The fate of a base at the center of the invasion is a lesson to the West, writes Anthony Loyd.
Taliban commander sat in the control tower of what was once the nerve centre of America’s war in Afghanistan, momentarily king of all he surveyed.
Maulawi Hafiz Mohibullah Muktaz, a religious leader and fighter from Kandahar aged 35, leaned back in his seat laughing, twiddled some dials on a control console, stared out across the multibillion-dollar base the size of a small city, and picked up a phone to summon an imaginary jet.
“Never in our wildest dreams could we have believed we could beat a superpower like America with just our Kalashnikovs,” he beamed, staring across the two runways beneath him. Close by were a hundred revetted holding bays for attack jets, the airbase passenger lounge, a fifty-bed hospital and in the middle distance hangars, accommodation blocks, abandoned American armoured vehicles, and the prison area that was the scene of some of the darkest episodes of the US-led occupation.
The site contains much equipment and even helicopters that have been abandoned by US forcesANTHONY LOYD FOR THE TIMES
“When you do jihad all doors open,” he added, unable to stop smiling. “Our lesson is that we defeated America with our faith and our guns and we hope now that Bagram can be a base for jihad for all Muslims.”
No other US base in Afghanistan epitomizes the rise and crashing fall of this 20-year mission than Bagram. Once the coalition’s principal transport and logistics hub, as well as the primary airbase for attack missions by coalition aircraft, it was abandoned overnight on July 1, the departing American troops merely turning off the electrical and water supplies before fleeing without telling their Afghan allies what they were intending to do.
It was a moment that increased the growing sense of betrayal that Afghans felt. Later President Biden, whose chaotic evacuation operation from Kabul international airport concludes today, was heavily criticised for having left Bagram, which had both the capability and security to better undertake the evacuation. For the Taliban now picking through the vastness of the abandoned US base, however, Bagram is a tangible peak of triumph.
“For any foreign power considering attacking Afghanistan then look at Bagram now and learn your lesson well before embarking on the foolish endeavour,” Muktaz continued. “See the West’s mighty technology humbled here by mujahidin.”
Some of the thousands of watches and personal effects taken from prisoners over the years ANTHONY LOYD FOR THE TIMES
His mood changed from delight to befuddlement as he drove out into the base to take The Times on a tour. “I’ve been here ten days and it is so huge I still can’t orientate myself,” he murmured, driving past a dozen armoured vehicles in his Toyota pickup, the Taliban’s preferred war machine.
He paused briefly on the runway to examine an abandoned helicopter as, nearby, a Taliban fighter rolled a bullet-perforated medicine ball left by the Americans, trilling “basketball” as he threw it to a comrade who was felled as he caught the 15kg weight. “No matter,” the man laughed, getting back to his feet. “We still beat them even though they were stronger than us.”
Rockets and gunfire fired in the celebration by the Taliban filled the night sky above the Afghan capital after the US withdrawal
Muktaz gazed down a 3,600m runway, completed in 2006 at a cost of $68 million and capable of landing the Lockheed C-5 Galaxy transporters and Boeing C-17 Globemasters, and said: “Victory still seems like a dream, from which any minute we could wake.”
The base, 90 minutes north of Kabul on the Shamali Plain, once a bastion of resistance to the Taliban before the 2001 US invasion, was finally abandoned by Afghan security forces on August 15 as units of the Islamists swept into the capital. The Taliban freed hundreds of prisoners held in the infamous detention facility here, including scores of Isis-K prisoners.
Maulawi Hafiz Mohibullah Muktaz, centre, in the airbase control tower. “Never in our wildest dreams could we believe we could beat America,” he said ANTHONY LOYD FOR THE TIMES
An earlier detention facility at Bagram was notorious for the abuse of prisoners by their captors: at least two were beaten to death in December 2002. A new facility was built in 2009 that later became the main jail for Afghans arrested by American forces during the war. At its peak in 2011 more than 3,000 detainees, including Taliban fighters and high-ranking terrorists, were held here: more than 18 times the prisoner population of Guantanamo Bay.
