In the dark of night: Did exit from Afghan base diminish US leadership?

An Afghan soldier strums a guitar left by U.S. troops at Bagram air base. American troops vacated the base, in Parwan province, Afghanistan, overnight on July 2, 2021.

Mohammad Ismail/Reuters

Before dawn last Friday, under cover of darkness, the last American troops stationed at the vast Bagram air base in Afghanistan slipped away, killing the lights.

They did not inform the new Afghan base commander, and before he could take control, looters had ransacked the former epicenter of the U.S. war against the Taliban.

The Americans had clearly wanted to pull out in secret for reasons of security. But the slapdash withdrawal was uncoordinated with the Afghan army, leaving thousands of vehicles, many without keys, behind, and a base without power. And it has attracted considerable attention for the message it conveys, not least from Afghans themselves, with some feeling betrayed.

Why We Wrote This

President Joe Biden has pledged to restore responsible American international leadership and moral standards. The way in which U.S. troops abandoned their biggest base in Afghanistan has undermined that message.

“It sounds very much like cut and run to me at this stage, and not taking responsibility,” says Timor Sharan, a former deputy minister in the Afghan government. “Yes, they have made a huge investment in this country and a lot of Afghans appreciate that. But the nature of this departure also raises a lot of frustration.”

For Lawrence Korb, a former U.S. assistant secretary of defense, it also raises broader questions about U.S. values and priorities.

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“It really reaches beyond Afghanistan because it stands in such contrast to what we’ve been hearing,” he says. “About how after ‘America First’ it’s now ‘America’s back,’ and ready to be the responsible global leader.” The Americans’ behavior last week undermined that message, he adds.

From the military’s perspective, however, such questions appear secondary. “When we talk about this drawdown, we talk about it being safe and orderly,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said this week. “Safe is the first word.”

And in the end, “there’s never a good way to leave in a situation like this,” says Richard Kohn, former chief historian of the Air Force. Having failed to win the two-decade-long conflict, “you are not going to do it with flags waving and bugles playing.”

How it resonates globally

What most struck Mr. Korb as “outrageous” about the departure from Bagram was the juxtaposition of a kick-in-the-pants farewell message to the Afghan military and President Joe Biden’s lofty talk of America’s return to the world stage as an ethical actor and trustworthy partner.

“It sends a terrible lesson to the Afghans that ‘the Americans don’t really care about us, despite what they said to [Afghan President Ashraf] Ghani in the White House’” last month, says Mr. Korb, who served under President Ronald Reagan.

The hasty pullout shocked some observers because it looked nothing like the “enduring relationship” with the United States that the Biden administration has been promising the Afghan government.

For others, the unceremonious departure, with its strong whiff of disregard for a longtime U.S. partner, struck a false note because it followed so closely on the heels of President Biden’s weeklong European trip – a tour intended to reassure international partners that the U.S. is ready to resume its role as global leader and moral standard-bearer.

U.S. President Joe Biden (right) meets with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani at the White House, in Washington, June 25, 2021.
Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

But stark as the contrast may be in this case between rhetoric and action, say some analysts, many U.S. allies and partners are so relieved by a return to some semblance of predictable American leadership that Washington may get a pass for its exit from Bagram.

“For the Europeans who were partners of the U.S. in Afghanistan, the major concern has been coordination of the withdrawal and getting a ‘heads up’ on major decisions. And as long as that’s been happening, I wouldn’t expect they would go out of their way to fault the U.S. on one aspect of the departure,” says Hugh Lovatt, a senior policy fellow at the London office of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

In the Middle East, Mr. Lovatt adds, though U.S. partners accept that Washington will lighten its footprint in the region, “they still want a relationship with the U.S., so the details of the Afghanistan withdrawal are not going to be what they focus on.”

Indeed, it’s more likely to be America’s adversaries than its friends who shine a light on questionable U.S. actions that undermine U.S. pretensions to moral leadership and ethical behavior, predicts Mr. Korb.

“I have no doubt [Russian President Vladimir] Putin will find a way to draw the world’s attention to U.S. behavior that can be justly described as shameful and demeaning,” Mr. Korb says.

Already this week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov blamed the “hasty withdrawal of NATO” for the “very worrisome” advances he says Islamic State militants are making in northern Afghanistan.

Still, in criticizing the U.S., Russia is highlighting its own contradictions, Mr. Lovatt says.

“On the one hand, it’s not surprising that Lavrov would take the opportunity to criticize the U.S. as being ‘reckless’ in the way it’s leaving Afghanistan,” he says. “But it’s also not that long ago that Russia was demanding NATO’s total withdrawal,” he adds. “It does seem to be a bit of a case of ‘be careful what you wish for.’”

What it means for Afghans

In Afghanistan, for those left behind, the U.S. departure from Bagram, one of the last and most important pieces of the U.S. withdrawal, may not yet be a Saigon-style emergency evacuation, with people clinging to the last U.S. helicopter as it rose above the embassy roof.

In a speech Thursday from the White House defending the Afghanistan withdrawal, President Biden pledged there would be no such scenario.

But this latest episode in America’s rushed exit from its longest war, which Mr. Biden said would be completed by Aug. 31, is seen as playing into the hands of advancing Taliban insurgents while eroding Afghans’ morale.

And the stealthy nature of the U.S. withdrawal was a shock, after nearly 20 years of using Bagram as America’s anti-terrorism, anti-Taliban, and nation-building hub in Afghanistan.

Even as the Taliban, emboldened by reports that U.S. forces would be gone before Mr. Biden’s September deadline, have stepped up advances against district centers and provincial capitals, the departure prompted some Afghans to ask: What was the world’s leading superpower afraid of?

