U.S. leaves Afghanistan, but military presence remains nearby

By David Vine

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In this analysis for IRW, anthropologist David Vine, author of “The United States of War: A Global History of America’s Endless Conflicts, from Columbus to the Islamic State” (University of California Press), details the U.S. presence  in and around Afghanistan.

Misleading and premature is how we should characterize media reports suggesting that U.S. military forces are withdrawing completely from Afghanistan and that the U.S. war in the country is ending.

The U.S. government has closed its military bases and officially removed its last troops from Afghanistan. But without action by the Biden administration, a significant military and paramilitary presence will remain in and around the war-torn nation, as it has for more than four decades, since the U.S. began supporting anti-Soviet mujahideen rebels, such as Osama bin Laden and forces that later formed the Taliban.

Army soldier watches helicopter land in Afganistan
An Army sergeant watches a CH-47 Chinook helicopter land in preparation for the evacuation of Afghan and U.S. soldiers. (Defenselink)

CIA personnel and possibly U.S.-funded military contractors and special operations forces will remain in Afghanistan. The CIA and European governments have been courting Afghan militia allies, raising the specter of backing proxy armies to oppose Taliban rule, much as when the U.S. backed anti-Soviet militants and, later, the Taliban during the 1980s and 1990s.

There are also no signs of a withdrawal from dozens of U.S. bases throughout the broader Middle East. These installations have played key roles in 20 years of continuous warfare in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia and beyond since the George W. Bush administration invaded Afghanistan in October 2001.

At the height of the U.S. war in Afghanistan, the military had about 100,000 troops and 800 bases in the country. They ranged in size from small squad-sized checkpoints to city-sized installations, such as Bagram Air Base, with tens of thousands of troops, Burger Kings and Pizza Huts, movie theaters, swimming pools, Afghan souvenir shops, Harley Davidson dealerships and regular lobster and steak dinners.

While U.S. forces have left those bases as well as Kabul International Airport,  signs suggest the U.S. presence will persist.  Recent drone strikes against the Islamic State affiliate in South Asia reflect Biden administration plans to launch “over-the-horizon” attacks and surveillance missions into Afghanistan from bases outside the country, despite a record of killing civilians, including a reported 10 deaths in the Aug. 29 missile strike targeted at a van that U.S. authorities said was carrying suicide bombers to Kabul International Airport.

Since 2001, combat and other war-related deaths have killed an estimated 600,000–750,000, including civilians and combatants on all sides. Millions more have been injured. Over 20 years, at least 5.9 million have been displaced in a war that has cost U.S. taxpayers $2.3 trillion.

The U.S. has had a long history of maintaining myriad bases in the Middle East, beginning in 1979, shortly after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and the start of a U.S. military build-up to counter Soviet power in the Middle East.

Qatar is home to the U.S. Air Force’s regional air operations center, which launched recent bombing raids into Afghanistan. There are more than 4,500 sailors in Bahrain, which is home to the Navy’s Middle East headquarters. The Army has 11 base sites in Kuwait and has had a large presence there since the 1991 Gulf War.

Elsewhere in the greater Middle East, there are about 13 base sites and nearly 2,000 troops in Turkey. There also are six installations in Oman, five in Somalia, three in the United Arab Emirates, two each in Jordan and Djibouti, plus facilities and nearly 300 troops in Egypt.

There are officially acknowledged and secretive U.S. bases in both Saudi Arabia and Israel, where there are about 11 and eight installations respectively. And despite the Iraqi parliament’s demand for the withdrawal of U.S. bases, about 2,500 troops still operate from six installations. U.S. troops still occupy four bases in Syria.

Nearby there are eight U.S. bases in Greece, and at least one each in Cyprus, Tunisia, Georgia, Kosovo and on the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia. The Navy maintains at least one aircraft carrier — a huge floating base — on an effectively permanent basis in the Persian/Arabian Gulf.

There are about 750 U.S. military installations overseas, including in Germany, Italy and other parts of Europe and as far away as Australia,
Thailand and Japan, which have played key roles in the wars in Afghanistan and other parts of the U.S. war on terror.

Despite the seemingly plentiful infrastructure, the Biden administration recently explored creating new military facilities in Central Asian countries neighboring Afghanistan to continue waging war in the country.

Unless U.S. policymakers change course, journalists and others should describe the withdrawal from Afghanistan as partial and the U.S. military involvement in the country as continuing, as it has almost without cessation since 1979.

Evacuees boarding military plane at night
Evacuees from Afghanistan depart a U.S. Air Force KC-10 Extender after landing at Naval Station Rota in Cádiz, Spain, on Aug. 31, 2021. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist  1st Class Nathan Carpenter)
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