Following the U.S. departure from Afghanistan in August, some questioned the hand-over of Bagram Air Base — about 27 miles north of the capital city, Kabul — saying the move was ill-advised and had been a tactical mistake.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III said maintaining a presence there would have been costly, and would not have helped the U.S. mission during the waning days of the 20-year war the U.S. waged in Afghanistan.
"Retaining Bagram would have required putting as many as 5,000 U.S. troops in harm's way just to operate and defend it," Austin told the House Armed Services Committee during a hearing today on Capitol Hill. "It would have contributed little to the mission that we had been assigned, and that was to protect and defend the embassy which was some 30 miles away."
Additionally, when the noncombatant evacuation operation, or NEO, began, Bagram's distance from Kabul would have offered little help.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley said it was expected that it would be Hamid Karzai International Airport, in Kabul, not Bagram, that would play a central part in any NEO.
"Most of the people that were required to be in an NEO were going to come out of Kabul ... HKIA was going to be the center of gravity for any NEO," Milley said, saying the U.S. didn't have the forces to defend both airports.
Staying at Bagram to continue counterterrorism operations there would also not have been advisable, Austin said.
"[That] meant staying at war in Afghanistan, something that the president made clear that he would not do," Austin said.
The noncombatant evacuation operation to get American civilians, Afghan citizens with special immigrant visa applications underway and at-risk Afghans out of Afghanistan, began Aug. 14 — just 17 days before the U.S. military planned to be completely out of the country. Austin said the decision on when to start the NEO came from the State Department and that a variety of factors figured into when an NEO should begin.
"On the issue of why we didn't bring out civilians and as SIVs sooner ... the call on how to do that and when to do it is really a State Department call," Austin said. "Their concerns, rightfully, were that ... they were being cautioned by the Ghani administration that if they withdrew American citizens and SIV applicants at a pace that was too fast, it would cause a collapse of the government that we were trying to prevent. And so I think that went into the calculus."
Despite what some consider to have been a delayed start for noncombatant evacuation operations, Milley said the operation was a success, being the largest air evacuation in history, which got 124,000 individuals out of the country.
Austin said work continues now to get Americans out of Afghanistan.
"We're not finished and we'll make sure that we stay focused on this to get out every American citizen that wants to leave and has the right credentials to be able to leave," he said.
While the U.S. is now out of Afghanistan, it still has the ability to conduct over-the-horizon operations to deal with any threats to the homeland, which includes assets and target analysis that comes from outside of the country in which an operation occurs, Austin said.
"These are effective and fairly common operations," he said. "Just days ago we conducted one such strike in Syria, eliminating a senior Al Qaeda figure. Over the horizon operations are difficult, but absolutely possible. And the intelligence that supports them comes from a variety of sources, and not just U.S. boots on the ground."