Is it a superpower? It certainly doesn’t behave like one,” says Mr. Sharan, the former deputy minister, who is also director of the Afghanistan Policy Lab and an adjunct professor at the American University of Afghanistan.

“It has been clear that the Americans were leaving the country, but the sudden departure itself raises a lot of questions, [including] about America being a superpower – or projecting that image.”

American presidents since Barack Obama have sought to end the war in Afghanistan, but the effort took hold with a February 2020 withdrawal deal the U.S. signed with the Taliban, which spelled out a timetable for complete withdrawal.

U.S. units engaged in combating the Taliban and the Islamic State, as well as training Afghan forces to carry out the fight themselves, then shifted their focus to departure. Foreign troops began leaving remote outposts, often with little warning.

The disengagement from the large southern Kandahar airfield last January was a bellwether of the Bagram exodus – and emblematic of the challenges that will now be faced by the Afghans.

Kandahar and many small military bases were “handed over very badly,” says a Western official in Kabul, who asked not to be named.

“It’s not like saying, ‘Oh, we’ll come back and fix things, we’ll explain stuff to you,’” says the official. “No, they are just like, ‘Here, catch the key.’ People said, ‘We’ve got keys for doors with no idea what is behind it. Once we opened the door and had questions, there was nobody there to answer these questions.”

The result in Kandahar, too, shocked the Afghans involved.

“There were days afterwards when the radar was not on, the generators were not running … the tracking system to land at night was not working – they couldn’t figure out how to operate the lights on the runway, because nobody had told them,” says the Western official. “It’s a miracle that nothing crashed.”

At Bagram, the U.S. left a mountain of gear – 3.5 million items listed before departure, to be exact, including “every door knob, every window in every barracks,” the new Afghan base commander, Gen. Mir Asadullah Kohistani, told The Associated Press.

“In terms of implications, absolutely it has emboldened the Taliban, and that is why we have seen the collapse of districts – one-quarter of them in just one and a half months,” says Mr. Sharan.

“It’s also affected the morale of Afghan security forces,” he says. “Let’s not forget that our forces, for the past 20 years, have been fighting alongside the Americans, and are dependent on American advisers and air support. A lot of Special Forces, who developed a rapport with the American army, will feel very much betrayed by this.”

The U.S. military’s predicament

The dead-of-night reality also seemed to turn parody to prediction.

A decade-old piece from the satirical news website The Onion imagined a scenario in which soldiers “lay in their beds pretending to be asleep until well after midnight” then “tiptoed out” to a fleet of awaiting aircraft “as silently as possible so as not to wake the 30-million-person nation.”

In real life, U.S. forces reportedly left behind half-eaten Pop-Tarts and energy drinks among the pricier equipment, as well as Afghan forces whose first task post-withdrawal was to repel looters.

An Afghan man rests in his shop, where he sells secondhand U.S. materials, outside Bagram air base in Afghanistan, after the U.S. evacuation, July 5, 2021.
Mohammad Ismail/Reuters

The Pentagon’s Mr. Kirby stressed that while top Afghan officials had been briefed, the “exact hour” of withdrawal remained opaque with the goal of ensuring the Taliban didn’t attack the departing troops.

Still, the whole scene, widely deemed shoddy within the halls of the Pentagon, according to some officials there, seemed to powerfully crystallize the tensions within the U.S. military. While it is reluctant to give up, it serves a nation ready to be done with the war and a president with more pressing geopolitical concerns.

Most of all, analysts say, it highlights the wrenching realities of simply not winning a two-decades-long fight.

“There will be some veterans who fought in Afghanistan who will be upset seeing all the sacrifices they made for naught, but that’s the painful fact of a war that we lost. And I think, like Vietnam, that angst will fade over time,” says retired Col. Peter Mansoor, executive officer to Gen. David Petraeus in Iraq and now professor of military history at Ohio State University.

Says Dr. Kohn, the former Air Force historian: “It just doesn’t seem like a good medium-to-long-term place to stay. And if that’s the case, why would you delay the departure?”

That said, the exit could have been more graceful, the historians agree. “It’s their country and they knew we were leaving, but it’s more a question of professionalism,” Dr. Mansoor says. “It smacks of a rush to the exits, and I don’t think it’ll do anything for the morale of the Afghan army remaining behind.”

As if by way of example, one Afghan soldier told The Associated Press that the manner of the U.S. departure negated “all the goodwill of 20 years.”

Mr. Kirby was having none of that. “We’ve spent a lot of time, a lot of effort, a lot of resources in improving the competency and the capability of the Afghan National Security Forces,” he told reporters in a Pentagon briefing Tuesday. “Now it’s their turn.”

To this he added a dash of realpolitik. “Frankly,” he said, “It’s really about focusing on what we believe, as a country, are bigger national security challenges.” These, he added, include China and Russia.

In the short term, the withdrawal means that America “will certainly take a blow to its military reputation after a 20-year campaign [in which] the U.S. was unable to defeat this insurgency,” says retired Lt. Gen. David Barno, U.S. commander in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005.

But it shouldn’t make longtime military allies question U.S. fidelity, he says. “I don’t think Afghans and our allies around the world will say we’re a fair-weather friend. Billion and billions of dollars and 20 years is a pretty good investment for a war in one of the poorest, most remote countries in the world.”

The experience of the 2011 U.S. withdrawal from Iraq – where American troops were back fighting the Islamic State by 2014 – does, however, beg a pressing question: “Will this be a war,” Mr. Barno asks, “that the U.S. can actually walk away from?”