KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan — On the morning of May 1, an Afghan transport aircraft landed at this sprawling military base in the country’s south. It was loaded with mortar shells, small-arms cartridges and 250-pound bombs to supply Afghan troops under frequent attack by the Taliban in the countryside.
Later, at midnight, a gray American C-130 transport aircraft taxied down the same runway, marking the end of the first official day of the U.S. military’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. The cargo plane was filled with munitions, a giant flat screen television from a C.I.A. base (known as Camp Gecko), pallets of equipment, and — in the real signal of the impending end of a long occupation — departing American troops. It was one of several aircraft that night removing what remained of the American war here.
Afghans continue fighting and dying with fleeting hopes of peace even while the Americans leave, adhering to a timeline laid out by President Biden to fully withdraw by Sept 11. The decision was opposed by his generals but begrudgingly stenciled on whiteboards in U.S. bases across Afghanistan, such as Kandahar Airfield, a former Soviet base that has been one of the Americans’ largest.
NATO troops were based here, and many more passed through as it became the main installation for the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan’s south. It stood beside rural villages from which the Taliban emerged; throughout it all, the province has remained an insurgent stronghold.
Now, half-demolished outdoor gyms and empty hangars were filled with nearly 20 years’ worth of matériel. The passenger terminal, where troops once transited between different parts of the war, was pitch black and filled with empty, dust-covered chairs. A fire alarm detector — its batteries weak — chirped incessantly. The mess halls were shuttered.
The boardwalk was nothing more than a few remaining boards.
The American withdrawal, almost quiet, and with a veneer of orderliness, belies the desperate circumstances just beyond the base’s wall. On one end of Kandahar Airfield that day, Maj. Mohammed Bashir Zahid, an officer in charge of a small Afghan air command center, sat in his office, a phone to each ear and a third in his hands as he typed messages on WhatsApp, trying to get air support for Afghan security forces on the ground and in nearby outposts threatened by Taliban fighters.
flight of F/A-18 fighter jets, stationed aboard the U.S.S. Eisenhower, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, were in the air, making their way toward Afghanistan from the Arabian Sea — a roughly two-hour flight up what is called “the boulevard,” a corridor of airspace in western Pakistan that serves as an air transit route.
Having received approval to strike, the jets swooped in, dropping a GPS-guided munition — a bomb that costs well over $10,000 — on the additional rockets that were somewhere in Kandahar, mounted on rudimentary rails and aimed at the airfield.