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U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan: A Q&A with Rani Mullen

Rani D. Mullen is associate professor of government at William & Mary. She has a M.A. and Ph.D. from Princeton School of Public and International Affairs and a M.A. from The Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. 

Portrait photograph of Rani Mullen Her research and teaching focus is on democratization and development in South Asia, and democracy and state building in India and Afghanistan in particular. Mullen worked for the Poverty and Social Policy Department of the World Bank for several years, was a consultant for U.S. Agency for International Development, and a legislative assistant to a member of the German parliament.  Her articles have focused on the linkages between democracy, growth and poverty, the relationship between local governance and social well-being, and center-periphery relations in South Asian countries. 

This story is part of W&M News' Faculty on Topic series - Ed.

When President Biden announced his plan to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, what was your initial reaction?

Honestly, it was not a surprise to people working on Afghanistan when the September U.S. troop withdrawal deadline was announced by the White House. The writing has been on the wall since President Trump brought in Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad to start negotiating with the Taliban in 2018. Negotiating with the Taliban changed how they were viewed.

They went from being viewed as a terrorist group, a pariah organization, to a legitimate negotiating partner for the Government of the United States. President Biden repeatedly mentioned during his campaign that he would “bring troops home from Afghanistan.” When President Biden then retained Ambassador Khalilzad to negotiate with the Taliban, despite the failure to produce any tangible results after two years of negotiations, or rather lack thereof, it was clear that U.S. engagement with the Taliban was about managing the exit of the U.S. rather than being willing to call their bluff.

So, I was not surprised. But I was disappointed. Disappointed because, after twenty years of fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan, after American troops lost their lives fighting there including one of our own best and brightest my former student Todd Weaver, we are essentially handing Afghanistan back to the Taliban. One must ask oneself: Was the investment of the past twenty years’ worth it, if in the end we essentially hand the country back to the Taliban? What were we there for and what have we accomplished? These are tough questions, but we need to ask them.

Biden referenced that the previous administration had negotiated an agreement to remove troops by May 1 in making his announcement. Can you speak a little bit more about that 2020 agreement with the Taliban?

The 2020 agreement with the Taliban was essentially a U.S. exit agreement. If you read through the public part of the agreement, which was signed after more than a year of negotiations, you will find that the two main issues agreed to were: 1. the withdrawal of U.S. and international forces by May of 2021; and 2. a commitment by the Taliban to prevent other groups such as Al Qaeda from using Afghanistan to threaten the U.S. and its allies.

There were also other vague statements in the agreement about “a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire” being on the agenda of intra-Afghan negotiations (i.e., negotiations between the elected government of Afghanistan and the Taliban). However, the Afghan government was not part of these negotiations and yet it was pressured by the U.S. to give up their last negotiating tool: the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners, some of whom had been found guilty of truly horrific crimes. Anyone who knows simple business school “Negotiations 101,” knows that if you give away all your leverage before you even engage in negotiations, then the other side has little incentive to negotiate with you. And so, it was with the negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

Over the past year the U.S. has stated that the violence perpetrated by the Taliban and the continued presence of groups such as Al Qaeda in Afghanistan meant that the Taliban were not fulfilling their commitments under the classified portions of the agreement. And we know that nearly 1 ½ years after the U.S.-Taliban agreement, talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government have yielded little results.

The Taliban has essentially been “running down the clock” until all U.S. troops have been withdrawn by September 2021. And why wouldn’t they? They are winning on the battlefield, are already in control of much of the rural areas, are in the suburbs of most urban centers and starting to take over cities, and are in control of most of the lucrative border crossings with Pakistan, Iran and even with the northern Central Asian States.

It is no wonder many Afghanistan analysts have compared the 2020 agreement with the Taliban to the 1973 peace deal that the U.S. made with the North Vietnamese Communist forces. The 1973 peace deal like the 2020 deal with the Taliban, led to President Nixon’s announcing the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Vietnam.

And just like the U.S. negotiations with the Taliban, the 1973 negotiations left out our partners, the local government. It is thus no surprise that many Afghans and U.S. military personal who have fought in Afghanistan feel betrayed and heartbroken. This was not an honorable agreement. And as any rational person would have expected, the Taliban have not kept their end of the bargain.

