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U.S., NATO Forces Leave Key Afghan Base As Complete Pullout Nears

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Aerial porters work with maintainers to load a UH-60L Blackhawk helicopter into a C-17 Globemaster III at Bagram Airfield on June 16.

The White House says it expects the drawdown of U.S. forces from Afghanistan to be completed by the end of next month, after all American and NATO soldiers left the war-torn nation's biggest air base.

The handover of the Bagram Airfield to Afghan government forces is the clearest indication that the bulk of the 2,500-3,500 U.S. troops have left Afghanistan or are nearing a departure, ahead of Biden's self-imposed deadline of September 11, the 20th anniversary of the Al-Qaeda terrorist attacks on the United States that prompted the U.S.-led invasion of the South Asian country.

Most NATO soldiers have already quietly exited, and the news about the exit of all U.S. and NATO forces from Bagram after serving as a hub for American-led operations for nearly 20 years in Afghanistan fueled speculation that the remaining American troops would leave in the coming days.

But White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said the troops would be out of the country "by the end of August," adding that the United States would continue to provide security systems and humanitarian assistance in the months ahead.

U.S. officials have said that about 650 U.S. troops are expected to remain in the country to provide protection for diplomats and help guard Kabul's international airport.

Earlier, Biden dampened speculation that the complete withdrawal of foreign forces was imminent, telling reporters: "No. We're on, we're on track exactly as to where we expect to be."

As the United States closes in on its military withdrawal from Afghanistan, Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said on July 2 that the U.S. military retains the authority to protect Afghan forces.

He declined to say how long the U.S. military would have the authority.

The huge Bagram Airfield, built by the Soviets about an hour's drive north of Kabul, saw more than 100,000 U.S. troops pass through its sprawling compound during the peak of the United States' military involvement in the country.

Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman Fawad Aman said on July 2 that the airfield was handed over to the Afghan National Security and Defense Force overnight.

“It is currently managed and controlled by the Afghan Defense Ministry, and we will use it to fight terrorism, defend the lives and property of the people, and provide more security for the people,” he told RFE/RL.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid tweeted that the exit of all U.S. and NATO forces from Bagram was a "positive step," and called for the "withdrawal of foreign forces from all parts of the country."

The Soviet Union built Bagram air base in the 1950s and then turned it into its main base in Afghanistan after invading the country in 1979 to support a communist government.

The Soviets withdrew in 1989, opening the floodgates to a civil war that killed tens of thousands of civilians and eventually brought to power the Taliban who overran Kabul in 1996.

The ability of Afghan government forces to maintain control over Bagram will likely prove pivotal to maintaining security in nearby Kabul and keeping pressure on the Taliban after the international forces have completed their withdrawal.

A resurgent Taliban has overrun dozens of districts in recent weeks, fueling concerns that the Western-backed government in Kabul and Afghan security forces may collapse.

With reporting by AP, AFP, and Reuters
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