In power vacuums, city infrastructure is thrown into chaos and often ends up collapsing completely, and this breakdown in infrastructure causes even more death and destruction.
That's precisely what's happening in Afghanistan right now.
A video has surfaced depicting dozens of desperate Afghan people swamping a United States Air Force aircraft as it attempted to take off from the Hamid Karzai Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan. The scene was portrayed in a tweet, but this is just the tip of the iceberg. Hundreds of similar videos can easily be found online, and all show panic, disarray, and systems crumbling.
Modern infrastructure, which is only possible because of highly complex civil engineering and a vast array of interconnected systems, is falling apart in the nation. As each system falls, more lives are lost.
Panic at Kabul airport as societal systems break down
These events transpired following the pull-out of the U.S., which has occupied the country for twenty years, starting in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. Throughout the city, thousands of Afghans rushed to the airport with the aim of boarding flights out of the country, but for most of them, this was not to be.
The country's Civil Aviation Authority declared that all commercial flights leaving Kabul were canceled.
The video reveals dozens of Afghan people running next to the aircraft and attempting to grasp onto it as it moves down the runway. Other videos showed more shocking scenes, like people falling off of military planes after takeoff, plummeting to their deaths.
While this can be discussed in terms of politics, at the end of the day, it's not just about politics. It is about much more.
You don't need to be a civil engineer to understand how, in a political vacuum, the systems built to support modern society can turn against the general populace, causing power outages, closed transportation hubs, and a total breakdown of food supplies.
The entire city of Kabul, its labyrinthine politics and infrastructure, was built upon a complex series of interconnected systems that were developed over the course of years. When one of these systems breaks down, the other systems soon follow. And because they are so complex, getting things back up and running is no easy task.
As a result, over the coming days and months, we are likely to see similar scenes. With modern society being what it is, there is simply no easy way to fix or even slow the collapse.
United States of America fled Afghanistan leaving behind innocent Afghans.— Aditya Raj Kaul (@AdityaRajKaul) August 16, 2021
These shocking visuals from Kabul today describe the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. Betrayal. Escape. Lack of empathy. No clarity. Failure. Chaos. pic.twitter.com/UCDMC7CffT
A predictable failure
These scenes, which came about because of a colossal shift in political power in Kabul, are reminiscent of other major catastrophes and failures. Consider, for example, the damage left in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
When it tore through the United States' Gulf Coast in 2005, the city of New Orleans' levee system experienced a failure, leading to unprecedented flooding. Roughly 80% of the city and its neighboring parishes were submerged in floodwater. It was one of the deadliest engineering-adjacent disasters in the country's history, and it took years to get the city back on its feet.
Unlike the infamous faulty O rings that sealed the fate of NASA's space shuttle Challenger, the disaster of New Orleans had no single cause.
According to an archived study from the American Society of Civil Engineers, a variety of oversights on behalf of politicians, civil engineers, and others came together in their own perfect storm, which ultimately undermined the ability of authorities and engineers to maintain one of the most basic technological features of low-lying cities: maintaining the levees.
The chaos in Kabul is very different, in many regards, but it is alike in the total collapse in the wake of proper planning.
Regardless of your political leanings, one is forced to acknowledge that planning failures took place at a variety of vantage points, and this inevitably led to the total system collapse that we are now witnessing. There appears to have been little emergency exit plan put into place for citizens of the U.S., U.K., and other countries. There seems to have been little (if any) consideration for how systems would be maintained for the countless Afghan people -- who worked with Western nations and otherwise -- that are now stranded under a new ruling political establishment.
Any civil engineer would tell you that these events were predictable and could have been forseen years ago.