It was always shadowed by controversy. In a leaked 2009 report, General Stanley McChrystal, one of the most respected and visionary US commanders in Afghanistan, described Bagram detention facility as a place where “committed Islamists are indiscriminately mixed with petty criminals and sex offenders, and they are using the opportunity to radicalise and indoctrinate them . . . Hundreds are held without charge or without a defined way ahead.”
Overall, he noted that the Afghan prison system had become an uncontrolled recruiting and planning ground for the insurgents. “There are more insurgents per square foot in corrections facilities than anywhere else in Afghanistan,” he wrote. “Unchecked, Taliban/al-Qaeda leaders patiently co-ordinate and plan, unconcerned with interference from prison personnel or the military.”
Finger marks left in ash on the walls of interrogation cells at the base. US forces left Bagram without a word on July 1, turning off the power and water ANTHONY LOYD FOR THE TIMES
The facility was transferred to Afghan control inside the base in 2012, although the Americans are believed to have kept a smaller underground jail known as the “Black Jail”.
The full details of this site, run by the US Defence Intelligence Agency and special forces operatives, have never been disclosed and its existence has now moved into contemporary myth. I met several Taliban fighters in Bagram yesterday scouring the airbase for proof of its existence, after rumours that high-level captives had been abandoned by their Afghan guards and were dying locked in their maximum-security cells. Given that the Taliban leadership has never mentioned the story, it seems unlikely to be more than legend but was no less dearly held in the minds of those there.
Among the main detention center’s many top-level prisoners was Anas Haqqani, younger brother of Sirajuddin Haqqani, commander of the network that bears his name and one of the most powerful men in Afghanistan. Anas Haqqani was 20 when he was arrested in Bahrain in 2014 and was held in Bagram until he was released in a prisoner exchange in the build-up to a round of peace talks four years later.
Driving through the heavily fortified gates and squeezing his form through a steel section that had been prised from the wall of the prison complex, Muktaz led the way into the dim-lit bowels of the vast American facility: a dystopian gloom of cages, interrogation rooms, and surveillance screens that was littered with restraints, handcuffs and riot control gear. Here was the dark underbelly of America’s war.
A huge central corridor formed the spine of the prison. Off one side of it were warehouse-sized cage systems, with grilled roofs once patrolled by guards, spot-lit to deprive prisoners of sleep when required.
A Helmandi commander, Maulawi Ahmed Shah, 44, appeared through a breach in the wall behind us with his bodyguards and entourage. He had been held in Bagram twice: once in 2002 in the original prison and once again after 2009 in the newer detention facility, where he was kept in a cage for three and a half years, initially by the Americans and later by the Afghans. He said he returned on the eve of the final US withdrawal to see his place of captivity at the moment of final victory.
A Talib with a string of handcuffs abandoned in the American-built jail at Bagram airbase, which is now in the hands of the fighters
ANTHONY LOYD FOR THE TIMES
“The first time I was tortured repeatedly by the Americans,” he said. “I was stripped and hosed with cold water naked; suspended in chains and beaten. I was humiliated in ways I cannot describe and often filmed while they were doing it.
“The second time I was held, though longer, the regime was not as bad, but still brutal.”
Stepping among the sections of one cage complex, each of which had between 24 and 30 mattresses inside, he briefly examined the pictures on the walls drawn by prisoners and stirred the abandoned orange and cream prison overalls with his foot. “It was hard to imagine when I was held here — with American guards walking on the grills above our heads staring down at us, turning bright spotlights upon us whenever they wished, looked at all the time, interrogated and humiliated — that this day would ever come,” he said.
Other cells, smaller and without windows, spoke of harsher conditions. In several, prisoners had left finger marks in ash thick on the walls in an unmistakable graffiti of desperation and hopelessness, and beside one tiny cell marked Interview Room lay abandoned leather limb restraints that included finger tethers.
In the Grand Guignol gloom, as Muktaz stepped over abandoned guards’ helmets, piles of handcuffs and sets of body armour, amid the stench of rotten rations and the stale sweat of abandoned prison garb, his final reflection of victory was one the West may least wish to hear.
“In 15 years as a mujahid fighting the Americans I wondered often if I may fail or die,” he mused. “Yet here is proof of the power of faith and God and jihad. On the back of victory, I hope we can use Bagram as a place to spread jihad further into the region and Muslim world.”