An American transport plane slid onto the airstrip, loaded with ammunition, a giant flat-screen TV from a CIA base, pallets of equipment and military personnel. It was one of the many planes that carried the remnants of the American war that night from that large military base in southern Afghanistan.
President Joe Biden has said the United States will withdraw its forces from Afghanistan until September 11, ending the longest U.S.-waged war on foreign soil. But the withdrawal has already started.
The United States and its NATO allies have spent decades expanding Kandahar Air Base into a city of war, filled with tents, operations centers, troop quarters, basketball courts. , ammunition storage hangars, aircraft hangars and at least one post office.
When the base has been stripped of everything its US and NATO tenants consider to be of potential military value, its skeleton will be turned over to the Afghan security forces.
And the message will be clear: Afghan forces will have to face the Taliban alone.
Judging by the scenes seen over the weekend, a trillion dollar war machine has turned into a yard sale. During the heyday of the airbase, in 2010 and 2011, its famous and very ironic boardwalk had cafeterias, chain restaurants, a hockey rink, and hardware stores.
Tens of thousands of US and NATO servicemen occupied the base, and many more passed through it, which became the largest center of the US-led war in southern Afghanistan. . The base was next to the rural villages where the Taliban came from. Everywhere, Kandahar province has remained a stronghold of insurgents.
Now the half-demolished outdoor fitness centers and empty hangars were filled with military equipment and gear accumulated for nearly 20 years. The passenger terminal, where troops passed between different parts of the war, was completely dark and full of empty, dusty chairs. A fire detector whistled intermittently, with weak batteries. The cafeterias were closed.
Of the elevated promenade, there were only a few planks left.
The American withdrawal, almost discreet and covered with a varnish of order, is totally at odds with the desperate situation seen outside the perimeter of the base. At one end of the Kandahar airstrip that day, Major Mohammed Bashir Zahid, an officer in charge of a small Afghan air command center, sat in his workroom with a phone in each ear and a third in his hands, typing messages on WhatsApp, trying to get air support for Afghan security forces on the ground and in nearby areas threatened by Taliban fighters.
“Yesterday we couldn’t even sit down, things were so chaotic,” he said. “I slept in my boots again and with my gun in the holster.”
Sitting in his air-conditioned room, built by the Americans, Zahid predicts that soon one of his requests for assistance from the Americans will be met in silence. On Saturday, he didn’t even ask for help. Instead, he focused on the helicopters and Afghan fighters he was able to reach.
His indignation at the departure of the Americans is not due to the lack of air support but on the contrary, he explained, showing pictures on his phone, of the sport utility vehicles that the Americans would have destroyed at the air base because that they couldn’t take. far.
“That’s what really bothers me,” Zahid said, with the exhausted appearance illustrating the sense of hopelessness of most Afghan soldiers. The Americans probably destroyed the vehicles not to let them sell, given the endemic corruption of many of the Afghan troops.
Zahid believed the Americans were destroying more of these vehicles when an explosion sounded on the airstrip at around 2 p.m.
It was a rocket, fired from somewhere outside the base and landed in it, but without killing anyone. The announcement over the base loudspeaker was distant and virtually indecipherable in the tin-shaped building that houses Zahid’s operations center. No one moved, the phones continued to ring, the work continued.
Although the rocket fell on the Afghan side of the base, the Americans viewed the incident as a Taliban attack on them. In a deal with the Taliban signed in February 2020, the Trump administration promised to completely withdraw all US forces from Afghanistan by May 1. In recent weeks, the Taliban have said any U.S. presence in the country beyond that date would be considered a violation of the agreement.
The US military expected some kind of attack by withdrawing, despite diplomatic gestures by US negotiators in Doha, Qatar, who tried to make the Taliban understand that the army was indeed withdrawing and that attacking the American troops would be unnecessary and a mistake.
The United States’ response was anything but subtle.
A group of F / A-18 fighters stationed on the nuclear aircraft carrier USS Eisenhower flew from the Arabian Sea to Afghanistan, a two-hour journey following the so-called “boulevard”, a corridor of the airspace in western Pakistan. As an air traffic road.
Having received approval to attack, the jets descended, dropping a GPS-guided bomb – ammunition that costs over $ 10,000 (R $ 53,700) – on the additional rockets somewhere in Kandahar mounted on runways. rudimentary and facing the air base. .
Inside the US airbase’s headquarters, two Green Berets – part of the increasingly small contingent still working there – watched video of this afternoon’s airstrike on their phones.
“Don’t forget to include it in tonight’s report,” one said. Bearded, tattooed and wearing T-shirts and baseball caps, Special Forces soldiers seemed out of place among what remained of cubicles and office furniture around them, many of which were being dismantled.
Televisions had been removed from the walls, printers were stacked on the sidewalk, badges previously affixed to the stone wall announcing who commanded HQ had long been removed. Although there will soon be fewer and fewer military personnel present each day, one soldier pointed out that the food and supply packages sent by the Americans to the soldiers have not declined. He was already accumulating a seemingly endless supply of Pop-Tart cookies.
The end of the war was nothing like the beginning. Something that began as an operation to overthrow the Taliban and kill the terrorists responsible for the September 11, 2001 attacks has grown in 20 years and has evolved into a multibillion-dollar military-industrial enterprise steeped in so much money that for years it seemed impossible to finish or dismantle it one day.
An oft-quoted Taliban saying went on all day: “You have the watches. We have the time.
In one of the many trash bags scattered around the base was a discarded wall clock. The second hand was still moving.