The Platform

U.S. Marines, along with British and Turkish forces, assist a child during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 20, 2021.

The Taliban’s takeover is emblematic of America’s downfall as a leading hegemony.

Ten days since the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Taliban have managed to occupy most of the country, claiming to establish a new Islamic state under Shariah law. Just last Sunday, the Taliban entered the presidential palace in Kabul, the country’s capital, and declared its victory just hours after President Ashraf Ghani fled his own country to “prevent a flood of bloodshed.” Meanwhile, Afghan civilians who are left behind, face uncertainty. Some are anxiously awaiting the Taliban’s reign while others are rushing to obtain visas.

Shocking footage began to circulate last Monday when Kabul’s airport was packed with Afghans desperately trying to flee the country—some of whom were even clinging onto the doorways of departing cargo planes. This rapid collapse of the U.S.-backed government is a crucial reminder that 20 years of bloodshed and lost lives, as well as trillions of dollars of investments, are nothing but symbolic of the downfall of American expansionism—following similar patterns of disasters the U.S. sparked in the past, including Vietnam. Whether or not the current consequences are inevitable, this fiasco will go down as Biden’s lasting legacy.

To be fair, 20 years of bloodshed are not all on Biden’s watch, and the political instability is, to a large extent, part of Afghanistan’s long history. Historically, nation after nation has attempted to occupy Afghanistan. There’s a reason “Graveyard of Empires” is applied to Afghanistan. The country has been invaded and settled by countless tribal groups, each of which has a distinct identity and culture and is often hostile to one another. Moreover, being a landlocked country, Afghanistan is dominated by jagged mountain ranges—a complex terrestrial feature that makes it difficult for the central government to govern efficiently.

Considering all these factors, the socio-political fragmentation of Afghan society seems inevitable, and there is little surprise that the central government has long struggled to solidify its leadership among the different tribal groups. On top of that, rampant corruption among government officials severely hampered public support for the now-disposed government of Ashraf Ghani. Indeed, a 2015 survey of 1,657 police officers in 11 provinces by the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies found that only 11 percent of respondents joined the force to fight the Taliban; most had joined to earn a salary without much belief in a just cause. It seems that, from its very beginning, the U.S. mission in Afghanistan had very little long-term prospect, yet subsequent administrations inherited this mission in the name of “counterterrorism” to avoid any criticism for being lax on national security.

A Marine calms an infant at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 20.

While some Democrats and Republicans have very openly criticized Biden’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan, others have also blamed Donald Trump, his predecessor, for negotiating an exit deal with the Taliban. The truth, however, is that both of their decisions are only a reflection of a greater sentiment among Americans who have grown increasingly wary of the conflict in Afghanistan. A survey in 2011 by the Chicago Council found that 77 percent of Democrats and 56 percent of Republicans support U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan; overall, 70 percent of respondents voted in favor of withdrawal. While political affiliation does impact one’s attitude toward the U.S. foreign military presence, increasing numbers of Americans have grown war-weary over the past two decades, questioning whether the U.S. occupation is worth the cost and sacrifice. In this sense, the withdrawal was a decision that any administration would have had to make at some point in history, and there is little surprise that Biden chose to follow through with the U.S. withdrawal.

“It is time to end the forever war.” Biden’s declaration, however, was based on his optimism that later turned out to be a disastrous miscalculation. At a July 8th press conference, Biden confidently declared, “The likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely.” Just over a month later, the Taliban had taken over much of the country.

Even despite his miscalculation, Biden continues to stand by his decision: “One more year, or five more years, of U.S. military presence, would not have made a difference if the Afghan military cannot or will not hold its own country.” The Biden administration has met much criticism from both political parties, some of whom have called out Biden for having “blood on [his] hand[s]” and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson who declared that what is happening on the ground is a “heartbreaking” betrayal. Many Americans, including GOP lawmakers, fear that the Taliban’s takeover will lead to the revival of Al-Qaeda.

Biden is correct that a continued U.S. military presence would not have made much difference in Afghanistan, and whoever pulls the trigger has to bear repercussions for the inevitable consequences. Nevertheless, civil chaos prompted by the poorly prepared withdrawal is attributed to the misjudgment of the Biden administration, regardless of whoever he points the finger at. “I stand squarely behind my decision,” Biden defiantly defended his decision during a press conference but soon proceeded to blame Afghan security forces for failing to effectively counter Taliban forces. Yet, Biden’s finger-pointing only camouflages the fact that the U.S. government has squandered thousands of lives and money to sustain a corrupt Afghan central government that lacked public support without tackling the core of its fragile political system. By laying the blame on others while downplaying his misjudgment of the situation, Biden has demonstrated to the rest of the world that America is no longer a reliable partner and ally. Within Afghanistan, locals who helped coalition forces are the real victims of Washington’s incompetence, and their feelings of betrayal and abandonment could spark another surge of anti-Americanism.

In a larger context, the Taliban’s takeover is emblematic of America’s downfall as a leading hegemony. Allies who have collaborated with the U.S. mission will see this event as America’s utter betrayal, and even countries like Japan who weren’t directly involved in the Afghanistan occupation will grow weary of America’s capacity to maintain its alliance in other parts of the world. On the other hand, China and Russia will likely find a new opportunity to fill the political vacuum created by the U.S. withdrawal, making their presence even more pronounced in the region. The unfolding situation in Afghanistan is only a part of the bigger narrative: as the U.S. continues to retreat from its previous responsibilities, our society is proceeding to a new world order.

Born in Japan and having studied in Canada, Sae Furukawa is always interested in exploring diplomatic relations and foreign policies that have shaped the way people view their culture and society. In today's globalized society, regional issues are often linked to and develop into global issues, affecting different stakeholders at various levels. As a student majoring in politics at Pomona College, Sae strives to share the youth's perspectives on socio-political affairs evolving worldwide and bring unheard voices into the public spotlight.