KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan — On the morning of May 1, an Afghan transport aircraft landed at this sprawling military base in the country’s south. It had been loaded with mortar shells, small-arms cartridges and 250-pound bombs to supply Afghan troops under regular attack by the Taliban in the countryside.
Afterwards, at midnight, a gray American C-130 transfer aircraft taxied down the exact same runway, marking the end of this first official day of the U.S. army’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. The cargo plane was filled with munitions, a giant flat screen television by a C.I.A. foundation (called Camp Gecko), pallets of gear, and — in the actual sign of the coming end of a long occupation — departing American troops. It was one of several aircraft that night removing what remained of the war here.
Afghans keep fighting and fighting with fleeting hopes of peace even while the Americans depart, adhering to a timeline set out by President Biden to completely withdraw by Sept 11. The decision was opposed by his own generals but begrudgingly stenciled on whiteboards from U.S. bases around Afghanistan, for example Kandahar Airfield, a former Soviet base that has been among the Americans’ largest.
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Once the airfield is stripped of everything deemed sensitive by its American and NATO landlords, its own skeleton is going to be handed over to the Afghan security forces.
The scenes across the weekend proved nearly as if a trillion-dollar war machine had squeezed into a garage sale. At the airfield’s summit in 2010 and 2011, its renowned and much derided boardwalk housed snack shops, chain restaurants, a hockey rink and trinket shops. Tens of thousands of U.S. and NATO troops were based here, and a lot more passed through as it became the main installation for its U.S.-led warfare in Afghanistan’s south. It stood beside rural villages where the Taliban emerged; throughout it all, the province has remained an insurgent stronghold.
Now, half-demolished outdoor fitness centers and empty hangars were full of almost 20 years’ worth of matériel. The passenger terminal, in which troops once transited between various areas of the war, was pitch black and full of vacant, dust-covered chairs. A fire alarm sensor — its batteries feeble — chirped incessantly. The mess halls were shuttered.
The boardwalk was nothing more than a few remaining boards. The American withdrawal, almost silent, and using a veneer of orderliness, belies the dire circumstances just past the bottom’s wall.
“Yesterday, you wouldn’t have been able to sit down because things were chaotic,” he said.
Sitting in his U.S.-built air-conditioned workplace, Major Zahid said he anticipated that one day soon his requests for assistance from the Americans will be met with silence. On Saturday, he did not even ask. He focused instead on which Afghan helicopters and bombers he could achieve.
His anger in the U.S. departure was not about the lack of air service but instead, pointing to pictures on his phone, concerning the sport utility vehicles he said the Americans had destroyed at the airfield since they could not leave with them.
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“Now, this is what really upsets me,” Major Zahid said, looking exhausted and encapsulating the feeling of desperation of Afghan soldiers. The Americans most likely destroyed the vehicles to stop them from being sold off, given the rampant corruption much of the positions.
Major Zahid believed the Americans were ruining more of those vehicles when an explosion echoed across the runway at around two p.m.
The blast was a rocket, fired from somewhere away from the base and landing someplace indoors, killing no one. The announcement from the base loudspeaker was remote and practically indecipherable in the can-shaped building that housed Major Zahid’s operations centre. Nobody moved, telephones rang, work continued.
The Trump government had agreed to fully withdraw all forces from Afghanistan by May 1 in a deal with the Taliban signed in February 2020. In recent weeks, the Taliban reported that any American presence in the country beyond or on that date could be regarded as a breach of the offer.
The U.S. army had been expecting some sort of assault since it left — despite the diplomatic overtures from American negotiators in Doha, Qatar, who had tried to communicate to the Taliban that the military was in fact leaving, and that attacking American troops proved to be a fool’s errand.