Does the Great Retreat from Afghanistan Mark the End of the American Era?

Aug 19, 2021

It’s not just an epic defeat for the United States. The fall of Kabul may serve as a bookend for the era of U.S. global power. In the nineteen-forties, the United States launched the Great Rescue to help liberate Western Europe from the powerful Nazi war machine.

It then used its vast land, sea, and air power to defeat the formidable Japanese empire in East Asia. Eighty years later, the U.S. is engaged in what historians may someday call a Great Retreat from a ragtag militia that has no air power or significant armor and artillery, in one of the poorest countries in the world.

It’s now part of an unnerving American pattern, dating back to the nineteen-seventies. On Sunday, social-media posts of side-by-side photos evoked painful memories. One captured a desperate crowd climbing up a ladder to the rooftop of a building near the U.S. Embassy in Saigon to get on one of the last helicopters out in 1975, during the Ford Administration. The other showed a Chinook helicopter hovering over the U.S. Embassy in Kabul on Sunday. “This is manifestly not Saigon,” the Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, tried to argue on Sunday, on ABC’s “This Week.” It didn’t wash. And there are other episodes. In 1984, the Reagan Administration withdrew the U.S. Marine peacekeepers from Beirut after a suicide bomber from a nascent cell of what became Hezbollah killed more than two hundred and forty military personnel—the largest loss for the Marines in a single incident since the Second World War. In 2011, the United States pulled out of Iraq, opening the way for the emergence of isis. The repeated miscalculations challenge basic Washington policy-making as well as U.S. military strategy and intelligence capabilities. Why wasn’t this looming calamity—or any of the earlier ones—anticipated? Or the exits better planned? Or the country not left in the hands of a former enemy? It is a dishonorable end.

Whatever the historic truth decades from now, the U.S. will be widely perceived by the world today as having lost what George W. Bush dubbed the “war on terror”—despite having mobilized nato for its first deployment outside Europe or North America, a hundred and thirty-six countries to provide various types of military assistance, and twenty-three countries to host U.S. forces deployed in offensive operations. America’s vast tools and tactics proved ill-equipped to counter the will and endurance of the Taliban and their Pakistani backers. In the long term, its missiles and warplanes were unable to vanquish a movement of sixty thousand core fighters in a country about as big as Texas.

This is an excerpt from an article published by the New Yorker.

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