The Wrong Man for the Job: Zalmay Khalilzad’s Perverted Quest for Afghan Peace

by Terra Schroeder

Illustration by Gabriela Sibilska

As the United States faces a pandemic, socio-political upheaval, and reports of Russian bounties on the heads of American soldiers, the Trump Administration is still trying to organize its withdrawal from Afghanistan. So far, US plans have been hamstrung by infighting between various parties within Afghanistan, including current President Ashraf Ghani, a rival government led by Abdullah Abdullah, and the Taliban. Now, after months of delay, the Afghan government and the Taliban have agreed on Doha as the location for their first round of peace talks. Interestingly, this is the same location where the US-Taliban negotiations that led us here were held. It’s hard to imagine this is a coincidence.

Whether or not these discussions will be a success remains to be seen. However, the severe uptick in violence in the last few weeks may signal that the Taliban is not genuine in their desire to negotiate. But how did we even get this far? And will it even work? One man is determined to make it happen: US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad.

If that name sounds familiar, don’t be surprised. Khalilzad has had a consistent hand in US foreign policy towards Afghanistan. In 2003, Khalilzad was named Ambassador to Afghanistan under the Bush Administration. Due to his wealth of knowledge about the country, Khalilzad also served in the Obama Administration for a time despite being firmly entrenched within the Republican Party’s upper echelons. Today, he is arguably the mastermind behind the “Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan between the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, which is not recognized as a state and is known as the Taliban and the United States.” To be frank, the name of this long-awaited treaty between the United States and the Taliban does not inspire much confidence for lasting peace in Afghanistan.

Khalilzad’s key role in brokering this deal should raise more than a few eyebrows. In his book Directorate S, Steve Coll calls Khalilzad, “the most unconventional of ambassadors, less a diplomat than a kind of Afghan-American warlord, advertising benign intentions wearing a smile and a suit.” Previous negotiations under his watch have fallen apart due to the intra-Afghan conflict he deliberately inflamed for his benefit. Rumors about his true personal designs for Afghanistan have run rampant for years.

Zalmay Khalilzad (right) with then Herat Governor Ismail Khan (left) and then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (center) in Herat, Afghanistan, April 2002. US Department of Defense

The United States has been trapped in an endless debate about Afghanistan for over 15 years. Negotiation after negotiation has been held, and every time they’ve collapsed. In part, the fickle nature of United States foreign policy can be blamed. But on the other hand, there has been a clear failure by US officials in Afghanistan to bring the necessary parties to the negotiating table. Since the early days of the US engagement in Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad has been at the center of it more often than not. He should be credited with these failures.

The Trump Administration has proudly proclaimed this Agreement as a success for the whole world. But what makes this time any different? Not much. The Taliban still can’t be trusted. They continue to commit one ceasefire violation after another. Their chief negotiator during the Doha talks, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, was released from Pakistani prison in October 2018 as part of the Qatar-US-Pakistan agreement aimed at jumpstarting the US-Taliban negotiations.

In addition, The New York Times announced that Russian operatives paid Taliban militants to kill American military personnel. Reports say that the Trump Administration was aware as early as February or March 2019. It’s hard to believe that Zalmay Khalilzad was not at least somewhat aware of this as well. At that point, the US-Taliban negotiations in Doha were quickly developing. This new story will only add to Khalilzad’s negative image as he is still a controversial figure in Afghanistan. If the United States really wants to leave Afghanistan and avoid being drawn back in, Zalmay Khalilzad is not the answer. The world would benefit from new blood to address this long-standing issue.

Embodiment of the American Dream

Zalmay Khalilzad was born in 1951 in the Afghan city of Mazar-e Sharif to a Sunni-Pashtun father. Sunnis and Pashtuns widely dominate Afghanistan. The Sunnis make up between 84.7 and 89.7 percent of the population, and the Pashtuns are the largest ethnic group, comprising 42 percent of the population. Thus, Khalilzad was well-placed to advance rapidly through Afghan political society.

