An Ideological Homecoming

Mustafa Popal F01 provided invaluable support to the U.S. government through his service in Afghanistan
A close-up headshot of Mustafa Popal in front of the American flag.

Mustafa Popal’s career has brought him full circle. He is a 2023-2024 Senior State Department Fellow at the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University, his alma mater. His return to Georgetown follows a decorated career in the American government, during which he worked at the intersection of his academic and personal interests. 

Popal was born in Afghanistan, and his family immigrated to the United States during the Soviet-Afghan War. Through his upbringing in Virginia, Popal knew he was meant to study foreign affairs. 

“When I was growing up, my father had a subscription to Time Magazine,” he said. “I was always browsing the pages and exposed to world affairs from a young age.”

Popal studied international affairs as an undergraduate at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service. Following graduation from The Fletcher School in the summer of 2001, he received a fellowship in the Office of the Secretary of Defense’s humanitarian affairs division at the Pentagon while he awaited the results of the foreign service exam. He was working in the Pentagon on September 11, which he says irrevocably altered his life. He was grateful to have survived, of course, and subsequently, he received job offers from several government agencies due to his Afghan background and regional expertise. He accepted an offer as Afghanistan desk officer with the Office of the Secretary of Defense in their Near East and South Asian Affairs Division. 

“It was an ideological homecoming,” said Popal. “To have the opportunity to play a role both as an American but also as someone who had once been an Afghan refugee was a very surreal and gratifying experience.”

A Sink or Swim Situation

Popal served the country in key moments, but the beginning of his work in Kabul was personally resonant.

“The first time I went to Afghanistan after my family fled was with the Pentagon 22 years later,” he said. “I went with an Air Force general in 2002 to Kabul, and when we landed at Bagram Airbase, it felt like I was on the set of M*A*S*H given the flurry of activity.” 

His work in Afghanistan continued on and off for 20 years. He served with the U.S. Department of State in Kabul during the first presidential election in Afghanistan in 2004. When the country negotiated their new constitution, Popal was one of the political officers in the U.S. Embassy reporting onsite as deliberations unfolded. He became the official Dari spokesperson for the Department of State under President Obama, a role in which he extensively engaged the Afghan public in Dari about U.S. policy decisions regarding Afghanistan. 

Most recently, as Chief of Staff to former Deputy Secretary of State Wendy R. Sherman, he assisted with the U.S. evacuation in August 2021, working to withdraw Americans and Afghans who were at risk from the same airport he fled with his mother and siblings in 1980 after the Soviet invasion. 

“Seeing our soldiers and diplomats on the ground and what they were able to pull off was remarkable  I went through every human emotion in those eight days — everything from euphoria to despair,” said Popal. “When the bombing happened at the gate, I was in the middle of it all and was also tasked by my superiors in Washington, D.C., to negotiate the handover of airport operations to either the Turks or the Qataris after our departure.” 

He conducted multilateral negotiations with officials from Turkey and Qatar against the backdrop of a full-blown evacuation of over 100,000 people. Airport experts and technicians flew in from the U.S., Doha, and Turkey. 

“I'm not an aviation expert, but that was the task given to me because keeping the airport operational after we departed was essential,” he said. “For 72 hours, I suddenly became the chief negotiator for airport transition—not uncommon in our line of work.” 

A Valued Voice in the Room 

In addition to his work in Afghanistan, Popal also served two separate details at the White House covering the Middle East, including as Special Advisor to former Vice President Biden, as Deputy Executive Secretary in the Office of the Secretary of State from 2020-2021, and as Minister-Counselor for Political Affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo from 2017 to 2019. Reflecting upon his career, there was much that Popal could not have planned for. 

“There were times when I felt nervous and out of my depth or had impostor syndrome as a former refugee turned diplomat. Then there were other times when I was confident,” said Popal. “I realized that my voice has value and that what I've studied and worked on comes to bear on these jobs.”

“There was an element of both periodic discomfort and anxiety, but also a lot of adrenaline, exhilaration, and gratitude that I was in this very historic period of U.S. diplomatic history,” he added. “To be there on the ground, to be there in the Pentagon, and to have survived September 11 but also have been given the opportunity to help in some ways was very gratifying for me.”

Read more about Fletcher’s international security field of study

The views expressed are not necessarily those of the U.S. Government.