With little fanfare, the last major U.S. military base in Afghanistan has been handed over to the Afghans. While the U.S. military is not calling the departure from Bagram Air Field a formal end to the U.S. war effort, it does reflect a presence that has dwindled to a tiny remaining force.
This comes as members of Congress and Afghan officials express concern about the future of the country, as the Taliban takes over large swaths of territory in the countryside and as the prospect of an intensified civil war looms.
The U.S. drawdown marks the end to the longest war in American history, one that has challenged successive administrations as the prospect of quagmire loomed and the initial furor of 9/11 faded.
On President Bush's orders
On an October afternoon 20 years ago, President George W. Bush announced the invasion of Afghanistan.
"On my orders," Bush said from the White House, "the United States military has begun strikes against al-Qaida terrorists' training camps and military installations of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan."
He went on to say that the U.S. was joined in the invasion by "our staunch friend" Great Britain, then one by one listed others involved — Canada, Australia, Germany and France.
In recent days, troops from those countries, along with Italy and Poland, quietly left Afghanistan with virtually no ceremony and only a few words from officials when they arrived home.
"We have worked long and hard to stand here today," said Brig. Gen. Ansgar Meyer, the last commander of his country's contingent, during a ceremony at an air base in northern Germany. "As your commander, I can say for you: 'Mission accomplished.' You have fulfilled your task."
Whether any of the NATO or U.S. forces accomplished their mission is questionable. The Taliban forces are on the move across the country, surrounding district centers and threatening the approaches to Kabul itself. U.S. military officials say there's an even chance the capital will fall this year, while others say the country could fall in 12 months.
The top commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Scott Miller, is expected to formally depart in mid-July, after a ceremony with Afghan officials. Hundreds of U.S. troops will remain as a security force to protect the U.S. Embassy and Kabul airport.
Miller held a brief press conference at his headquarters in Kabul, but reporters were kept away from U.S. bases, such as Bagram Air Field, one of the first places seized by U.S. troops some 20 years ago. Bagram itself was recently turned over to Afghan authorities.
Both Miller and top Afghan official Abdullah Abdullah predicted a bleak future without U.S. and NATO forces.
"The security situation is not good," Miller told reporters in his last press conference. "A civil war path is visualizable."
"The truth is, today the survival, security and unity of Afghanistan is in danger," Abdullah said. "There is no better way than peace. With the withdrawal of foreign troops from the country, the war has escalated."
Blood and treasure
More than 2,400 American troops died in the war, and another 20,000 were injured. More than $1 trillion was spent on operations and training Afghan forces during those two decades. Tens of thousands of Afghans died in the fighting that still rages.
American officials insist the U.S. is not abandoning Afghanistan, even though both combat troops and trainers are leaving. President Biden pledged a "sustained" partnership. And Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said a focus of support will be the Afghan air force.
The U.S. will train Afghans and repair their equipment in another country in the Middle East, perhaps the United Arab Emirates. Some $3.3 billion will be slated to support the Afghan security forces, numbering some 300,000.
More Black Hawk helicopters will be sent to Afghanistan, and officials say U.S. contractors may continue to maintain them, with contracts set up through the Afghan government. Without contract support, officials say, the fledgling Afghan air force could be grounded in as little as two months.
'Time to come home'
When Biden announced that all U.S. forces would leave Afghanistan by Sept. 11, it caught many by surprise. The president's military advisers argued for keeping those 2,500 troops on the ground to pressure the Taliban to reduce violence and continue peace talks.
Biden was adamant. "I have concluded that it's time to end America's longest war. It's time for American troops to come home," he said.
Some are saying the abrupt withdrawal will only make matters worse.
"Washington should have learned that lesson from the Obama administration's withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 — where U.S. forces were forced to return in 2014," said Brad Bowman, a defense analyst with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. "Yet, the Biden administration is making the same mistake now in Afghanistan. President Biden is pursuing a timeline-based withdrawal that ignores continuing threats to American interests and the advice of commanders."
"We should get out. But this is not the right way to do it," said Paul Rieckhoff, founder and director of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. "Good on Biden as the first president to get us out. Bad on him to fumble this in a few critical ways."
Rieckhoff said the Biden administration failed to have a plan ready to ensure the safety of the thousands of Afghans who worked with the Americans as interpreters. "Now countless will die," he said.
Some already have died at the hands of the Taliban. The State Department is working on a plan to evacuate anywhere from 20,000 to more than 100,000 Afghans who worked for the United States. Depending on the security situation in Kabul, they could be moved to a country in the Middle East for the processing of special immigrant visas.
Rieckhoff also said, "The moral injury and mental health impact of this withdrawal is huge." Many are wondering about the loss of friends, and those grievously wounded, asking what was the point of their sacrifice?
"I'm hearing from a lot of docs and vets who are seeing a surge in need," he said, "and expecting a flood."