What do you see as the challenges in front of the government of Afghanistan? The people of Afghanistan?

Afghanistan is still one of the poorest and most insecure countries in the world, so of course there are huge challenges that the country and people of Afghanistan face. But as I teach my students of Comparative Politics, the most basic concept of a state is one which, according to Max Weber, the state has a monopoly over the legitimate use of physical force to maintain order. Without this ability to provide security, the state loses its legitimacy and falls. This is what we are currently seeing in Afghanistan.

Have there been aspects about America’s military intervention that have been positive? 

The American intervention in Afghanistan post 9/11 has shown a generation of Afghans that girls can obtain an education and contribute towards a family’s income, that representative democracy might not be perfect but is much preferable to civil war and the rule of the strongest militias or terrorists, that Afghans can build a better country when all citizens work together no matter their ethnic background.

All this is at stake now. Of course, there were also negative sides to the intervention, including incredible wastage and corruption also on the U.S. side. But ask any Afghan today if their quality of life until a few years ago was better than in the mid-1990s in Afghanistan and I think most would tell you that their lives were much better than during the civil war and Taliban rule.

I had an Afghan refugee family with four kids living in our home for a few months until recently. The father of the family was someone I met a decade ago in Berlin at a conference on Afghanistan. He had worked for the U.S. embassy in Kabul for several years and life was good for them, especially when compared to the 1990s when he fled Afghanistan under the cover of darkness to join the millions of Afghan refugees in Pakistan.

But then they started to feel threatened by people asking whether he worked for an international government. They were among the lucky ones who were able to get American visas and emigrate to the U.S. There are many others who worked for the U.S. and have not been able to get a visa. And others still who are desperately trying to leave Afghanistan for any other country.

Some of us can remember the years the Soviets occupied Afghanistan and then left, leading to chaos and more war. I think there was a hope that a U.S. intervention in Afghanistan would somehow end up helping the Afghan people. Are we leaving the country in a better state than when we invaded, or is our departure reminiscent of that of the Soviets?

I think we have focused so heavily on the negative that we forget the achievements over the past 20 years: Life expectancy has risen by nearly 20 years, literacy rates are up, health indicators have improved massively, and Afghans, for the first time in their history have had multiple elections to choose their leaders. This is not nothing. But, of course, in the end what will be remembered is that the U.S. leaves Afghanistan, civil war ensues, and the Taliban takes over – very much like the situation in the early 1990s when the Soviets left.

We sank much money and blood into building up Afghanistan over the past two decades – just like the Soviets did. But in the end, we failed to help build up an Afghan military force that received enough pay, logistical support etc. where they felt that it was worth risking their lives. Afghanistan is rapidly falling to the Taliban. In the end, there are more similarities with the Soviet withdrawal than differences.

Biden noted in his original announcement: “The Taliban should know that if they attack us as we draw down, we will defend ourselves and our partners with all the tools at our disposal.”  Do you think the Taliban is fearful of this or does it see it as something worth risking?

The Taliban knows that the U.S. is leaving. The fact that civilian casualties in Afghanistan have reached a record high as the U.S. withdraws has mattered little for the course of U.S. troop withdrawal. U.S. airstrikes against the Taliban and to support the Afghan forces over the past week also have had little impact. The Taliban knows they have the upper hand now, as the U.S. is committed to withdrawing no matter the conditions on the ground. They are emboldened and are taking over cities and assassinating government officials in Kabul. They know that they are not risking much.

There appears to be more focus on the Taliban than the Afghan government. Is that appropriate? Does the fact that the Taliban is the dominant “partner” perhaps bode ill for the future of the current Afghan government and stability?

Of course, it bodes terribly ill for the future of Afghanistan. But the writing was on the wall when the U.S. envoy started negotiating with the Taliban, relegating the Afghan government to bystanders. U.S. engagement with the Taliban now is all about crisis management, about withdrawing quickly by the September deadline no matter the political chaos on the ground. And that Afghanistan is in chaos as the Taliban rapidly consolidates its power is quite evident.

Even the Chinese government, which has historically not been a cheerleader of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, has been criticizing the U.S. for its hasty withdrawal. A Taliban takeover of the country within a few months, much sooner than a classified Pentagon assessment had predicted, now seems inevitable.

