KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan — On the morning of Might 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 underneath 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 top of the primary official day of the U.S. navy’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. The cargo aircraft was crammed with munitions, a large flat display tv from a C.I.A. base (often called Camp Gecko), pallets of kit, and — in the actual sign of the approaching finish of an extended occupation — departing American troops. It was one in every of a number of plane that night time eradicating what remained of the American struggle right here.
Afghans continue fighting and dying with fleeting hopes of peace even whereas the Individuals depart, adhering to a timeline laid out by President Biden to fully withdraw by Sept 11. The choice was opposed by his generals however begrudgingly stenciled on whiteboards in U.S. bases throughout Afghanistan, equivalent to Kandahar Airfield, a former Soviet base that has been one of many Individuals’ largest.
As soon as the airfield is stripped of every thing deemed delicate by its American and NATO landlords, its skeleton will likely be handed over to the Afghan safety forces.
The scenes over the weekend have been nearly 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 outlets, chain eating places, a hockey rink and trinket shops. Tens of hundreds of U.S. and NATO troops have been primarily based right here, and lots of extra handed by because it turned the principle 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 have been crammed with almost 20 years’ price of matériel. The passenger terminal, the place troops as soon as transited between totally different elements of the struggle, was pitch black and crammed with empty, dust-covered chairs. A hearth alarm detector — its batteries weak — chirped incessantly. The mess halls have been shuttered.
The boardwalk was nothing quite a lot of remaining boards.
The American withdrawal, nearly 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 middle, sat in his workplace, a cellphone to every ear and a 3rd in his arms 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 have been so chaotic,” he mentioned. “I fell asleep with my boots on and my gun in my holster.”
Sitting in his U.S.-built air-conditioned workplace, Main Zahid mentioned he anticipated that sooner or later quickly his requests for assist from the Individuals could be met with silence. On Saturday, he didn’t even ask. He concentrated as a substitute on what Afghan helicopters and bombers he might attain.
His anger on the U.S. departure was not in regards to the lack of air assist however relatively, pointing to photos on his cellphone, in regards to the sport utility automobiles that he mentioned the Individuals had destroyed on the airfield as a result of they couldn’t depart with them.
“Now, that is what actually upsets me,” Main Zahid mentioned, trying exhausted and encapsulating the sense of desperation of most Afghan troopers. The Individuals more than likely destroyed the automobiles to forestall them from being bought off, given the rampant corruption in a lot of the ranks.
Main Zahid thought that the Individuals have been destroying extra of these automobiles when an explosion echoed throughout the runway at round 2 p.m.
The blast was a rocket, fired from someplace outdoors 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 middle. No one moved, telephones rang, work continued.
Though the rockets landed on the Afghan facet, the Individuals considered it as a Taliban assault on them. The Trump administration had agreed to completely withdraw all forces from Afghanistan by Might 1 in a take care of the Taliban signed in February 2020. In current weeks, the Taliban mentioned 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 actual fact leaving, and that attacking American troops was a idiot’s errand.
The American response was not refined.
A flight of F/A-18 fighter jets, stationed aboard the usS. Eisenhower, a nuclear-powered plane service, have been within the air, making their method towards Afghanistan from the Arabian Sea — a roughly two-hour flight up what is named “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 properly over $10,000 — on the extra rockets that have 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.
“Be sure that goes within the nightly transient,” one in every of them mentioned. 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. Though there would quickly be fewer and fewer service members round every day, one soldier famous that the move 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 once they have been going residence. Tomorrow? Sept. 11? Their job was to shut Kandahar earlier than transferring on to the subsequent 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 in regards to the filth bike he was going to purchase when he acquired residence. One other traded cryptocurrency on his iPhone.
When requested about Maiwand, a district solely about 50 miles away the place Afghan forces have 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 mentioned. “There will likely be outgoing for the subsequent quarter-hour.” The boring 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 enterprise, infused with a lot cash that for years it appeared not possible to ever conclude or dismantle.
The Taliban’s often-repeated adage loomed over the day: “You’ve the watches, we have now 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.