KABUL, Afghanistan — American forces on Friday vacated Afghanistan's Bagram Airbase, once a bustling minicity that saw more than 100,000 U.S. troops pass through its gates, three senior U.S. officials tell NBC News.
Two of the officials said that the airfield had been handed over in its entirety early Friday to the Afghan National Security and Defense Force.
The U.S. officials, who had direct knowledge of the withdrawal, spoke to NBC News on the condition of anonymity because the decision has not yet been officially announced.
The move is a stark statement of intent on the part of President Joe Biden's administration, and an indication that the remaining 2,500 to 3,500 U.S. troops have left or are close to leaving the country, months ahead of the president's Sept. 11 deadline.
Speaking to reporters at the White House later on Friday, Biden said the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan is "on track" but it will not be completed within the next few days. Some U.S. forces will still be in Afghanistan in September as part of a "rational drawdown with our allies," he added.
Officials from the U.S.-backed Afghan government, which relies heavily on foreign support particularly in the face of ongoing Taliban victories throughout the country, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Afghanistan's district administrator for Bagram, Darwaish Raufi, told The Associated Press that the American departure happened overnight without coordination with local officials, and as a result early Friday dozens of looters stormed through the unprotected gates.
The U.S. toppled the Taliban in 2001 after the group sheltered Osama bin Laden, the founder of al-Qaeda and the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. The U.S.-led international mission was once full of promise, with armies and governments from around the world coming together in the wake of the attack on the United States and pledging a brighter future for the war-torn country.
Nearly 20 years and billions of dollars in civilian and military aid later, some have questioned whether Afghanistan, one of the world's poorest and most violent countries, is better off.
America's longest war has cost the lives of around 2,300 U.S. troops and left thousands more wounded. More than 100,000 Afghans are estimated to have been killed or wounded since the conflict began.
The country ranks among the worst places in the world to be born a female, with high infant and maternal mortality rates. Millions of children, in particular girls, do not attend school, and the country's government is widely considered to be rife with corruption.
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But many in Afghanistan and the international community see a return of the Taliban as catastrophic for Afghan women, under militant rule some were banned from attending school and others whipped and stoned for adultery. In the last two decades, a generation of Afghan women and girls flooded into schools, and many in urban centers have been able to go to work outside the home.
The Bagram exit is a major step amid a wider U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. In 2020, then-President Donald Trump pledged that all U.S. forces would leave the country by last May. In a similar bid to end America's "forever wars" Biden promised that U.S. troops would leave Afghanistan by Sept. 11.
At its peak around 2012, Bagram Airfield saw more than 100,000 U.S. troops pass through its sprawling compound about an hour's drive north of the capital, Kabul.
Home to a hospital and helicopter hangars, for much of the war Bagram also featured a detention facility feared by Afghans, which some human rights groups likened to Guantanamo Bay. The facility was closed by U.S. authorities in the country in 2014.
The departure is rife with symbolism. It's the second time that an invading army has come and gone through the base, after the Soviet Union built the installation in the 1950s. The Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989.
When the U.S. and NATO inherited Bagram years later, they found it in ruins and largely abandoned.
In response to the U.S. withdrawal from Bagram, members of the Afghan Taliban told NBC News on Friday that while they were waiting for an official announcement of the move, the exit was a "result of our sacrifices."
The militants, however, did not have immediate plans to try to capture the base, spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid added.
Earlier this week, the U.S.'s top general in Afghanistan gave a sobering assessment of the country's deteriorating security situation as America winds down its presence.
Gen. Austin S. Miller told reporters on Tuesday that the rapid loss of districts around the country to the Taliban was worrisome. He also cautioned that the militias deployed to help the national security forces could lead the country into civil war.
"A civil war is certainly a path that can be visualized if this continues on the trajectory it's on right now," Miller said. "That should be of concern to the world."
Some U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan, largely to protect the sprawling embassy in Kabul and possibly the international airport, according to the State Department.
Richard Engel and Marc Smith reported from Kabul; Courtney Kube from Washington; Mushtaq Yusufzai from Peshawar, Pakistan; and Adela Suliman from London.