Zalmay Khalilzad’s Troubled History With Afghanistan

by Sajjan M. Gohel & Victoria Jones

Photo by Gage Skidmore

On October 18, 2021, Zalmay Khalilzad stepped down from his role as the US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation after overseeing the deeply flawed peace deal with the Taliban and the equally disastrous US withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The spotlight of the unfolding crisis in Afghanistan must fall on Khalilzad, who was tasked with two parallel goals: first, secure a peace settlement between the Afghan government and Taliban; second, ensure the US commitment to withdraw from Afghanistan in an orderly manner. 

Just over three years ago, Khalilzad was made the US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation. On paper, he seemed to be the natural choice to try and achieve a lasting peace between the Ashraf Ghani government and the Taliban. Khalilzad was born in Afghanistan as an ethnic Pashto, who supposedly understood the nuances and fault lines of Afghan culture. However, the news of his appointment was not welcomed by most Afghans. 

Khalilzad has had a career in academia and government spanning decades. He is also a chameleon in diplomacy, ideologically adapting to the circumstances and the US administrations he serves at any given time. Unfortunately, that has regularly led to inconsistencies and paradoxes in his policy recommendations for Afghanistan. Yet there has been little public scrutiny about Khalilzad’s long history in Afghanistan and why Afghans consider him problematic.

Matters were made more complicated on February 29, 2020, when Khalilzad and Taliban co-founder Mullah Baradar signed a peace deal in Doha, Qatar. The agreement provided for a gradual drawdown of American and NATO troops. But the Taliban pledged to implement a permanent ceasefire and not to allow Afghanistan to be used as a hub for terrorism and to sever their connection with al-Qaeda. However, the agreement was deeply misguided and dependent on the Taliban’s own willingness to comply, prompting many of us to warn of an unmitigated disaster. As expected, any type of agreement was subsequently violated by the Taliban, who flagrantly disregarded ending ties with al-Qaeda, and the groups continued to cooperate according to a United Nations report

Zalmay Khalilzad and Mike Pompeo in Doha, February 29, 2020. US Department of State

Khalilzad’s Doha deal also gave the Taliban some legitimacy and enabled them to strategically stall with their vague promises while using the opportunity to back the Ghani government into a corner, so much so that Kabul’s reservations resulted in them being branded as spoilers by the Trump administration. One controversial and consequential aspect included the Taliban’s demand that the Afghan government release hundreds of Taliban prisoners, courtesy of Khalilzad who, while acknowledging it was a difficult decision, also stated it was necessary for the “desirability of peace.” However, defying the Doha deal, the freed Taliban fighters soon returned to the battlefield.

In an effort to show the Biden administration’s fidelity to the Doha Agreement, Khalilzad was retained as the US Special Representative. Nevertheless, the Taliban relentlessly continued to commit violence against both Afghan security forces and civilians. Some sympathize with Khalilzad, believing he was burdened by the whims of Trump, who repeatedly undermined US negotiating positions by threatening to withdraw all troops. But Khalilzad’s problematic role in US foreign policy, especially in Afghanistan, must be traced throughout recent history.

Khalilzad wrote an important op-ed about Afghanistan, where he stated, “Based on recent conversations with Afghans, including the various Taliban factions, and Pakistanis, I am confident that they would welcome an American reengagement. The Taliban does not practice the anti-US style of fundamentalism…The departure of Osama bin Laden, the Saudi financier of various anti-US terrorist groups, from Afghanistan indicates some common interest between the United States and the Taliban.”

These comments were not made in recent years, but as far back as October 1996. Soon after, the Taliban asserted their authority in Afghanistan with medieval brutality. Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda cohort were provided support and sanctuary by the Taliban, enabling them to establish a terrorist infrastructure that, contrary to Khalilzad’s assumptions, showed the Taliban had no desire to engage meaningfully with the US. 

One year before 9/11, Khalilzad spoke with a different tone, castigating the Taliban “misrule” for their “horrifying array of restrictions” on women and the need to stop the spread of “Talibanism, a radical, backward, and repressive version of Islam.” Instead of seeking “American reengagement,” Khalilzad felt there was now a need to confront this “rogue regime” and prevent their consolidation of power. 

Tellingly, Khalilzad was already advertising for a potential job. He advised that the Clinton administration should “appoint a high-level envoy for Afghanistan who can coordinate overall US policy…Equally important, the special envoy must be able to shape Afghanistan policy within US bureaucracies.” 

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is escorted by David Sedney, Zalmay Khalilzad, and Robert P. Finn after his arrival at the US Embassy in Kabul, April 27, 2002. US National Archives

Following the September 11 attacks, Khalilzad, serving as the Special Assistant to President George W. Bush, became the most influential person in Afghanistan. As part of a roadmap for a post-Taliban Afghanistan, Khalilzad oversaw the 2001 Bonn Conference in Germany, which not only led Afghanistan to the crisis it is facing today, but outlined the problematic aspects of Khalilzad’s role in Afghan ethnopolitics.

Khalilzad displeased all sides in Afghanistan. His own ethnic group, the Pashtuns, accused him of blocking former King Zahir Shah from a position in the Transitional Authority. The Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance, who ousted the Taliban, were frustrated with Khalilzad for over-centralizing the political system to benefit Pashtuns. 

Subsequently, Khalilzad became US Ambassador to Afghanistan. He successfully alienated parts of the Afghan population and earned the unfortunate sobriquet as the viceroy, due to his micromanaging of Afghanistan’s internal affairs. At one point, there were reports that Khalilzad was even considering running for Afghan president. The viceroy honorific was resurrected after Khalilzad started working with the Trump administration.

