WILLIAMSBURG, Va. (WAVY) — William & Mary Professor Rani Mullen spent the last couple days like many Americans, eyes glued to news reports as any semblance of structure in Afghanistan crumbled.
“It’s just devastating to see what has happened to 20 years of work,” said Mullen.
Mullen was part of that work. The Twin Towers fell on Sept. 11, 2001 when she was in graduate school at Princeton University in New Jersey. Since then, Afghanistan has been a focal point of her career. She’s visited the war-torn nation numerous times. For the past 17 years, she’s taught a course on state-building in Afghanistan at William & Mary.
“I think we’ve forgotten that there was so much hope we gave when we came in,” said Mullen. “We put resources in and we helped with our NATO allies to secure much of the country.”
Mullen says during the past 20 years, life expectancy in Afghanistan increased, human rights increased and education increased — especially for women.
That hope, Mullen says, is now shattered as the Taliban cement their power.
“Women have been told to go home from the jobs that they had, girl’s schools have been closed down. There are reports of women being raped and forced to marry Taliban fighters. I think we can be under no illusion that this is somehow a reformed, different Taliban that respects human rights. That respects women’s rights, the rights of minorities,” she said.
“It is just heartbreaking. I think the question Americans have to ask themselves [is] what were we there for? What did we do these last 20 years? What did our men and women die for?” she said.
One of Mullen’s former students at William & Mary is among those who paid the ultimate price. Todd Weaver died in an explosion in Afghanistan more than a decade ago. Mullen said he volunteered for the mission.
Mullen still has acquaintances stuck in the chaos.
“All of them are desperately trying to get out of Afghanistan because they know. We kind of talk in theory from our comfortable homes, but these are people on the ground who experienced what Taliban rule was like and they don’t want to go through that again,” she said.
She says she’s not at all surprised at the fall of Kabul.
“I don’t think anybody who knows anything about Afghanistan, if they’re really honest, could be surprised about this. It’s just disingenuous to say we’re surprised that the Taliban could come and take over,” she said.
But could the current chaos have been avoided?
“This moment is both an accumulation of past mistakes in foreign policy as well as a decision by President Biden to proceed with the withdrawal in the face of what we knew was happening on the ground,” she said.
Mullen says the mistakes began with President George W. Bush. Each succeeding president contributed to the situation.
“Starting with Bush and the Iraq War, which led to us to take our eye off of Afghanistan, diverting resources, and really not focusing on the mission in Afghanistan, to Obama saying ‘You know, we’ll have a surge but we’ll leave in 2014,'” explained Mullen. “And when you’re fighting against an enemy but you say, ‘Oh well we’re leaving. This is our date of withdrawal,’ what do you think an enemy would do? I don’t think it takes an Afghanistan expert but certainly, Afghanistan experts should and did know that the Taliban was just going to wait it out.”
Next came President Donald Trump’s decision to negotiate with the Taliban, without the Afghan government.
“That’s the moment they knew they had been legitimized, by being an official actor that was sitting down to talk with the U.S. government. You can imagine what kind of message that sends right to any actor,” Mullen said.
According to Mullen, the deal agreed on in 2020 created further damage, causing the Afghan government to give up their only serious leverage against the Taliban by agreeing to the release of 5,000 imprisoned Taliban fighters.
“Some of these were really the worst of terrorists. And we get nothing in return for the Afghan government,” Mullen said.
Then, Biden came in and stayed the course on withdrawal.
“Every president comes in and inherits a policy but also has a possibility of changing that policy if they want to. And it was clear, I think, that President Biden was not going to change the policy no matter what we were hearing on the ground. What we knew to be the situation on the ground. He proceeded,” she said.
When talks of withdrawal began, Mullen says it chipped away at the morale of the Afghan people.
“This was not only a failure of the Afghan military retreating and not being able to put up a good fight. It was also Afghan politicians selling out their countrymen by essentially handing over to the Taliban,” she said.
“Morale just plummeted after the U.S. said ‘we’re out of here.’ When you don’t have American backup and you see a Taliban that’s emboldened and winning on the battlefield, that has a snowball effect. Once you see a couple provinces fall and the U.S. proceeding to withdrawal, morale plummeted in Afghanistan and that was the beginning of the end,” she said.
There have been comparisons of Kabul to the fall of Saigon after the Vietnam War. Mullen says Kabul may be worse.
“I know Secretary Blinken and others have been trying to not have this analogy but I think that image is just startling. We have to remember in Saigon, the North Vietnamese army came down years later. Today, we’re in a situation where we have to send back troops to secure the airports so we can evacuate our personnel,” she said.
So what’s next?
The professor anticipates the Islamic Emirate will be declared in the next few days. Women will continue to be sent home from work, girl’s schools will continue to close, and Afghanistan will slip back into the 1990s.
The United Nations team monitoring ISIL and Al Qaeda released a report for July 2021. The reports says Al Qaeda is present in 15 out of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces and operates under Taliban protection in at least three of those provinces.
Then there’s the question of the political vacuum left when the U.S. is gone. Who will fill that void? Mullen says the Taliban has already reportedly met with China and Russia.