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 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 airplane was crammed with munitions, an enormous flat display screen tv from a C.I.A. base (often known as Camp Gecko), pallets of kit, and — in the true sign of the upcoming finish of a protracted occupation — departing American troops. It was one in every of a number of plane that evening eradicating what remained of the American battle right here.
Afghans proceed preventing and dying with fleeting hopes of peace even whereas the People depart, 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, resembling Kandahar Airfield, a former Soviet base that has been one of many People’ largest.
As soon as the airfield is stripped of all the pieces deemed delicate by its American and NATO landlords, its skeleton shall be handed over to the Afghan safety forces.
The scenes over the weekend had been nearly as if a trillion-dollar battle 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 had been primarily based right here, and plenty of extra handed by because it turned the principle set up for the U.S.-led battle 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 crammed with practically 20 years’ price of matériel. The passenger terminal, the place troops as soon as transited between completely different components of the battle, was pitch black and crammed with empty, dust-covered chairs. A hearth alarm detector — its batteries weak — chirped incessantly. The mess halls had 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 heart, sat in his workplace, a cellphone to every ear and a 3rd in his fingers as he typed messages on WhatsApp, attempting to get air help 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 sooner or later quickly his requests for assist from the People could be met with silence. On Saturday, he didn’t even ask. He concentrated as a substitute on what Afghan helicopters and bombers he may attain.
His anger on the U.S. departure was not concerning the lack of air help however somewhat, pointing to photos on his cellphone, concerning the sport utility automobiles that he stated the People had destroyed on the airfield as a result of they couldn’t depart 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 People almost certainly destroyed the automobiles to stop them from being offered off, given the rampant corruption in a lot of the ranks.
Main Zahid thought that the People had 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 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 one moved, telephones rang, work continued.
Despite the fact that the rockets landed on the Afghan facet, the People seen it as a Taliban assault on them. The Trump administration had agreed to completely withdraw all forces from Afghanistan by Could 1 in a take care of 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 refined.
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 method 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 acquired approval to strike, the jets swooped in, dropping a GPS-guided munition — a bomb that prices nicely 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, seemed 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. Despite the fact that there would quickly be fewer and fewer service members round every day, one soldier famous that the circulation of care packages from random People 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 had been going dwelling. 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 concerning the dust bike he was going to purchase when he acquired dwelling. 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 help, 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 shall be outgoing for the subsequent quarter-hour.” The boring thud of mortar fireplace started. At what was unclear.
The top of the battle seemed nothing like the start of it. What began as an operation to topple the Taliban and kill the terrorists accountable 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 inconceivable to ever conclude or dismantle.
The Taliban’s often-repeated adage loomed over the day: “You will have the watches, now we have the time.”
In one of many many trash baggage littering the bottom, there was a discarded wall clock, its second hand nonetheless ticking.
Najim Rahim and Jim Huylebroek contributed reporting.