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US has been shutting down bases in Afghanistan

A soldier from Vicenza, Italy-based Company C, 2nd Battalion (Airborne), 503rd Infantry Regiment salutes the helmet, rifle, dog tags and boots of Staff Sgt. Michael Schafer, who was killed in action July 25, 2005. Dozens of soldiers from the battalion and other units attached to the base attended Saturday’s ceremony at Forward Operating Base Lagman, Afghanistan.

JASON CHUDY/STARS AND STRIPES

By SUSANNAH GEORGE AND DAN LAMOTHE | The Washington Post | Published: November 27, 2020

KABUL, Afghanistan - The United States has closed at least 10 bases across Afghanistan since the signing of a deal with the Taliban in February, according to Afghan and U.S. officials, part of a drawdown process so murky that many here say they are uncertain of what's to come despite a fast-approaching deadline.

The base closures are part of the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan outlined in the deal. An Afghan official and a U.S. official confirmed the closure of the bases, several of which were previously unreported. The officials, like others in this story, spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss base closures with the media.

Of the more than 10 bases closed to date, the shuttering of five was required by the U.S.-Taliban deal during the first 135 days after the signing. During that time, the United States also withdrew thousands of troops, bringing force levels down from roughly 12,000 in February to 8,600 by July.

Those initial bases included Tarin Kowt in Uruzgan province, Bost in Helmand, Gamberi in Laghman and Lightning in Paktia. Others closed this year include Jones in Kunduz, DeAlencar in Nangahar, Shaheen in Balkh, Bishop in Kabul, Maymana in Faryab and Qalat in Zabul.

Little is known about what remains of those bases, many in Afghanistan's most volatile provinces where U.S. support for Afghan operations has been critical in pushing back the Taliban. Some have been completely handed over to Afghan security forces. Others may have been vacated and left in place in a way in which they could be occupied again in the future if U.S. and Afghan officials consider it necessary. It is also unclear how much equipment - more difficult to move than people - is left at each of the closed installations.

In interviews, half a dozen former and current U.S. and Afghan officials said uncertainty still surrounds the plans to bring down troop numbers from roughly 5,000 to 2,500 by Jan. 15, days before President Trump leaves office. The abrupt announcement of the drawdown last week has forced decision-making on a shortened timeline.

A second U.S. official familiar with ongoing discussions around the drawdown said details are still being worked through on what equipment - ranging from spare vehicle parts to ammunition - needs to be sent back to the United States and what can be turned over to the Afghan government.

The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.

Despite the drawdown in people and equipment, the second U.S. official said, the United States will retain the ability to carry out airstrikes against the Taliban in defense of Afghan forces. U.S. troops will also remain able to carry out some counterterrorism strikes against the Islamic State, the official said.

A third U.S. official with knowledge of ongoing discussions said that a number of significant decisions are to be made or finalized over the next two weeks, including which other bases will close, what equipment will be turned over to the Afghan government, and how U.S. equipment will be ticketed to leave.

There were hundreds of bases and outposts at the height of the military's surge a decade ago, and dozens in recent years as the military shrunk its presence over time.

Analysts and Afghan officials say further closures show that the United States is collapsing its forces in Afghanistan back into its bigger military installations to save on the large number of troops needed to secure the perimeter of multiple small outposts. The move also brings U.S. troops closer to medical facilities as the American footprint in Afghanistan shrinks, and would make it easier to evacuate the country rapidly if security disintegrates.

It is unclear how many bases remain open in Afghanistan, in part because the total number of military sites has not been made public. Even the bases that were once the largest in the country, like Kandahar Air Field and Jalalabad Air Base, now only house a handful of U.S. troops, according to Afghan officials.

The only U.S. troops left in Nangahar, a province that has been a focus of U.S. counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan, occupy a small corner of Jalalabad airport, according to an Afghan defense official stationed there.

The official said he still speaks to U.S. advisers on a daily basis, but that his counterparts are now at Bagram air base more than 100 miles away and they communicate via WhatsApp or FaceTime.

Some Afghan officials concerned by the swifter withdrawal point to violence already rising across Afghanistan since the signing of the U.S.-Taliban deal, fearing that pulling more troops out faster will only further embolden the Taliban. Many of the places where the United States has closed bases or reduced troop levels have witnessed a spike in targeted killings or in some cases deadly Taliban offensives.

"With fewer U.S. bases within [Afghan army] bases, there is less of a safety net" for Afghan forces, said one Afghan official. Without the presence of U.S. forces nearby to provide support like medical evacuations or airstrikes, Afghan ground forces will be less likely to launch operations, allowing the Taliban to become stronger, he said.

A reduction to 2,500 troops now is also not the preferred option of senior military officers. Former defense secretary Mark T. Esper recommended in a classified memo to the White House early this month that the conditions on the ground did not merit cutting deeper than 4,500. He cited the best military advice of senior U.S. commanders, said two senior U.S. defense officials with knowledge of the discussion.

One of the concerns raised by senior military officials focuses on how much support and security the remaining U.S. service members can provide to the State Department, U.S. intelligence agencies and aid organizations, two other U.S. officials said.

Trump's decision to continue withdrawing troops from Afghanistan despite its potential to undermine ongoing negotiations with the Taliban is "clearly such an ego and timeline-driven mood," said Jason Dempsey, a senior adjunct fellow with the Center for a New American Security who served as an infantry officer in Afghanistan.

Dempsey, who has frequently criticized the U.S. military's efforts in Afghanistan, said he believes the Afghan government is being "hung out to dry" by the administration with the manner in which it is withdrawing.

"I don't think we have a path to solid victory," he said. "But I'd like to think that we had an obligation as we withdrew to our Afghan partners to at least leave them in the best position possible."

Lamothe reported from Washington. The Washington Post's Aziz Tassal and Sharif Hassan in Kabul and Shane Harris in Washington contributed to this report.

(c) 2020, The Washington Post.