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In the empty bases of Afghanistan, echoes of a long war


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In 2008, I was a corporal in the Navy. I was 20 years old. I graduated from high school in 2006. George W. Bush was president. I owned an iPod and a flip phone. This was my first outbreak in Afghanistan. I wanted to buy Weezer’s new album (the “Red Album” that includes “Pork and Beans”) and see “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” when I’m back.

In April, before starting an operation in Helmand Province, we made a stopover at Camp Bastion (miles north of Garmser). Bastion was the largest military base built by the British since World War II. It had a Pizza Hut trailer, where we ate before we boarded a helicopter, and a water purification plant that made bottled water with the flavor of warm milk. It was barren and dusty.

The British had been fighting the war in Helmand for several years, but that was about to change. The United States was re-focusing on Afghanistan with the resurgence of the Taliban throughout the country after their defeat in 2002. We fought with the help of the British to capture and control Garmsir District.

In 2009, I returned to Camp Bastion, now 22 years old and a corporal in the Marine Corps. The stopover in Bastion was again temporary, only for airport use. We moved to Camp Leatherneck, the US naval base that has sprung up alongside Bastion in the year since my previous departure. It was huge, and only increased in size when President Barack Obama sent tens of thousands of American troops to Afghanistan to stop the Taliban insurgency that now seemed uncontrollable.

My platoon spent Christmas there prior to our operation in February 2010. I had a USO stockpile full of candy. I wrote my initials on it and hung it on my bed. Then I spent the first half of 2010 fighting in Operation Moshtarak, the largest offensive of the war to retake the Marjeh region.

In 2016, I returned to Camp Leathernick as a 28-year-old reporter, but it was partially destroyed, a byproduct of the end of the US combat mission in 2014. US and international forces have largely withdrawn in the country, from more than 100,000 soldiers to nearly 12,000. The Afghans will now go to war. That was the policy at least.

Leatherneck was only flying tents and there were old signs indicating the presence of a Marine Corps base. The stronghold is also gone, the hull was empty and its helipad was still usable. But between Leatherneck and Bastion, a new US base appeared: Camp Shorap.

The rows of tents and metal structures were built with a small dining hall at the end of 2015 and 2016 as a group of a few hundred Americans returned to help advise the Afghan army unit that had taken control of the district. The Taliban swept through Helmand in 2015, seizing much of the territory that the Americans and British had seized in the past decade and left it to the Afghans. The new group of Americans in Shorab was to continue looting in Leatherneck to take office furniture for their new base.

On May 12 this year, still a reporter – I am a reporter in the Kabul office – I got back to Camp ShorabNow called Camp New Antony. It is empty. But somehow it is also bigger than it was in 2016 because the American war effort could only expand. Just about two weeks ago, the Green Beret team that replaced the advisors left there.

As withdrawals accelerate, US forces and their NATO allies are expected to leave Afghanistan by mid-July, according to military officials. But the American withdrawal from Shourabe seems to have never happened. The rooms still smelled of the body of their former residents. One pair of generators was still running to keep food refrigerators cool. The shipping containers left by DynCorp filled with work shoes were left behind and happily stormed by Afghan forces. The dining hall was bigger than I can remember. Presentation stations, all wrapped in cellophane, were eerily reflected from our flashlights as we walked through the skeleton of a losing war.

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