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National Security & Defense

Biden’s Bagram Bug-Out in July Made Today’s Kabul Catastrophe Inevitable

Parked vehicles are seen in Bagram U.S. air base, after American troops vacated it, in Parwan province, Afghanistan, July 5, 2021. (Mohammad Ismail/Reuters)

The catastrophe in Kabul is playing out before our eyes today in the predictably grisly way. But the Biden administration set events in motion in July. When our forces bugged out of Bagram Air Base, it signaled that President Biden had decided to ensure that events on the ground — no matter how bad they got — could not reverse his determination to pull out.

From my column earlier this week:

The hub of the U.S. military enterprise in Afghanistan since 2002 has been sprawling Bagram air base. In early July, the Biden administration had the dwindling U.S. forces evacuate Bagram in the dead of night, giving no notice to the Afghan security forces to whom the base should have been formally transferred — thus enabling looters to scavenge the compound for hours before the Afghan forces could get there. There was a bounty for the looters because, in their haste to bug out, the U.S. forces had left millions of dollars of materiel behind, including thousands of vehicles and rounds of ammunition (alarming but just a fraction of the U.S. arsenal now in Taliban hands). Rather than alert the Afghan troops with whom they had partnered for years, the U.S. forces cut the electricity as they abandoned the compound — all the signal the looters needed to descend. The message was clear: The Afghan forces would not be capable of holding and exploiting Bagram. Biden had resigned himself to an inevitable Taliban takeover.

The Bagram bug-out was not merely a shameful episode; it was for Biden a tactical retreat. The Taliban were surging, the Afghan military forces were collapsing, and Biden knew that U.S. commanders wanted to keep a force presence and continue supporting the Afghan government. If there were to be any thought of reversing course, maintaining control of Bagram would have been essential. By not just slashing the in-country troop presence but surrendering Bagram — and in a consciously chaotic and sneaky way that deprived the Afghan forces an orderly transfer at a time when they were under siege and steadily losing their U.S.-dependent capacity to function — the Biden administration guaranteed that there would be no turning back from the decision to pull out. No matter how bad things got, U.S. commanders would have no military options. Besides having surrendered their fortress, they would be down to just 600 troops — not even enough to secure the airport in Kabul and U.S. diplomatic personnel in a real crisis.

 

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