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Day 1 of the end of the American war in Afghanistan

KANDAHAR AIRPORT, Afghanistan – On the morning of May 1, an Afghan transport plane landed at this large military base in the south of the country. It was loaded with mortar shells, small arms cartridges and 250-pound bombs to supply Afghan troops frequently attacked by the Taliban in the countryside.

Later, at midnight, a gray US C-130 transport aircraft taxied on the same runway, marking the end of the first official day of the US military’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. The cargo plane was stocked with ammunition, a giant flatscreen television from a CIA base (known as Camp Gecko), equipment pallets and – in true signal of the impending end of ‘long occupation – departing American troops. It was one of many planes that night to pull out what was left of the American war here.

Afghans continue to fight and die with fleeting hopes for peace even as the Americans leave, following a timetable set by President Biden to withdraw completely by September 11. like Kandahar Airfield, a former Soviet base that was one of the most important for Americans.

Once the airfield is stripped of anything deemed sensitive by its US and NATO owners, its skeleton will be turned over to Afghan security forces.

The weekend scenes were almost as if a trillion dollar war machine had turned into a yard sale. During the aerodrome’s heyday in 2010 and 2011, its famous boardwalk was home to snack bars, chain restaurants, a hockey rink, and trinket shops. Tens of thousands of US and NATO troops were based here, and many more passed through as it became the primary facility in the US-led war in southern Afghanistan. He was standing next to the rural villages from which the Taliban came out; Through it all, the province has remained an insurgent stronghold.

By now, the half-demolished outdoor gymnasiums and empty hangars were filled with nearly 20 years of equipment. The passenger terminal, where troops once transited between different parts of the war, was dark and filled with empty chairs covered in dust. A fire alarm detector – its weak batteries – chirped incessantly. The refectories were closed.

The walk was nothing more than a few leftover planks.

The almost calm and orderly American withdrawal belies the desperate circumstances just beyond the base wall. At one end of Kandahar Airfield that day, Major Mohammed Bashir Zahid, an officer in charge of a small Afghan air command center, sat in his office, a phone in each ear and a third in his hands. while typing messages on WhatsApp, trying to get air support for Afghan security forces on the ground and in nearby outposts threatened by Taliban fighters.

“Yesterday you couldn’t have sat down because things were so chaotic,” he said. “I fell asleep with my boots and gun in my holster.”

Sitting in his air-conditioned US-built office, Major Zahid said he expected his requests for help from the Americans to be met in silence one day soon. Saturday, he didn’t even ask. Instead, he focused on the Afghan helicopters and bombers he could hit.

His anger over leaving the United States was not about the lack of air support, but rather about photos on his phone, about the sport utility vehicles he said the Americans had destroyed at the airfield because they could not go with them.

“Now that’s what really upsets me,” Major Zahid said, looking exhausted and summing up the sense of hopelessness of most Afghan soldiers. The Americans most likely destroyed the vehicles to prevent them from being sold, given the corruption rampant across much of the ranks.

Major Zahid believed the Americans were destroying more of these vehicles when an explosion sounded on the runway around 2 p.m.

The explosion was a rocket, fired from somewhere outside the base and landing somewhere inside, killing no one. The base loudspeaker announcement was distant and virtually indecipherable in the box-shaped building that housed Major Zahid’s operations center. No one moved, the phones rang, the work continued.

Even though the rockets landed on the Afghan side, the Americans saw it as an attack by the Taliban against them. The Trump administration had agreed to completely withdraw all forces from Afghanistan by May 1 in an agreement with the Taliban signed in February 2020. In recent weeks, the Taliban have declared that any US presence in the country on that date or beyond would be considered a violation. of the agreement.

The US military expected some sort of assault on leaving – despite diplomatic overtures by US negotiators in Doha, Qatar, who tried to make the Taliban understand that the military was in fact leaving and that the attack on the American troops was a fool. race.

The American response has not been subtle.

A flight of F / A-18 fighter jets, parked aboard the USS Eisenhower, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, was in the air, en route to Afghanistan from the Arabian Sea – a flight about two hours upstream from what is called “the boulevard”, an airspace corridor in western Pakistan that serves as an air transit route.

Cleared to strike, the jets rushed in, dropping a GPS-guided munition – a bomb costing well over $ 10,000 – on the additional rockets that were somewhere in Kandahar, mounted on rudimentary rails and aimed at the airfield.

Inside the US headquarters building at the airfield, two Green Berets – who are part of the shrinking contingent currently working there – released video of the afternoon airstrike on one of their phones.

“Make sure it’s in the overnight report,” one said. The special forces soldiers, bearded and dressed in T-shirts, baseball caps and tattoos, looked out of place among what remained of the cubicles and office furniture around them, much of which was in being torn apart.

Televisions had been removed from the walls, office printers were set up on the sidewalk, the badge once stuck on the stone wall announcing who was in charge of the long-gone headquarters. While there would soon be fewer and fewer servicemen every day, one soldier noted that the flow of care packages from random Americans had not slowed. He now had what seemed like an endless supply of Pop-Tarts.

A group of American soldiers, tasked with loading an incoming cargo flight, did not know when they were returning home. Tomorrow? September 11th? Their job was to shut down Kandahar before moving on to the next US base, but there were only a limited number of facilities left to dismantle. A trio of them played Nintendo in the meantime. One spoke of the off-road motorcycle he was going to buy when he got home. Another cryptocurrency traded on his iPhone.

Asked about Maiwand, a district just 80 kilometers from where Afghan forces were trying to repel a Taliban offensive and Major Zahid was desperately trying to send air support, a US soldier replied, “Who is Maiwand?”

In the evening, the base loudspeaker rang as one of the transport planes departed. “Watch out,” someone said out of sight. “There will be exits for the next 15 minutes.” The thud of the mortar fire began. To what was not clear.

The end of the war was nothing like the beginning. What began as an operation to overthrow the Taliban and kill the terrorists responsible for the attacks of September 11, 2001, swelled for more than 20 years into a multibillion-dollar military-industrial enterprise, steeped in so much money that for years it seemed impossible. to never conclude or dismantle.

So far.

The often-repeated adage of the Taliban prevailed throughout the day: “You have the watches, we have the time.”

In one of the many trash bags littering the base was a discarded wall clock, its second hand still running.

Najim Rahim and Jim Huylebroek contributed reporting.

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