Former President Donald Trump said this week that the U.S. military should have destroyed its permanent bases before withdrawing from Afghanistan—an action that’s probably too late to take by now, according to a Marine Corps veteran who’s performed such operations.
During an Aug. 17 interview with Fox News host Sean Hannity, Trump lamented the Taliban’s seizure of U.S. military equipment left abandoned at unmanned U.S. bases.
“We have billions of dollars of brand new equipment. Take the equipment out. And then take the soldiers out,” Trump said. “And frankly, I said, ‘Take the soldiers out. But before you leave, blow up all the forts.’ Because we built these forts that are now being used by the enemy—it’s not even believable.”
By now, it’s too late to properly demilitarize major bases such as the ones in Kandahar and Bagram, according to Defense Priorities senior fellow Gil Barndollar, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran twice deployed to Afghanistan who has experience in demilitarizing bases.
“You can’t just demilitarize a base, which would be anything from reducing it to getting rid of it altogether. I ‘demilled’ a patrol base in Afghanistan in 2011, and it was literally a scorched mark on the desert when we were done with it,” Barndollar told The Epoch Times during an Aug. 16 press conference. “Prior to that, it had housed close to a company of Marines. So, that’s a process that involves engineering assets.”
Simply bombing bases is both ineffective and dangerous to civilians, Barndollar says.
“Just bombing something from the air—one, there’s a high possibility of civilian casualties. A lot of Afghans in the rural areas will swarm into a base and loot it of anything they can take, so there’s a serious risk of civilian casualties if you think you’re just going to level something from the air,” Barndollar said.
“And second, it’s really not that effective. You need to bring in heavy-equipment engineering assets, and take it apart and bulldoze it piece by piece.”
Rather than undertake this demilitarization process, U.S. officials planned for the military bases to be used by Afghan security forces.
But that plan collapsed along with the U.S.-backed government. The Associated Press reported on Aug. 15 that the Taliban captured Bagram Air Base, and videos have been circulating in recent days that show the Taliban apparently plundering Black Hawk helicopters and other U.S. military equipment from the Kandahar airfield.
“The pace of this surprised everybody,” Barndollar said. “We thought these bases were going to be handed over to reasonably coherent Afghan security forces.”
At an Aug. 18 press conference, reporters asked whether the military could retake Bagram Air Base, since that would presumably facilitate the outflow of more Americans and Afghan refugees. Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, responded that doing so would have required the help of the now-defunct Afghan military.
“Securing Bagram is a significant level of military effort of forces, and it would also require external support from the Afghan Security Forces,” Milley said.
When pressed on why the military abandoned Bagram in the first place, Milley said he and his colleagues had tough decisions to make, because of resource constraints.
“Our task given to us at that time was to protect the embassy in order for the embassy personnel to continue to function with their consular service and all that,” Milley said. “If we were to keep both Bagram and the embassy going, that would be a significant number of military forces that would have exceeded what we had or stayed the same or exceeded what we had.”
Some observers have expressed concern that China may move into the abandoned bases.
Former CIA analyst Michael Scheuer is one of those voices. Scheuer has been mired in controversy in recent years due to comments promoting political violence and conspiracy theories. However, he remains a leading authority on Afghanistan, and is widely credited with sounding unheeded warnings within the CIA throughout the 1990s about Osama bin Laden.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Steve Coll, in his history on the Afghanistan war, said that after Scheuer was ousted from the CIA, many of his colleagues hunting bin Laden kept photos of Scheuer hanging in their offices—“like shrines.”
Moving into the U.S. bases would give China a new strategic foothold in the Middle East, Scheuer told The Epoch Times.
“Those are [U.S.] bases, at least the ones in Bagram and Kandahar, that can accommodate strategic bombers. If the Chinese get a hold of them, the runways will still be there, and they’ll be usable,” he said. “And with their main ports in the Maldives, Sri Lanka, and the giant port in southern Pakistan—those airports plus the harbors, which are navy-capable, give them a really powerful place in the center of Asia.”
However, Defense Priorities Policy Director Benjamin Friedman said he doesn’t think the Chinese Communist Party will make the same mistake as the Russians and Americans made by invading Afghanistan.
“China’s not going to rush into Afghanistan behind us because they’re not foolish enough to jump into what could be a messy and destabilized situation,” Friedman said at the Aug. 16 press conference organized by Defense Priorities. “I don’t think they’re that foolish.”