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BAGRAM, Afghanistan – For nearly 20 years, Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan was the anchor for America’s war, its two sprawling runways being used to launch bombings, homewards, medical evacuations, mail trips and USO shows.
But despite years of preparation for this moment, the departure of the Americans in Bagram last week was marked by little fanfare, apparently as incoherent as the Afghan government’s plan for the next steps.
The Taliban have been carrying out attacks across the country for weeks, killing members of the Afghan security forces and forcing hundreds to surrender. Across the country, warlords – power brokers from the 1990s civil war and new militia commanders – are calling on Afghan civilians to join their makeshift armies to defend the country.
The clash of government forces, Taliban fighters, warlords and citizen militias signals that the violence will almost certainly worsen. The U.S. military is expected to leave the country entirely by September 11th as President Biden keeps his promise to bring the American forces home from the nation’s longest foreign war.
The new tenants in Bagram are the Afghan security forces, who will inherit the conflict the US built for them, as well as fields of military equipment, vehicles and weapons that will long represent the grim legacy of the war and the country’s uncertain future .
To continue the fight, the United States has left its tan and green pickups and Humvees behind, along with its Hesco barriers, the cube-shaped, dirt-filled boxes that were used to build and protect American, now Afghan, outposts.
But so many US-supplied weapons have been captured, bought, or stolen by the insurgents that it would be difficult to verify the facts if the Taliban said they had more American M16s than Russian Kalashnikovs. Even the US Inspector General overseeing the war in Afghanistan is unsure how many American firearms have been sent into the country to support the security forces in the past two decades.
The physical objects left behind are reminiscent of decades of losses – appalling numbers of deaths on all sides, especially among Afghan civilians, as well as devastating injuries. Also, the failed strategies cobbled together by a number of American generals are now part of history who said everything was on schedule and everything was going well.
About a mile from the air force base that the American forces left behind on Thursday evening is a squat row of brick and steel shops with Afghan vendors, the custodians of the physical relics that fell from the back of trucks and were salvaged from piles Rubbish. A black coffee mug that says “Been there … done that, Operation Enduring Freedom” is just one of thousands of items that tell a story from what was once considered “the good war”.
Hashmatullah Gulzada was behind the counter in one of those stores, a closet-sized store he opened a year ago after working as a truck driver. The cramped spaces were filled from floor to ceiling with war relics, snacks, bags, and personal care products.
The quiet resignation of shopkeepers like Mr Gulzada has echoed for some time in Bagram, a city of vines and an economy that depends on the garbage from an airport that has been used by two superpowers for the past 40 years.
Even with some of the last American cargo planes to depart on that day in late June, Mr. Gulzada was still not entirely sure that the United States would depart in full.
“If they leave, business will be bad,” said Mr. Gulzada.
Near the windowsill was a single red rip-it, the sugar- and caffeine-rich energy drink that kept thousands of US and NATO soldiers awake on patrol or in the cabs of armored vehicles so big the Afghans saw them Call tanks.
Mr Gulzada says Rip It costs 120 afghanis, about $ 1.50, a high price related to the love of energy drinks that Afghan youth developed after the 2001 US invasion. (A billboard from Rip It in Kabul, the capital, testifies to this devotion).
On the floor of his shop, in a pile of knickknacks and shampoo bottles, lies a weathered black stripe with wide Velcro straps known as a “combat application tourniquet”. Almost every American soldier and contractor traveling through Afghanistan carried one with them as its ease of use has saved many lives.
More than 20,000 US soldiers were wounded in Afghanistan. (Another 1,897 were killed in action and 415 died of “non-hostile” reasons.) The combat tourniquet was in many cases, a staple of the roadside bomb slaughter or armed attack, fumbled out of a pouch and slipped hastily one limb mutilated upwards and tightened until the bleeding stopped.
Mr Gulzada sells the tourniquet for about 25 cents less than Rip It. Medical vendors buy it, shopkeepers say, along with the foldable American stretchers that carried the wounded and dead across the battlefield and are now for sale. They merge with a few artificial Christmas trees from the pedestal that found their way into stores.
The Christmas decorations probably adorned the corners of a staff office on the airfield in one place or another. Bagram Air Base rose from a partially destroyed former Soviet military airfield in 2001 to a mini-town at the height of the war in 2011. It had tens of thousands of residents, fast food restaurants, shops, and an infamous military prison that was later turned over to the Afghans.
But Bagram, as it was then, was dismantled, slowly at first, as the U.S. presence waned. As they left, the Americans destroyed things like armored cars and more than 15,000 other pieces of equipment that were considered surplus property, a collective term that allows U.S. forces to destroy items so they won’t be sold for profit by Afghans.
Farid, another shopkeeper on the Strip who uses a name like many Afghans, said most of the material that has left the base in recent weeks has been destroyed and disposed of as trash, which helped scrap but little available posed to fill its shelves.
Not everything was dismantled or ruined. Under a cot in another shop lay a pair of used brown combat boots, a trademark of the nearly 800,000 US soldiers who have roamed Afghanistan in the past two decades.
Their distinctive prints enabled the Taliban to track down American patrols in the desert-covered south. In the inexorable terrain of the east, such as the Korengal Valley, boots quickly broke when soldiers made strenuous climbs and waded through ice-cold streams.
To Americans, the boots were what they saw as they stared at the earth one step at a time, patrol after patrol, wondering if their weight would set off a roadside bomb buried underneath.
After all these years of fighting, many of the places where US and international troops marched are in the hands of the Taliban. This is especially true now as the insurgent group draws closer and closer to Kabul and districts are falling one by one by military force or other means. The Afghan forces have recaptured some, but not nearly enough to break the momentum of the offensive.
Even today, the Taliban are less than 80 kilometers from Bagram, which can be clearly felt in the shops near the base. A shopkeeper who refused to give his name pointed to a bulletproof plate used in body armor and said it was no longer for sale.
“This is for us,” he said. “Tomorrow will be war.”
Fatima Faizi contributed to the coverage.