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At Empty Bases, Echoes of War

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In 2008, I was a Marine lance corporal. 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. It was my first deployment to Afghanistan. I wanted to buy the new Weezer album (the “Red Album,” featuring “Pork and Beans”) and watch “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” when I got back.

In April, before we started an operation in Helmand Province, we stopped at Camp Bastion (just miles north of Garmsir). Bastion was the biggest military base built by the British since World War II. It had a Pizza Hut trailer, where we ate before we boarded the helicopters, and a water filtration plant that made bottled water that tasted like 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 refocusing on Afghanistan as the Taliban resurged across the country after they were all but defeated in 2002. We fought with the help of the British to take and hold the district of Garmsir.

In 2009, I returned to Camp Bastion, now 22 and a Marine corporal. The stop at Bastion was again temporary, just to use the airfield. We relocated to Camp Leatherneck, the U.S. Marine base that had popped up beside Bastion in the year since my previous departure. It was huge, and only getting bigger as President Barack Obama sent tens of thousands of U.S. forces into Afghanistan to stop the Taliban insurgency that now seemed uncontrollable.

My platoon spent Christmas there before our operation in February 2010. I had a stocking that came from the U.S.O. packed with candy. I wrote my initials on it and hung it over my cot. I then spent the first half of 2010 fighting in Operation Moshtarak, the largest offensive of the war to retake the district of Marjah.

In 2016, I returned to Camp Leatherneck as a 28-year-old reporter, but it had been partially destroyed, the byproduct of the end of the U.S. combat mission in 2014. U.S. and international forces in the country had withdrawn significantly, from more than 100,000 troops to roughly 12,000. The Afghans would fight the war now. That was the policy at least.

Leatherneck was just fluttering tents and old signage denoting a Marine base had once been there. Bastion was gone, too, an empty hulk with its airfield still usable. But between Leatherneck and Bastion, a new American base had popped up: Camp Shorab.

The rows of tents and metal structures with a small dining hall were built toward 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 over the province. The Taliban had swept across Helmand in 2015, taking much of the territory the Americans and British had held in the last decade and left to the Afghans. The new group of Americans at Shorab would go on looting runs into Leatherneck to take office furniture for their new base.

On May 12 of this year, still a reporter — I’m a correspondent in the Kabul bureau — I returned to Camp Shorab, now named Camp New Antonik. It was empty. But somehow also bigger than in 2016 because the American war effort couldn’t help but expand. Just about two weeks earlier, the Green Beret team that had replaced the advisers there had left.

As withdrawals accelerate, U.S. troops and their NATO allies are expected to leave Afghanistan by early to mid-July, according to military officials. But the U.S. withdrawal from Shorab almost feels as if it didn’t happen. The rooms still smelled of body odor from their prior inhabitants. One pair of generators was still running to keep the food freezers cold. Shipping containers left by DynCorp filled with work boots were left behind and happily raided by Afghan troops. The dining hall was bigger than I remembered. The serving stations, all wrapped in cellophane, reflected eerily from our flashlights as we walked through the skeleton of a lost war.

This article first appeared in the At War newsletter. Sign up here to receive it weekly.

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