Impending closure of US base at Bagram spurs Afghan army recruiting to hold the airfield
BAGRAM, Afghanistan — The Afghan army has launched a recruitment drive to maintain Bagram Airfield as coalition troops prepare to depart the sprawling base in the coming weeks.
Lt. Col. Atiqullah Tarin, a recruiter for the Afghan military in the province that houses Bagram — the largest U.S. base in the country — said he had been ordered last week to sign up about 1,500 new soldiers within the next month.
The drive comes after an acceleration of base closures since May, the official start of the U.S. and NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan. The pullout is set to end by Sept. 11, but most foreign troops are expected to leave the country well in advance.
Before May 1, there were 2,500-3,500 U.S. troops in the country and about 7,000 from NATO allies and other coalition members.
U.S. and NATO forces are expected to hand over Bagram Airfield to the Afghan military in about 20 days, or by the end of this month, district governor Lalasherin Darwish Raufi told Stars and Stripes on Saturday. Local officials have also been told to help the military find recruits to defend Bagram, he said.
The base’s transition to the Afghan military is ongoing, said Fazludin Ayar, governor for Parwan province.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said last week in Washington that it was “slightly ahead” of its withdrawal schedule, with more than a third completed.
In the town surrounding Bagram, lines of trucks carrying containers filled with trash left one of Bagram’s gates Saturday afternoon. The trucks empty their trash in yards where workers pick through the refuse hoping to find items to sell, or copper and iron to recycle.
Before May 1, only one or two trucks a day left Bagram, said Sayed Wali, a worker at one trash yard. Now as many as 10 to 20 trucks leave the base every day, he said.
Shopkeepers also said they noticed an uptick in trucks with goods leaving Bagram over the last month.
Some residents said they feared that if the Taliban comes to power after the U.S. and NATO leave, there will be problems for the people who worked with foreign troops at Bagram. The area had an unclaimed bombing that killed three passengers on a bus carrying teachers two weeks ago.
A garrison of 1,500 troops should be enough to help secure the base after the U.S. and NATO leave, said the recruiter Tarin, a longtime officer who walks with a limp from wounds suffered in a land mine explosion.
Leaders will come from elsewhere in the Afghan military. Tarin said the 1,500 troops would most likely just hold the base and not leave for operations.
Around 19,000 troops have died and have been registered for death benefits over the last two years, the Afghan government told Stars and Stripes in February.
The Afghan military aims to recruit 47,000 troops each year, the latest Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction report said.
In Parwan, 84 people from the province volunteered in the two days since the order, Tarin said.
The recruiter said he is prioritizing former soldiers who won’t need to undergo basic training. He is also keeping tabs on fresh recruits who are willing to secure Bagram, in case he can't find enough veterans before the deadline.
One recruit, Nasir Rahimi, 28, said he formerly served in the Afghan military. After his contract with the army expired four months ago, he was unemployed. He rejoined after he saw the difficulties faced by friends who tried to find work in countries like Iran, Pakistan and Turkey, he said.
“The country needs us now,” Rahimi said. “We are hopeful that there will be peace in the country.”