Zalmay Khalizad, US chief negotiator, whose oversight pushed the Afghans back into Taliban rule
For years, the 70-year-old Afghan-American envoy was Washington’s point of contact for talks with the Taliban that paved the way for the deal that resulted in the US ending its longest war and leaving Afghanistan
If one individual could bring peace to Afghanistan, US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad campaigned as the man for the job. In the end, however, he – accidentally or voluntarily – played the role of a transition that bought the Taliban legitimacy at the expense of the republic so laboriously built by the USA.
For years, the 70-year-old Afghan-American envoy was Washington’s point of contact for talks with the Taliban that paved the way for the deal that resulted in the US ending its longest war and leaving Afghanistan.
This milestone came after more than a year of intense shuttle diplomacy, during which Khalilzad visited foreign capitals, attended summits in glittering hotels and gave speeches in renowned think tanks. The Taliban were ready to discuss a compromise, he assured his audience.
As recently as May 2021, he told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that predictions that the Taliban would quickly overrun Afghan government forces and capture Kabul were overly pessimistic.
Now that the Taliban are destroying what remains of democratic society in Afghanistan, the focus has landed on Khalilzad and the role he played in bringing Afghanistan into this phase.
Who is Zalmay Khalizad?
The 70-year-old US citizen, who was born in Afghanistan, comes from the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e Sharif and comes from a wealthy family of Beauracrats. He grew up in Kabul, the Afghan capital, and graduated from high school there after returning from his exchange program.
He then earned a bachelor’s degree from the American University in Beirut, Lebanon, and a doctorate in political science from the University of Chicago in 1979.
Khalilzad then taught political science at Columbia University and joined the State Department in 1985, where he worked under Paul Wolfowitz, who at the time was one of the most staunch supporters of the ousting of Saddam Hussein following the tensions between America and Iran.
Meanwhile, Khalilzad remained an important voice in Washington for his homeland when a Soviet invasion tore it apart. He successfully campaigned to supply the Afghan mujahideen with shoulder-fired Stinger missiles, which were crucial to their victory over the Soviets.
Khalilzad continued to work under Wolfowitz during the Bush administration that followed and the first Gulf War.
He worked for the Washington think tank RAND during the Clinton administration and returned to the civil service when George W. Bush came to power, leading his Pentagon transition team
A man who is uniquely qualified for the job
There is no question that Khalilzad was uniquely qualified when the White House appointed him special envoy for Afghanistan after the September 11, 2001 attacks: he was the only Afghan in the White House.
Even better, he was a Sunni Muslim born to a Pashtun father – a representative of the predominant religion and ethnicity in the sharply divided country.
Khalilzad took control of the American-Afghan portfolio in 2018 after the Trump administration appointed him special envoy for negotiations with the Taliban.
He was considered to be well equipped to achieve this because, after several US invasions, he had formed embryonic governments in Afghanistan and Iraq and had built a reputation for bringing different groups to the table.
Questions about the objectivity of Khalilzad
In months of negotiations in Qatar, Khalilzad is said to have built a close relationship with the Taliban delegation. Pictures published on the Internet showed the convivial envoy laughing and smiling with insurgent negotiators, which aroused resentment in Afghanistan, where the war was raging.
Then there are his previous dealings with the Taliban, which challenged his integrity and objectivity.
Before becoming the designated Muslim face of the USA in all of West Asia and the Arab world, Khalilzad also worked as a paid advisor to the oil giant Unocal in the mid-1990s and negotiated with the Taliban.
“At that time he took part in talks with the Taliban about the possibility of building gas and oil pipelines through Afghanistan The Washington Post, and compares it favorably to the style practiced in Iran, “an article in abc news called.
Kabul’s deep distrust of Khalilzad
A little-known fact about Khalilzad is that he was actually a classmate of former President Ashraf Ghani as both of them were on the same student exchange program that allowed them to get up close and personal with the West.
However, it was the Taliban who gave Khalilzad more rope, and in the end he doubled the democratic establishment that was built with the efforts of the US. He had the power to vote and urge who could sit at the negotiating table, but the only advocate he ignored was the Western-backed government.
As a result, the Ghani government remained deeply suspicious of him throughout the talks.
According to an article in The New York Times, Ghani’s officials often described the American envoy as vague about details he feared he would make concessions to the Taliban, such as promises to release prisoners – something under the authority of the Afghan government.
What he achieved in Afghanistan
What he did was speak directly to the Taliban, listen to them extensively, and agree to their divisive demand that a troop withdrawal be discussed without the US-allied Afghan government at the table.
Khalilzad set out to use his influence to secure the release of Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar from Pakistani custody to launch the initiative.
But when the US exit agreement was finally signed at an elaborate ceremony in Doha in February 2020, Khalilzad had secured mostly nebulous assurances from the Taliban about a future peace.
“Khalilzad was surprised … just one strong commitment – that they would not attack the US and ‘their allies’,” wrote Kate Clark of the Afghanistan Analysts Network in a new report.
The Taliban’s promises to abandon Al-Qaeda and other international jihadist groups and to start talks with the Afghan government were more vague.
At the end of the day, the deal he had hoped could end the war had indeed wreaked havoc.
Husain Haqqani, a senior official at the Hudson Institute, said Khalilzad had told successive US presidents planning to withdraw their troops that he had a peace deal, but it was in reality a surrender.
“He negotiated poorly, encouraged the Taliban and pretended that the talks would lead to a power-sharing agreement even though the Taliban had no intention of sharing power,” Haqqani said AFP.
And what he didn’t …
In retrospect, the agreement appears to have been little more than a series of American concessions.
Although the deal obliged the Taliban to cease attacks on US and coalition forces, it did not specifically ask them to drive out al-Qaeda or cease attacks on the Afghan military.
The deal gave the Taliban, whose leaders met with Mike Pompeo, the first US Secretary of State to have such interactions, significant legitimacy. There were also talks about their coming to the US to meet with Trump.
The US left Afghanistan without a ceasefire and had not even put in place a framework for a future peace process that would be vital to sealing off a settlement to end the war.
Instead of securing compromises from the Taliban in the months following the deal, Khalilzad put more pressure on the Afghan government and heavily armored the palace to release thousands of insurgent prisoners who immediately added to the militant ranks.
To add to Kabul’s suffering, the deal sparked a countdown, with the US pledging to withdraw all remaining troops from Afghanistan by May 2021 – a deadline that was later extended to September.
The Afghan government had little time or room for maneuver.
The decision by US President Joe Biden to pull through in April ignited the final fuse and sparked a major Taliban offensive that violently overthrew the Afghan government on August 15.
Two days earlier, US lawmaker Michael Waltz – an Afghan veteran – sent a letter to Biden denouncing Khalilzad’s appearance.
Khalilzad “gave you bad advice and his diplomatic strategy has failed spectacularly,” he wrote.
“In the face of this disaster, Ambassador (Khalilzad) should resign or be removed from office immediately.”
On the same day, Khalilzad sent his final tweet begging the Taliban to withdraw their fighters as they approached Kabul.
“We demand an immediate end to the attacks on cities, demand a political agreement and warn that a government imposed by force will be a pariah state,” wrote the envoy.
By then it was too late.
With inputs from agencies