Interview: Zalmay Khalilzad

The former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan speaks about Hamid Karzai, General McChrystal's report, and the Obama administration's mistakes.

File Photo by Brent Stirton/Getty Images
File Photo by Brent Stirton/Getty Images

Zalmay Khalilzad, the former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan who now runs a private consulting business and is affiliated with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Monday that the Obama administration, and the Bush administration before it, had made "mistakes" in dealing with incumbent Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who is now facing widespread allegations of electoral fraud.

In a talk at the Foreign Policy Initiative’s 2009 Forum on democracy, Khalilzad said he supported Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s call for more U.S. troops in Afghanistan and said that "leaving and cutting our losses would be a huge victory for al Qaeda and the Taliban." Afghanistan, he said, would go back to the way it was before the September 11 attacks. He called instead for a counterinsurgency approach focused on protecting the Afghan people.

In a follow-up interview, I asked him if he thought, given how Karzai seems to have tilted away from the United States in recent years and allied himself with a number of unsavory characters such as Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, that the U.S. had made mistake in moving away from the Afghan leader, and whether the Obama administration had compounded that mistake.

"Karzai understands, I am sure, that he needs the United States," Khalilzad responded. "Afghanistan cannot succeed without the United States. I think that he would be making a mistake if he believed no matter what, the United States will be there forever."

But "we have made mistakes in dealing with him," he admitted. "So much so that now it looks like we have very limited ability to do even the things we think are right for his own country."

"I don’t want to say anything I am saying as a partisan comment," he stressed. "We have one government at one time. But I believe that there was a mistake in terms of dealing with Karzai. Clear indications were given as least as Karzai saw it that the administration, some key members of the administration, did not like him and wanted to get rid of him and was encouraging others to run against him. And the meetings with him were quite contentious."

"At the same time the administration did not have a realistic plan about how to get another leader elected by the Afghan people. And so that in turn has been a factor in getting Karzai to hedge against the U.S. being administratively against him by assuring his prospects by making deals with others."

"I think that at the end of the day if he is reelected as president then the United States has no choice but to work with him as the leader of Afghanistan if we want to help Afghanistan succeed," Khalilzad said, "and I think that Karazi has no choice but to work with the United States because without the United States his country cannot succeed."

Asked about the growing concerns over Karzai’s legitimacy, Khalilzad said, "I think that there is no question that the election has done damage." But he emphasized that the best way forward was to address the complaints of fraud, which are quite widespread, within the context of Afghan law and procedures.

"At the end of the day, if that council decides that Karzai has won," he said, referring to the independent Afghan commission that was set up to review election-related grievances, "I think that would bestow legitimacy in a fundamental way. If not, then there would be another round perhaps."

Could Karzai turn his government, which is widely described as corrupt and incapable of providing basic services to the Afghan people, into something more effective?

"I think he has got to do it if the international assistance is to be sustained," Khalilzad said. "This is sort of his last chance if he gets elected to be president."

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