Biden said, “We’ll hold the Taliban accountable for its commitment not to allow any terrorists to threaten the United States or its allies from Afghan soil.” Do you think that is possible? And do you think the threat of terrorism in Afghanistan is the biggest danger for the U.S.? The world?

How have we held the Taliban accountable for their failure to disengage with Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups? As the July 2021 report of the UN Security Council by the UN team monitoring and reporting on ISIL and Al-Qaeda makes clear Al Qaeda has a presence in at least 15 out of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, operates under Taliban protection in at least 3 provinces, and their leader al-Zawahiri is assessed to be alive in Afghanistan.

Moreover, the report finds that the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant-Khorasan (or the “un-Islamic state” which I like to tell my students is a much more appropriate name) has moved into eight Afghan provinces. The daily updated Long War Journal found that the Taliban controlled 229 out of 421 districts by the beginning of August, while the districts controlled by the government had shrunk to 66. Targeted attacks on government officials in Kabul during broad daylight are now a daily occurrence. Al Qaeda and their protectors, the un-Islamic state, have strengthened their positions around Kabul, conducting terrorist attacks from there such as the June 8, 2021, attack which killed 10 deminers from the HALO Trust, an international humanitarian organization which partners with the UN and works to clear Afghanistan of landmines. On Aug. 6, 2021, the Taliban claimed responsibility for the assassination of the director of the Afghan government’s information and media center.

Now, you could of course argue that HALO is not a direct ally of the U.S. But that would be ignoring who terrorist organizations like the Al-Qaeda and their backers are and what they are doing. And is the Afghan government not an ally of the U.S.? So no, I don’t think we are holding the Taliban accountable.

Whether the threat of terrorism from Afghanistan is the biggest danger for the U.S. and the world is a very different question. There are many challenges the U.S. and indeed the world faces during the time of pandemic and an increasingly assertive China. Yet certainly allowing terrorist organizations to increase their presence in Afghanistan will not contribute to regional or indeed global stability.

A 20-year war with no clear goal or end would not be anyone’s choice, and the loss of American and Afghan lives is heartbreaking. Are there any other options – or combination of alternatives – in a path forward that would be different from the withdrawal? Do you see another way — other means — by which we might be involved that would be more effective?

Fully agree on not wanting to continue a 20-year war with no clear goal or end in sight. But after all the investments in Afghanistan, not only the money but also the American lives lost, is this the best way to end the war?  If we had worked more closely with Afghanistan’s neighbors, including Iran and India, and insisted on a conditions-based withdrawal, would the Taliban have run out the clock as they are currently doing?

We focus on Afghanistan, but it is not in isolation. What do you think are the implications for the region?

The regional context is key as I mentioned. None of Afghanistan’s neighbors wants to see Afghanistan become a failed state again, one that was ruled by and hosted terrorist organizations. But that is perhaps where the similarities end. Pakistan played a crucial role in facilitating the rule of the Taliban in the 1990s and was one of only three countries that recognized the Taliban government.

Pakistan has also been hosting the Taliban since they were defeated by the U.S. in Afghanistan and is keen to maintain close relations with them. Iran, despite being averse to the Taliban, reached out and have maintained contact with the Taliban for the last few years since it became clear to them that the Taliban was making a comeback.

India has been one of the last countries in the region to maintain a principled position of not negotiating with terrorists. But even India is now reaching out to the Taliban lest they have no diplomatic channels in Afghanistan when the Taliban retake the country, which is very like to happen within a few months. I would suggest that it would behoove India to engage with the Taliban. It does not want to find itself in the situation it faced in December of 1999 when Indian Airlines Flight 814 from Kathmandu to Delhi was hijacked, landing in Taliban-controlled Kandahar. At that time India, which did not recognize the Taliban government, had to fly in its diplomats from Islamabad and ended up negotiating the release of 180 passengers in exchange for the release of three terrorists. All three of these terrorist were later implicated in further terrorist acts, such as the 2002 beheading of New York Times journalist Daniel Pearl and the 2008 terror attacks on the Indian city of Mumbai.