Ten years ago, after completing a series on the Marine battalion 3/5 "Darkhorse," which had the highest casualty rate of a Marine unit in Afghanistan, an NPR reporter asked a senior officer: Was it all worth it?
"That depends on how Afghanistan turns out," he replied.
An uncertain fate
While the Biden administration insists that the Taliban must reduce violence and peace talks must continue, some say that is unlikely now that the allied forces are gone.
"The Afghan peace process is now dead as a doornail," says Jeffrey Stacey, a longtime U.N. consultant in Afghanistan. "With equal parts of tragedy and irony, it was killed by Joe Biden's decision to withdraw the bulk of U.S. forces prematurely, right as NATO and Afghan forces were in the course of applying sufficient battlefield pressure needed to compel the Taliban to make concessions at the peace negotiations table in (Qatar)."
Talking with the Taliban was not the plan in 2001 when the U.S. swiftly overthrew the Taliban government, while its members sought refuge in Pakistan or went to ground in Afghanistan.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who recently passed away at age 88, dismissed any notion of talking, insisting on arrest or death for Taliban and al-Qaida members.
Meanwhile, President Bush pledged to help bring democracy to Afghanistan and an aid package that he likened to the Marshall Plan that helped rebuild Europe after World War II.
And Bush said he expected the Taliban to return.
"We expect cells of trained killers to try to regroup, to murder, create mayhem and try to undermine Afghanistan's efforts to build a lasting peace," he said. "We know this from not only intelligence but from the history of military conflict in Afghanistan. It's been one of initial success followed by long years of floundering and ultimate failure. We're not going to repeat that mistake."
That began the long war, with an increasing number of U.S. and NATO troops — as many as 150,000 — taking part as the Taliban not only regrouped but eventually gained more and more territory.
Looking back, officials and military officers point to a number of problems that plagued the effort from the start. Corruption was rampant within the Afghan government at all levels, driving average Afghans into the arms of the Taliban. And the U.S. never dealt effectively with that corruption.
Moreover, there was never sufficient faith in the Afghan government — as well as divisions among the various political factions.
The U.S. Army's own field manual on counterinsurgency states that success is difficult without a strong local partner and with the existence of safe havens. The U.S. and NATO never had a true partner early on with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and the Taliban safe havens in Pakistan that continue to this day.
Hearts and minds
Meanwhile, many average Afghans over time soured on an occupation by foreign forces.
Back in 2011, an NPR team was embedded with a U.S. Army unit destroying roadside bombs north of Kandahar, the largest city in the country's south.
A village elder, Said Gull, complained about the noise to Capt. Brant Auge, a West Point graduate from Mississippi.
When asked what he thought about the Americans — whether they should stay or go home — Gull said that Afghans do not need the Taliban or the U.S. forces. He then turned to an Afghan officer standing next to Auge and said, "This man is my brother. He will fight for me and with me."
With Auge, it is different, Gull said. "He is from a different religion. If he was my own religion, he would be my brother."
The U.S. always had difficulties fielding an adequate Afghan security force amid the corruption, the incompetence of some Afghan military leaders and the high illiteracy rates of the rank-and-file forces. And key support from the U.S. and its allies — with airstrikes and artillery fire, as well as medical assistance — was crucial to success on the battlefield.
"Afghan forces fighting side by side with U.S. and coalition forces that had fire support and Medevac support generally performed adequately," recalled retired Marine Lt. Gen. Larry Nicholson, who led forces in Helmand Province, in the south.
"However those Afghan units who fought alone had many more problems and challenges. Morale is everything to a military unit, and where we saw honest and ethical Afghan military leaders who cared for their troops, we saw positive results," he said. "If the climate was rife with corruption and personal gain for the military leaders, the morale was terrible and thus so was the performance against the enemy."
One Afghan officer who the Americans praise is Gen. Sami Sadat who was trained in both the U.S. and Great Britain and is leading Afghan forces in Helmand Province, where the Taliban are making gains in an area once controlled by Nicholson and his Marines after fierce fighting. The provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, has been threatened as is neighboring Kandahar Province.
"Lashkar Gah and Kandahar cities are safe and we have enough forces and manpower and determination to defend it," Sadat said in a brief phone call from Helmand. "We are keeping the surrounding districts under government control and we plan to expand our security bubble."
Whether the general can hold Helmand and whether the country descends into civil war is uncertain. But most analysts say what is certain is the violence will only get worse in the coming weeks and months.
And as far as America's involvement? Much like the U.S. military mission in Vietnam, it will be debated and dissected in books and university courses for many years to come.
"It is too soon to really understand what Afghanistan means for America, how we will remember it, what it's legacy will be," said Carter Malkasian, an adviser to the U.S. military in Afghanistan and a top Pentagon aide, whose latest book, “The American War in Afghanistan: A History,” was just released.
"I am painfully aware of the suffering of the war, but I also think we should not forget how many of our servicemen and women dedicated themselves to protecting Americans at home and also tried to help the Afghans."
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