In shadow of abandoned US airbase, Bagram's economy withers

Bagram is marked by rows of shuttered shops and warehouses, and those that remain open have seen sales plummet. PHOTO: AFP

BAGRAM (AFP) - For years, the sprawling military base at Bagram, just north of Kabul, was a potent symbol of the United States' two decades of war in Afghanistan.

The sprawling complex included an air base that was the linchpin of the US invasion; a prison where rights groups allege widespread violations occurred; and a residential area that featured swimming pools, cinemas and spas.

But weeks before Washington officially ended its military presence in Afghanistan last August, US troops left the airbase in the dead of night.

Today, the military base is occupied by the Taliban, who took over the country in a swift offensive as US forces were exiting.

The US departure from Bagram has also seen the collapse of the economy in the nearby town of the same name, an illustration of how Afghanistan's fortunes were so heavily tied to the war and foreign aid.

"Today, I'm jobless. I don't know much about politics, but the exit of US forces from the base is a big economic loss," said Mr Saifulrahman Faizi, one of the town's 80,000 residents.

Mr Faizi earned US$30 a day when he was employed at the base, at a time when hundreds would queue for hours outside the compound in the hope of getting work.

"Now, nobody goes there. Everything has just crashed, everybody is struggling", he said.

Nowhere is the town's economic collapse more evident than in the main market.

It is marked by rows of shuttered shops and warehouses, and those that remain open have seen sales plummet.

Mr Shah Wali, a 46-year-old grocery store keeper, said he used to earn an income of between US$230 and US$340).

Today, he can barely pay his rent.

"With the Islamic Emirate (Taliban) coming to power, peace has returned but business has gone," Mr Wali told AFP, clutching his prayer beads.

At the peak of the US invasion, Bagram was home to tens of thousands of troops and contractors, with the town serving as a hub for tons of supplies that would service the base.

The airfield was first built by the Americans for their Afghan ally during the Cold War in the 1950s.

The Soviet Union vastly expanded it after the Red Army invaded Afghanistan in 1979.

After their withdrawal, the base was controlled by the Moscow-backed government, and later by the shaky mujahideen administration during the 1990s civil war.

With the Taliban seizing power last year, the airfield is now under their control.

Townspeople say that while the Taliban may have brought peace, business has gone. PHOTO: AFP

When the US military pulled out, it took much of its military hardware home, but tons of civilian equipment was left behind.

For several months, the town managed to thrive on a booming scrap business, but residents say that now that, too, is dying.

Shops that sold used gym equipment, generators, air conditioners and spare car parts are either shut or receive few orders.

Several houses are now deserted, their residents having moved to Kabul or elsewhere in search of work.

Many who had worked at the base have also fled the country, fearing reprisals from the Taliban.

"Half the people have gone, the town feels so empty," said Mr Faizi.

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