The exit of U.S. troops is devastating for India, which has already had difficulties this past year on its northern border with China. With the last of U.S. troops leaving over the next month, the Taliban will solidify their stranglehold on Afghanistan. Once the Taliban control all of Afghanistan, Pakistan will once again have a close relationship with the Afghan government, putting India at a strategic disadvantage, much like in the 1990s. Yet compared to the 1990s India faces a more difficult situation domestically and at its borders: a pandemic which led the Indian economy to contract by 7.3% in 2020-21 and a problematic border situation with China. In other words, India’s strategic interests are now more spread out while at the same time it is having to address multiple political and economic challenges.

So, at a time when India should be focused on Afghanistan and the potential threat from its West, it is having to address multiple strategic threats and is less focused on Afghanistan. For example, to date, India has committed approximately USD $3 billion in grants to Afghanistan and for much of the past two decades Afghanistan was the second largest recipient of Indian foreign aid. However, since India does not have any “boots on the ground,” the implementation of Indian aid (such as the building of the Afghan parliament which India fully funded) has relied on a security umbrella on the ground which was provided by the Afghan government and international forces. The growing insecurity in Afghanistan over the past few years has already impacted Indian aid to Afghanistan. While India committed well over USD $100 million to Afghanistan just a few years ago, the commitments for fiscal year 2020/21 went down to about USD $56 million and the revised budget estimates brought that figure down further to about USD $48 million. For the current fiscal year, India has committed USD $48 million to Afghanistan, though given the security situation the actual delivery of aid will very likely be less. Afghanistan today has been relegated to being India’s fifth-largest aid recipient.

The elephant in the room of course is China. China, along with Pakistan and Russia, has hosted Taliban delegations, most recently on July 28. The latest, high-profile meeting with China’s foreign minister significantly raised the Taliban’s standing as a legitimate actor. China is trying to use its leverage to try to persuade the Taliban to negotiate and seek a political solution with the Afghan government. China is also worried about terrorist organizations in the Wakhan Corridor, the Afghan region bordering China, most of which the Taliban seized in June.

Each country in the region has different interests at stake as Afghanistan rapidly is taken over by the Taliban. But the bottom line is that the western Asia region will not be better off when the U.S. leaves and the Taliban retake control of Afghanistan. Just look at what is already happening to democracy, women’s and indeed human rights in the areas already under Taliban control. Not only are the Taliban summarily executing civil servants as they take control of regions, there are also reports of civilians being massacred in acts that the U.K. and the U.S. are calling “war crimes.”

Biden said, “We’ll continue to support the rights of Afghan women and girls by maintaining significant humanitarian and development assistance.” What are your concerns for women and girls? What do you think he means by “significant humanitarian and development assistance,” and can it have the same influence without the military presence? If not, what do you think could the U.S. do to help women and girls during the transition and in the future?

Despite all the talk about continuing to support Afghan women and girls, we know that under a Taliban regime girls and women are going to be worse off. There is just no denying this. A couple of years ago l attended a track II conference with Taliban representation. They have talked the talk of women’s rights, but not walked the walk. We should be under no illusions what the return of the Taliban will mean for women and for religious and ethnic minorities.

What is your biggest fear?

A repeat of the 1990s in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, I think that is a very likely scenario.

What is your greatest hope or evidence of reason to have hope for the people of Afghanistan?

Unfortunately, I am devastated about the current and future situation in Afghanistan. The U.S. could and should have done better.

Are they any misconceptions about either the situation in Afghanistan or U.S. policy that you would like to address or clear up?

A few months ago, I organized a track II colloquium together with Wolfgang Danspeckgruber from the Liechtenstein Institute at Princeton University. Several of my former students from my senior seminar on “State building in Afghanistan” helped and participated in this colloquium. It was clear to all participants of this meeting, including my students, that the situation in Afghanistan is very grave and that it is only a matter of time before the Taliban are back in power. It is also quite evident to anyone who knows the history of Afghanistan what the return of the Taliban will portend for women, ethnic and religious minorities, human rights in general, and certainly for the future of democracy in Afghanistan. I wish that there was hope that the U.S. exit would somehow lead to peace in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, the future of Afghanistan is quite grim. It saddens me greatly.