KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan — On the morning of Could 1, an Afghan transport plane landed at this sprawling navy base within the nation’s south. It was loaded with mortar shells, small-arms cartridges and 250-pound bombs to produce Afghan troops beneath frequent assault by the Taliban within the countryside.
Later, at midnight, a grey American C-130 transport plane taxied down the identical runway, marking the tip of the primary official day of the U.S. navy’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. The cargo aircraft was stuffed with munitions, an enormous flat display screen tv from a C.I.A. base (generally known as Camp Gecko), pallets of apparatus, and — in the true sign of the approaching finish of an extended occupation — departing American troops. It was one in every of a number of plane that evening eradicating what remained of the American struggle right here.
Afghans proceed combating and dying with fleeting hopes of peace even whereas the Individuals go away, adhering to a timeline laid out by President Biden to completely withdraw by Sept 11. The choice was opposed by his generals however begrudgingly stenciled on whiteboards in U.S. bases throughout Afghanistan, akin to Kandahar Airfield, a former Soviet base that has been one of many Individuals’ largest.
As soon as the airfield is stripped of every part deemed delicate by its American and NATO landlords, its skeleton might be handed over to the Afghan safety forces.
The scenes over the weekend had been virtually as if a trillion-dollar struggle machine had morphed right into a storage sale. On the airfield’s peak in 2010 and 2011, its well-known and far derided boardwalk housed snack retailers, chain eating places, a hockey rink and trinket shops. Tens of hundreds of U.S. and NATO troops had been based mostly right here, and plenty of extra handed via because it turned the primary set up for the U.S.-led struggle 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 outside gyms and empty hangars had been stuffed with almost 20 years’ price of matériel. The passenger terminal, the place troops as soon as transited between completely different elements of the struggle, was pitch black and stuffed with empty, dust-covered chairs. A hearth alarm detector — its batteries weak — chirped incessantly. The mess halls had been shuttered.
The boardwalk was nothing various remaining boards.
The American withdrawal, virtually 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 accountable for 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, attempting 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 in a position to sit down as a result of issues had been so chaotic,” he stated. “I fell asleep with my boots on and my gun in my holster.”
Sitting in his U.S.-built air-conditioned workplace, Main Zahid stated he anticipated that in the future quickly his requests for assist from the Individuals could be met with silence. On Saturday, he didn’t even ask. He concentrated as an alternative on what Afghan helicopters and bombers he may attain.
His anger on the U.S. departure was not concerning the lack of air assist however relatively, pointing to footage on his telephone, concerning the sport utility autos that he stated the Individuals had destroyed on the airfield as a result of they couldn’t go away with them.
“Now, that is what actually upsets me,” Main Zahid stated, wanting exhausted and encapsulating the sense of desperation of most Afghan troopers. The Individuals probably destroyed the autos to forestall them from being offered off, given the rampant corruption in a lot of the ranks.
Main Zahid thought that the Individuals 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 exterior 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 Main Zahid’s operations heart. No person moved, telephones rang, work continued.
Regardless that the rockets landed on the Afghan aspect, the Individuals considered it as a Taliban assault on them. The Trump administration had agreed to completely withdraw all forces from Afghanistan by Could 1 in a cope with the Taliban signed in February 2020. In current weeks, the Taliban stated that any American presence within the nation on or past that date could be thought of a breach of the deal.
The U.S. navy had been anticipating some type 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 reality 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 known as “the boulevard,” a hall of airspace in western Pakistan that serves as an air transit route.
Having obtained approval to strike, the jets swooped in, dropping a GPS-guided munition — a bomb that prices effectively over $10,000 — on the extra rockets that had been someplace in Kandahar, mounted on rudimentary rails and aimed on the airfield.
Contained in the American headquarters constructing on the airfield, two Inexperienced Berets — a part of the shrinking contingent who work there now — pulled up the video of the afternoon airstrike on one in every of their telephones.
“Make it possible for goes within the nightly report,” one in every of them stated. The Particular Forces troopers, bearded and clad in T-shirts, ball caps and tattoos, regarded 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 accountable for the headquarters, lengthy gone. Regardless that there would quickly be fewer and fewer service members round every day, one soldier famous that the movement of care packages from random Individuals had not slowed down. He now possessed what appeared like an infinite provide of Pop-Tarts.
A bunch of American troopers, tasked with loading an incoming cargo flight didn’t know after they had been going house. Tomorrow? Sept. 11? Their job was to shut Kandahar earlier than shifting on to the following 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 concerning the filth bike he was going to purchase when he received house. One other traded cryptocurrency on his iPhone.
When requested about Maiwand, a district solely about 50 miles away the place Afghan forces had been attempting to fend off a Taliban offensive and Main Zahid was desperately attempting to ship air assist, a U.S. soldier responded, “Who’s Maiwand?”
Within the night, the bottom loudspeaker chimed as one of many transport planes departed. “Consideration,” somebody out of view stated. “There might be outgoing for the following quarter-hour.” The uninteresting thud of mortar hearth started. At what was unclear.
The top of the struggle regarded 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 endeavor, infused with a lot cash that for years it appeared inconceivable to ever conclude or dismantle.
The Taliban’s often-repeated adage loomed over the day: “You could have the watches, we now 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.