Five days after the final U.S. troops left Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan, the Pentagon is defending itself from criticism by Afghan military officials who have accused the U.S. of secretly slipping out overnight, shutting off the electricity and prompting a security lapse that allowed looters to scavenge the facilities before Afghan troops were able to retake control.
It is the latest mishap in the U.S. military withdrawal from the country after 20 years of military presence, a process President Biden has promised will be complete by Sept. 11.
Bagram Airfield, about an hour's drive from Kabul, was the center of operations for the longest-running war in U.S. history. It housed tens of thousands of troops at its peak, with planes and helicopters coming and going at all hours.
A story published Monday by The Associated Press cited Afghan military officials in reporting that U.S. forces had left the base overnight without notifying the new Afghan commander.
"We (heard) some rumor that the Americans had left Bagram ... and finally by seven o'clock in the morning, we understood that it was confirmed that they had already left Bagram," Gen. Mir Asadullah Kohistani, the new commander at Bagram, told the AP.
Speaking at a press conference Tuesday, Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby declined to dispute the Afghan commander's statement that he had not been briefed on the departure.
But Kirby insisted the U.S. withdrawal from Bagram had been communicated to high-level Afghan officials, saying the "final conversations" — including a joint walk-through of the facilities — occurred roughly 48 hours ahead of the departure.
"It wasn't done in some sort of shroud of secrecy," Kirby said, though he added the exact time of departure was not shared in advance with Afghan officials due to security concerns.
"There was coordination with Afghan leaders, both in the government as well as in the Afghan security forces, about the eventual turnover of Bagram air base," he said. "It was the seventh and the final base that we turned over to the Afghan National Security Forces. You don't do that in a vacuum, and this wasn't done in a vacuum."
The AP also reported that Bagram's electricity was shut off within 20 minutes of the Americans' departure, causing a security lapse at the entrance to the base that allowed a "small army of looters" to ransack barracks and storage facilities before Afghan soldiers were able to retake control.
Both Kirby and White House spokesperson Jen Psaki declined Tuesday to comment on the electricity. A senior military official, speaking to NPR on condition of anonymity because this person is not authorized to speak to the press, described the shut-off as the result of "miscommunication."
The dispute over the departure from Bagram is emblematic of the challenge faced by the U.S. as it tries to balance its goals of ending a two-decade-old war unpopular with the American public while also assuring Afghans it is not abandoning the country at a moment of growing violence from the Taliban.
With Bagram now in the hands of the Afghan security forces, more than an estimated 90% of the U.S. withdrawal is now complete, according to an announcement Tuesday from U.S. Central Command, which oversees operations in the Middle East. Officials said they would no longer update specific percentages going forward due to operational security reasons.
The American military mission in Afghanistan officially comes to an end on Sept. 11, but officials have said they expect the pullout to be complete by mid-August.
The top commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Scott Miller, is expected to depart the country formally soon. According to a senior Pentagon official who was not authorized to speak about future plans, a departure ceremony is expected within the next few weeks.