He spent his younger years in Mazar-e Sharif before moving to Kabul and eventually doing an exchange year in Ceres, California. After his year abroad in the United States, Khalilzad realized “how Afghanistan needed to change.” He received both his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from the American University in Beirut. He then came to the United States and earned his Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Chicago.

Yet it was his positions working with then Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Paul Wolfowitz and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice that would set up his consistent presence in the United States government. At the time of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, Khalilzad was the only Afghan in the Bush Administration. This put him in an undeniably unique position. The United States made the decision to act swiftly in the aftermath of 9/11. In a bid for a quick fix, the Administration tapped Khalilzad, one of the only qualified Afghans available, to run point in Afghanistan.

Undoubtedly, Zalmay Khalilzad is a highly credentialed man. To this day, he understands Afghanistan in a way that many of us never will, as the vast majority of American policymakers were not born and raised in Afghanistan. And it is for these reasons that he has often been the United States’ chief liaison in Afghanistan.

The Twisted Journey for a Lasting Peace

When it came to the Bush Administration, Khalilzad’s role and responsibilities in Afghanistan were complicated. After being named US Ambassador to Afghanistan, he pushed a plan to develop Afghanistan for the long-term with political reform and infrastructure development: a worthwhile endeavor, as that is something Afghanistan still desperately needs to this day. But despite his short term in office from 2003-2005, he managed to anger and alienate several important parties in Afghanistan and his relationship with local leaders only worsened over time.

The Pashtuns, for example, were irate when Khalilzad refused to back King Zahir Shah. Mohammad Zahir Shah was king of Afghanistan from 1933 until he was overthrown by a bloodless coup d’etat in 1973. He remained in exile until 2002 when his bid for the presidency was blocked by Khalilzad in June of that year at the Afghan national assembly. Khalilzad viewed Zahir Shah as a competitor; he preferred to back Hamid Karzai, who he thought was more controllable than the aging Afghan monarch. Ironically, while blocking the one-time king, Khalilzad still infuriated the non-Pashtuns by centralizing the political system into the hands of the president, which barred non-Pashtuns’ participation in government.

In late 2004, Khalilzad, and the newly re-elected Afghan President Hamid Karzai, sought guidance from the White House to begin negotiations with the Taliban. The two Afghans felt there were factions that “might be persuaded to reconcile with the government.” Yet, Khalilzad’s plans never came to fruition as the American focus shifted to Iraq, and he was subsequently named Ambassador to Iraq (2005-2007). Towards the end of Bush’s final term in office, Khalilzad was appointed as the US Ambassador to the United Nations. In his wake, he left behind a host of bitter Afghans, aside from Karzai, who was quickly falling out of favor with the Americans.

Making Moves: Khalilzad During the Obama Years

After 2008, Khalilzad carried this baggage into the Obama administration. His tenure under Obama was short but with an ample amount of controversy. When Obama came to the White House, he kept Khalilzad at his post as UN Ambassador as the teams transitioned. A few months prior, though, the United Kingdom’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) began to monitor Khalilzad’s calls. Khalilzad was contacting warlords and politicians around the country in preparation for an apparent bid to run for president.

Although he claimed otherwise, it was clear to anyone and everyone involved in high-level Afghan politics what was happening. The Obama Administration and new Special Envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, were rather indifferent to Khalilzad’s aspirations. They were happy so long as anyone other than Hamid Karzai was President of Afghanistan; Karzai had become increasingly unpopular in Afghanistan as peace seemed like a pipe dream. Holbrooke felt that the “war would be lost” if Karzai was reelected, as his administration’s corruption provided fodder for the Taliban.

Though the US had good reasons for wanting to move on from Karzai, Khalilzad was a problematic replacement. The issue was that the man who had all but single-handedly created Afghanistan’s new political system and acted “as a kind of viceroy in Kabul” wanted to run for president of Afghanistan. Undoubtedly, this was a massive conflict of interest for the United States. Khalilzad’s dalliance into Afghan politics after being the linchpin to US policy in the country should have been a red flag.