David Barno, Lloyd Austin, Donald Rumsfeld, and Zalmay Khalilzad discuss the current status of Afghanistan in Kabul, December 4, 2003. US Department of Defense

Khalilzad’s role in shaping US policy in Afghanistan first began back in 1985, when he served in the Reagan administration as a senior State Department official advising on the Soviet war in Afghanistan and the Iran–Iraq War. He developed and guided the strategy of supporting an Afghan-Arab mujahideen to expel the Soviets. He was also part of a group of policymakers who controversially convinced Reagan to provide shoulder-fired Stinger missiles and other weapons to the mujahideen, some of which fell into the wrong hands, including America’s future enemies.

By Khalilzad’s own admission, “One [mistake] was that the US did not care as much as it should have about who got assistance during the fight against the Soviets. It essentially subcontracted the support through the military intelligence ISI [Inter-Services Intelligence] of Pakistan. The ISI preferred—and the US acquiesced—that the bulk of the assistance would go to more Islamist groups.” The irony in this statement is that Khalilzad’s own Doha blueprint ignored Pakistan’s enduring role in aiding and abetting the Taliban.

From 1990 to 1992, Khalilzad served under President George H. W. Bush in the Defense Department as Deputy Undersecretary for Policy Planning. In that capacity, as the Bush administration drifted away from Afghanistan, Khalilzad concluded that Iraq had replaced Iran as the primary threat to American interests in the Persian Gulf. He argued that Iran had emerged from the Iran-Iraq war far weaker and that the threat of promoting its brand of fundamentalism was gone. For Khalilzad, the new threat lay in the potential of Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein’s regional dominance. 

Khalilzad’s focus on Iraq continued years later. In 1998, he was one of 18 people who wrote a letter to President Clinton urging him to “aim at the removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime from power.” Most of its authors became officials in the George W. Bush administration, including John Bolton, Donald Rumsfeld, and Paul Wolfowitz. This document played a significant role in shaping the Bush administration’s decision to launch the 2003 war in Iraq, which would have lasting consequences for regional security in the Middle East. As US Ambassador to Iraq, Khalilzad witnessed the rise of the insurgency and the emergence of sectarianism, which burdens Iraq to this day.

Vice President Cheney talks with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad. US National Archives

Khalilzad seems to have maintained the same divisive approach since his appointment as the US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation. He has gone to extremes in the past year by excluding different stakeholders including civil society, women, and even arguably the Afghan government. While several administrations—including Biden’s—have believed Khalilzad’s Afghan background gave him extra insight as an American policymaker, Afghans broadly see him as an exile who has been consistently inconsistent and has overlooked the Pakistani military’s nefarious interference in Afghanistan via their Taliban proxies. 

In the aftermath of the Doha deal, a pro-Taliban news site released a picture of Khalilzad in Moscow having a conversation with Anas Haqqani, younger brother of Sirajuddin Haqqani, the deputy Taliban leader and head of the so-called Haqqani network, which is a US proscribed terrorist group responsible for the deaths of scores of US troops. After being released from prison in 2019 in exchange for two Western professors taken hostage by the Taliban in 2016, Anas Haqqani commented, “Even if we don’t say that the US is defeated in Afghanistan, it is an open secret now that they’re defeated.” It is little wonder that many Afghans ridicule Khalilzad’s characterization of the Taliban as an ally in the fight against terrorism.

Shortly after Biden announced that all US troops would leave Afghanistan by August 31, 2021, Khalilzad expressed optimism for Afghanistan’s future, commenting “The Taliban know that they need to be accepted as part of the future of Afghanistan, not to be a pariah.” However, each passing day in Afghanistan has resulted in new violations of the US-Taliban Doha agreement, whether in word or spirit. The Doha process is dead in the water, despite Khalilzad’s cringeworthy attempt to resurrect it. Ironically, it is the Taliban who have made a mockery of that assumption. Khalilzad was forced to acknowledge that for this to happen, the Taliban were demanding “the lion’s share of power” in any political settlement, which is another violation of the Doha deal. 

As history demonstrates, Khalilzad simply did not have the leverage to get a viable agreement without consequences. He lost control of the situation in Afghanistan. Furthermore, he has no credibility with the Ghani government and is being completely ignored by the Taliban. Ironically, the Taliban of today have proven that they are the same Taliban of 20 years ago, with two key differences: they are now savvier in manipulating diplomacy, and through Khalilzad’s Doha deal, they were given a degree of international legitimacy. Khalilzad’s version of peace has led to the intensification of the Afghan quagmire and the Taliban’s new era of dominance. 

Fleeing civilians aboard a US Air Force transport plane at Kabul Airport, August 19, 2021

Following the post-mortem on the Taliban conquest of Afghanistan, Khalilzad’s explanations were both paradoxical and an effort to distance himself from any responsibility. When asked if he felt misled by the Taliban in an interview on Face the Nation, he responded, “I don’t allow people to mislead me. I do my homework.” 

Remarking on the terrorist attack at Kabul airport which killed at least 183 people, Khalilzad referred to ISIS as an enemy of the Taliban. What he failed to mention is the fact that the bomber was released by the Taliban and that the Haqqani Network was in charge of airport security and allowed the bomber to pass. It appears that his homework was half-baked and poorly researched.

Effectively, Khalilzad ended up supporting the Taliban as they took Kabul and Ghani fled the country, leaving no chance of a power-sharing arrangement. The reality that appears to have eluded him is that the Taliban never wanted or believed in an inclusive Afghan government. For them, it was a zero-sum game—and Khalilzad’s legacy will be defined by it.

Dr. Sajjan M. Gohel is the international security director at the London-based Asia-Pacific Foundation and a visiting teacher at the London School of Economics. He is also the editor of NATO’s Counter-Terrorism Reference Curriculum.

Victoria Jones is the chief editor of INTERZINE.

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