BAGRAM Airfield and Military Base, 70 kilometres north of Kabul was the epicentre of the 40-country coalition war to oust the Taliban from Afghanistan. At a point in 2012, over 100,000 U.S. troops passed through Bagram which is also a notorious detention centre where no human rights are observed. It was the symbol of American and NATO might in Afghanistan.
The American Newsweek Magazine in its Wednesday, July 14, 2021 issue gave a graphic description of Bagram: “The enormous base has two runways. The most recent, at 12,000 feet long, was built in 2006 at a cost of $96 million. There are 110 revetments, which are basically parking spots for aircraft, protected by blast walls… three large hangars, a control tower and numerous support buildings. The base has a 50-bed hospital with a trauma bay, three operating theatres and a modern dental clinic. Another section houses a prison, notorious and feared among Afghans.”
Bagram, built by the defunct Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, USSR in the 1950s, was a Soviet military base in the 1980s during its intervention in Afghanistan. On Friday July 2, 2021, the over 5,000 Taliban prisoners held in cells in Bagram noticed something strange; there were no guards in sight.
The locals in the vicinity also found the usually fortified base seemingly deserted. Some ventured in only to find it devoid of guards. The American troops in Bagram, had vanished, shutting down the power supply and abandoning the base and its human contents locked up in the cells!
It turned out that the American military left the base at 3.00am and headed for the airport while the Afghans and the American-backed government were sleeping. Words went out and for hours, the locals looted the feared base. General Asadullah Kohistani of the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces said the government got to know about the abandonment of Bagram four hours after the Americans left. Its troops then began the race to secure the base before the Taliban prisoners could become wiser and stage a break.
General Kohistani said apart from the prisoners, the Americans also abandoned their military ready-made meals, called MREs and tens of thousands of bottles of water and energy drinks. The Afghan soldiers also found thousands of civilian vehicles without keys, and hundreds of armoured vehicles.
Although American President Joe Biden had on April 14, 2021 announced that America would withdraw its troops by September 11, the twentieth commemoration of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in America, few would have suspected this would amount to a run, catching its local allies and the Taliban off guard.
But the latter made a quick recovery and went on a relentless offensive that has seen it take effective occupation of over two thirds of the country with Afghan soldiers fleeing to neigbouring countries like Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Also, the Taliban has taken major border crossings with Pakistan and Iran.
The situation of the Afghan government is worsened by the fact that the remaining 7,000 NATO forces have also melted away. The Afghan story is quite similar to the American invasion of Vietnam on November 1, 1955. Both wars which lasted 20 years each, were unnecessary conflicts America, perhaps believing in its invincibility, inherited.
Vietnam had been a colony of France before the Second World War in which the Germans routed the French. At the end of that war, France tried to recolonise Vietnam which the people resisted. In the ensuring war, the Vietnamese militarily defeated France following the famous Battle of Dien Bien Phu. After that battle from March 13-May 7, 1954 in which the besieged French army lost some 2,293 soldiers with 1,729 missing and 11,721 taken prisoner, France conceded defeat.
The victorious Vietnamese were already celebrating their independence from colonialism when the United States decided that they could not become an independent country because the popular forces that defeated France, were led by the Socialist leader Ho Chi Minh.
In the ensuing Vietnam War in which America used biological and chemical weapons, it lost 58,148 soldiers, 304,000 injured with 1,244 still missing. It also experienced what may be its highest rate of desertion when between July 1966 and December 1973, 503,000 US military personnel deserted.
Over two million Vietnamese on both sides died in the war, which saw America, like happened this month in Afghanistan, breaking into a run to get out. In the process, many of its local supporters were abandoned.
While America inherited the Vietnamese war following the defeat of France and rise of the communist Vietnamese, so did it inherit the Afghan War after the defeat of the Soviet Union and rise of the Taliban. Basically, the Americans did not want the Taliban in power, they preferred the Northern Alliance.
America saw in the 9/11 attacks traced to Osama Bin Laden who was then taking refuge in Afghanistan a good excuse to invade Afghanistan and not just take out the al Qaeda leader but also the Taliban government.
America learnt quite bitter lessons in Afghanistan. One of them was that when your enemy gives up its towns and cities, including its capital without putting up a fight, you should know they are planning brilliant strategies. When America invaded Afghanistan, the Afghan armed forces remained intact; it merely melted away to begin a guerrilla warfare that wore out the enemy.
When the Americans after its seeming victory, decided to build a new Afghan army, the clever Taliban asked its own recruits and supporters to enlist. So, America ended up training Taliban recruits. Also, the new army had undetected Taliban soldiers and sympathisers embedded.
The perception of the Afghan people was quite important. While the coalition forces were viewed by quite a number of Afghans as foreign invaders, and their local supporters as sell out, they saw the Taliban as fellow Afghans. Unlike groups such as al-Qaeda, ISIS and the Pakistani Taliban, the Afghan Taliban are not terrorists attacking people in various countries or being guns for hire, they never left their country.
If Bin Laden was the main reason for the invasion of Afghanistan, the coalition should have made peace with the Talban after he was killed on May 2, 2011. Over six years ago, America angrily rejected peace moves by its puppet Karzai government which believed the war against the Taliban was unwinnable. Events this month have vindicated it.
The Afghan War from 2001 to 2021 may yet be the biggest defeat of foreign troops in history; a rag tag army of locals took on 40 countries, including a total of 90,000 American soldiers, 40,000 Canadian troops and 150,000 British military personnel and remained undefeated!
As it was for the Americans in Vietnam, so is it for them in Afghanistan.