Zalmay Khalilzad speaks at a newly rebuilt school in West Kabul where he and Karzai had been students, October 23, 2011. US Embassy in Afghanistan

For mostly unknown reasons, Khalilzad’s aspirations never came to fruition, and in the end, it was his friend, Hamid Karzai, who was reelected. It would be some time before Khalilzad would return in an official capacity. When he did, he pulled off something previously thought to be unimaginable: he brokered a peace agreement between the United States and the Taliban.

“Breakthrough”: Khalilzad and the Trump Administration

The 2016 election of US President Donald Trump to the White House caught many by surprise. But the return of Zalmay Khalilzad should not. It is clear now that Khalilzad has become the Department of State’s point man any time the US wants to refocus foreign policy onto Afghanistan. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo named Khalilzad U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation on September 21, 2018. By late 2018 and early 2019, peace discussions between the US and the Taliban continued in earnest, momentum was building, and Khalilzad was the man orchestrating it all.

Yet after 17 years of war, was anything that different at the end of the day? Yes, former Taliban leader Mullah Omar was dead, but as a result, the Taliban were severely fractured. This, in turn, made it difficult to trust that a deal would ever happen. But by August 2019, a settlement appeared imminent. Then talks were abruptly abandoned in September after an outbreak of violence in Afghanistan and controversy over a planned Taliban visit to Camp David mere days before the anniversary of 9/11.

The situation seemed to return to the status quo until six months later, when Khalilzad pulled off the unthinkable. The United States and the Taliban had reached a deal. After nearly 20 years, Khalilzad had done it. The United States had a plan to end the war in Afghanistan. How this plan was realized is still unclear; those of us outside the Administration don’t fully understand what happened between September 2019 and February 2020. Was the semi-recent change in Taliban leadership enough? Or was Khalilzad just extremely persistent? Perhaps the Pakistanis stepped in? That last one is unlikely, but crazier things have happened. Unfortunately, it appears that we won’t have an answer until Khalilzad writes his next book.

Zalmay Khalilzad and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar shake hands after signing the US-Taliban peace deal in Doha, February 29, 2020. US Department of State

But ultimately, how can the United States trust this deal? The negotiations have been flawed from the start and remain that way, even if the US government says otherwise. Furthermore, how can we trust the man who brokered it? Yes, Zalmay Khalilzad is a highly educated, qualified Afghan-American with decades of experience in the United States’ Afghanistan policy. Yet, his actions in Afghanistan have been problematic at best, undermining the peace process by creating conflicts of interest and behaving no differently than corrupt counterparts in Afghanistan. He will ensure the success of these negotiations, come hell or high water. He even went so far as to blame Islamic State for the horrific attack on a Kabul maternity hospital in mid-May. Meanwhile, the Afghan government continues to blame the Taliban, specifically its Haqqani network affiliate; Sirajuddin Haqqani, its head, is now deputy chief of the Taliban.

Unsurprisingly, given his history of isolating essential members of the Afghan elite, some parliamentarians called for Khalilzad to be banned from entering the country in response to his comments. As COVID-19 rages, violence continues in vast numbers, the Russians place bounties on American lives, and US troops rapidly leave the country, Afghanistan is no closer to lasting peace. And that’s the whole point of these negotiations, is it not? While it is impossible to stay in Afghanistan in perpetuity, shouldn’t the United States at least restore some semblance of stability? Khalilzad and the Trump Administration claim to be doing just that. But the evidence is mounting to prove that is not the case. As the American saying goes, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Well, Afghanistan is clearly “broke.” And at this point, it is clear that Zalmay Khalilzad is not the right man to “fix it.”

Terra Schroeder’s research focuses on Afghanistan and Afghanistan-Pakistan relations. She currently resides in Washington, D.C. and is a graduate of the MSc Program in History of International Relations at the London School of Economics.

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