lengthy gone. Even although there would quickly be fewer and fewer service members round every day, one soldier famous that the movement of care packages from random Americans had not slowed down. He now possessed what appeared like an infinite provide of Pop-Tarts.

A gaggle of American troopers, tasked with loading an incoming cargo flight didn’t know once they had been going residence. Tomorrow? Sept. 11? Their job was to shut Kandahar earlier than shifting on to the subsequent U.S. base, however there have been solely so many installations left to dismantle. A trio of them performed Nintendo whereas they waited. One talked in regards to the grime bike he was going to purchase when he acquired residence. Another traded cryptocurrency on his iPhone.

When requested about Maiwand, a district solely about 50 miles away the place Afghan forces had been making an attempt to fend off a Taliban offensive and Major Zahid was desperately making an attempt to ship air assist, a U.S. soldier responded, “Who’s Maiwand?”

In the night, the bottom loudspeaker chimed as one of many transport planes departed. “Attention,” somebody out of view mentioned. “There will be outgoing for the next 15 minutes.” The boring thud of mortar fireplace started. At what was unclear.

The finish of the battle appeared nothing like the start of it. What began as an operation to topple the Taliban and kill the terrorists liable for the assaults on Sept. 11, 2001, had swelled over 20 years right into a multitrillion-dollar military-industrial enterprise, infused with a lot cash that for years it appeared unattainable to ever conclude or dismantle.

Until now.

The Taliban’s often-repeated adage loomed over the day: “You have the watches, we have the time.”

In one of many many trash luggage littering the bottom, there was a discarded wall clock, its second hand nonetheless ticking.

Najim Rahim and Jim Huylebroek contributed reporting.

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