My time in Afghanistan is coming to an end and I thought it would be appropriate to reflect on some of the things I have observed here. I arrived at Bagram Airfield (known as BAF to the military personnel and contractors that call it home) in November of last year and it was my first trip to the country in which the US had been engaged in war for 14 years.
Upon arriving, the large military base seemed empty. It was, in fact, emptying. President Barack Obama had ordered a reduction in Afghanistan from 10,800 troops to 5,500 and then to none by 2017. Bagram is a fortress of an airfield with most of the modern comforts of home: at least two movie theaters, two exchanges (small Wal-Mart like stores), wifi available for free or for cost seemingly everywhere, and numerous bazaars filled with Afghan vendors selling Chinese made knockoffs of American products. But the exchanges were mostly empty, with limits to the number of sodas you could buy — a sign of the base’s imminent closure.
Yet Obama reversed his decision to reduce troop numbers in October last year. As the planning slowly filtered down from the top to the military units on the ground, activity sprung to life. The exchanges began to refill with goods: souvenir t-shirts, electronics, chips and dip, and cases of energy drinks. Construction projects began: large blast walls designed to protect from rocket attacks were moved from one side of the base to another, or sometimes as near as 10 feet away. Tents that served as gyms or multi-use recreation areas were moved 50 meters. Fences were moved 20 meters. Military commanders began to use terms like “Bagram 2025” and even “Bagram 2035” signaling an intention to stay longer, much longer, than the end of Obama’s presidential term.
But there is more to war than just well-stocked exchanges and moving blast walls, though sometimes it is hard to realize it from the confines of a fortress. Indeed, drones and fighter jets left regularly to deliver bombs on Islamic State targets, who were becoming increasingly numerous in Afghanistan. Over the first few months of this year, those targets became less numerous. At the start of the fighting season, American rockets were launched at a Taliban training camp and Taliban rockets were launched at John Kerry.
An infantry battalion from the Fourth Infantry Division rotated into Bagram, but its junior enlisted members were listless. There was no mission for them besides acting as a Quick Reaction Force with little to react to. They walked to and fro the dining facility wearing grimaces on their faces and mandatory gloves on their hands — even in over 90 degree weather. Such is war.
Sometimes it was almost difficult to find a soldier. In Afghanistan, contractors outnumber military personnel three-to-one, and this was evident on Bagram. Everywhere one looked, there were civilians, mostly wearing a de facto uniform of hiking boots, earth tone tactical wear made by 5.11, and occasionally a t-shirt bought on base that indicated they were members of the “Taliban Hunting Club” despite the fact they would never leave the confines of the base.
The civilians were not just American, but from all over the world — and their nationalities seemed to define their profession. Afghans worked as merchants and in construction. Indians and other Southern Asians were generally cooks, truck drivers, or bathroom cleaners. Africans were tower security guards. Americans did everything from security, to loading planes, to flying them. On Friday nights one could find the contractors and civilians mingling at Salsa Night in one of the aforementioned tents that had been moved 50 meters.
The US has been at war in Afghanistan for going on fifteen years, but these days it is not so clear what war that is. The two ongoing missions, Operation Resolute Support and Operation Freedom’s Sentinel, are to train the Afghan forces and kill terrorists, respectively. The war against the Taliban had been halted, but with the killing of Taliban leader Mullah Mansoor in Pakistan under the authority of “self defense” perhaps that will change. President Obama has indicated that in his last months as President, he is open to new ideas about his Afghanistan withdrawal. It was recently announced US troops will now be accompanying Afghan troops on the battlefield again.
Bagram 2035, indeed.