The 70-year-old Afghan-American envoy spent years as Washington’s point man for talks with the Taliban that paved the way for the deal to see the US end its longest war and exit Afghanistan
Editor’s note: This article, written in the aftermath of Kabul’s fall to Taliban, is being republished in view of Zalmay Khalilzad’s resignation as Special Representative for Afghanistan. The 70-year-old diplomat is considered to be the architect of the Doha deal signed in February 2020, which helped end the US war in Afghanistan. But the end result was deemed less than favourable.
If one individual could bring peace to Afghanistan, US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad touted himself as the man for the job. In the end, however, he has – inadvertently or by choice – played the role of a transitioner who bought legitimacy for the Taliban at the cost of the republic that the US so painstakingly assembled.
The 70-year-old Afghan-American envoy spent years as Washington’s point man for talks with the Taliban that paved the way for the deal to see the US end its longest war and exit Afghanistan.
That milestone came after more than a year of intense shuttle diplomacy during which Khalilzad visited foreign capitals, attended summits at glitzy hotels, and gave speeches at prestigious think tanks. The Taliban were ready to discuss a compromise, he assured his audiences.
He told the House Foreign Affairs Committee as late as May 2021 that predictions that the Taliban will quickly overrun Afghan government forces and conquer Kabul were unduly pessimistic.
Now as the Taliban demolishes vestiges of democratic society from Afghanistan, the focus has landed on Khalilzad and the role he played in bringing Afghanistan to this stage.
Who is Zalmay Khalizad?
The 70-year-old Afghanistan-born US citizen hails from the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e Sharif, to an affluent family of beauracrats. He grew up in Kabul, the Afghan capital, and after returning from his exchange program, graduated from high school there.
He went on to earn an undergraduate degree from the American University in Beirut, Lebanon, and then 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, working under Paul Wolfowitz, who was back then one of the staunchest advocates for deposing Saddam Hussein in the wake of America-Iran tensions.
Meanwhile, Khalilzad remained a key voice in Washington for his homeland as a Soviet invasion tore it apart. He successfully lobbied to supply the Afghan mujahideen with shoulder-fired Stinger missiles, which were crucial in their victory over the Soviets.
Khalilzad continued working under Wolfowitz during the following Bush administration and the first Persian Gulf War.
During the Clinton administration, he worked for the Washington think tank RAND and returned to public service when George W Bush came to power, managing his Pentagon transition team
A man uniquely qualified for the job
There was no question Khalilzad was uniquely qualified when the White House named him its special envoy to Afghanistan in the wake of the 11 September 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 dominant religion and ethnicity in the sharply divided country.
Khalilzad took control of the US-Afghan portfolio in 2018 after the Trump administration named him a special envoy overseeing negotiations with the Taliban.
He was deemed equipped to achieve that because he had shaped embryonic governments in Afghanistan and Iraq following successive US invasions, gaining a reputation for bringing disparate groups to the table.
Questions on Khalilzad’s objectivity
During months of negotiations in Qatar, Khalilzad was said to have developed a close rapport with the Taliban delegation. Pictures published online showed the gregarious envoy sharing laughs and smiles with insurgent negotiators, stirring resentment in Afghanistan where the war raged.
Then there are his past business deals with Taliban which brought into question his integrity and objectivity.
Before he became the US’ designated Muslim face in all of West Asia and the Arab world, Khalilzad also had a stint as a paid consultant to the oil giant Unocal in the mid-1990s and negotiated deals 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. He even defended the Taliban’s style of fundamentalism in The Washington Post, comparing it favourably against the kind that is practised in Iran,” an article in ABC News said.
Kabul’s deep mistrust 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 programme that allowed them to experience the West up close.
Yet, it was the Taliban that Khalilzad gave more rope to, and ended up doubling down on the democratic establishment that was built with US efforts. He had the power to choose and push who got to sit at the negotiation table, but the only stakeholder he chose to ignore was the west-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 being vague on details of what they feared might be concessions he was making to the Taliban, such as promises of prisoner releases — something under the authority of the Afghan government.
What he did achieve in Afghanistan
What he did was embrace the move to talk with the Taliban directly, hear them out at length, and agreed to their divisive demand to discuss a troop withdrawal without the US-allied Afghan government at the table.
Khalilzad went out on a limb to use his influence to secure the release of the Taliban’s co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar from Pakistan’s custody to kickstart the initiative, with the two sides cobbling together an agreement charting the US withdrawal after nearly two decades of conflict.
But when the US withdrawal deal was finally signed in February 2020 at a lavish ceremony in Doha, Khalilzad had secured mostly nebulous assurances from the Taliban about any future peace.
“Khalilzad prised… just one strong commitment –- that they would not attack the US and ‘its allies’,” wrote Kate Clark of the Afghanistan Analysts Network in a new report.
More vague were promises from the Taliban to abandon Al Qaeda and other international jihadist groups, and to begin talking to the Afghan government.
At the end of the day, the deal he had hoped could end the war had actually unleashed disaster.
Husain Haqqani, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, said Khalilzad told successive US presidents eager to withdraw their troops that he had a peace deal, but it was in fact a surrender.
“He negotiated poorly, emboldened the Taliban, and pretended that talks would yield a power-sharing agreement even though the Taliban had no intention to share power,” Haqqani told AFP.
And what he didn’t…
In hindsight, the agreement appears to have been little more than a string of American concessions.
Though the agreement bound the Taliban to halt attacks on US and coalition forces, it did not explicitly require them to expel Al Qaeda or to stop attacks on the Afghan military.
The agreement provided significant legitimacy to the Taliban, whose leaders met with Mike Pompeo, the first US secretary of state to have such interactions. There were also discussions of them coming to the US to meet with Trump.
The US was leaving Afghanistan without a ceasefire and had not even established a framework for a future peace process that would be vital for locking down a settlement to end the war.
Rather than securing compromises from the Taliban in the months following the deal, Khalilzad piled more pressure on the Afghan government – strong-arming the palace into releasing thousands of insurgent prisoners who immediately bolstered the militant ranks.
To add to Kabul’s woes, the agreement effectively set off a countdown, with the US promising to pull all of its remaining troops from Afghanistan by May 2021 – a deadline later extended until September.
The Afghan government was left with little time or space to manoeuvre.
US president Joe Biden’s decision in April to follow through with the withdrawal lit the final fuse, sparking an all-out offensive by the Taliban that overthrew the Afghan government by force on 15 August.
Two days earlier, US lawmaker Michael Waltz – an Afghan veteran – sent a letter to Biden pillorying Khalilzad’s performance.
Khalilzad “has provided you with poor counsel and his diplomatic strategy has failed spectacularly”, he wrote.
“In light of this catastrophe, Ambassador (Khalilzad) should resign immediately or be relieved from his position.”
That same day, Khalilzad sent out his last tweet – begging the Taliban to pull back its fighters as they converged on Kabul.
“We demand an immediate end to attacks against cities, urge a political settlement, and warn that a government imposed by force will be a pariah state,” the envoy wrote.
By then, it was too late.
With inputs from agencies