Will Zalmay Khalilzad Be Known as the Man Who Lost Afghanistan?

The lifelong booster of American power is caught between Trump’s withdrawal plans and the Taliban threat.

Former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad gives a press conference at Serena Hotel in Kabul on Oct. 14, 2009. (Massoud Hossaini/AFP/Getty Images)
Former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad gives a press conference at Serena Hotel in Kabul on Oct. 14, 2009. (Massoud Hossaini/AFP/Getty Images)

No one knows better than Zalmay Khalilzad what the stakes are in Afghanistan. And it’s hard to imagine anyone who wants less to be known as the man who lost the country—his native land—to the Taliban.

And yet Khalilzad, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan, is now under pressure from U.S. President Donald Trump to arrive at a deal that could yield just that outcome, according to sources familiar with his mission. For more than a week, Khalilzad has negotiated in Qatar exclusively with the Taliban—who refuse to recognize the democratically elected Afghan government—over a fast-track U.S. withdrawal plan.

It remains unclear exactly what Khalilzad’s instructions or negotiating parameters are, as the president has sent mixed signals. In August 2017, Trump declared that he would deploy more U.S. troops to train the Afghans and that any withdrawal would be based on conditions in the country. But this past Dec. 21, Trump made the surprise announcement that he wants to roughly halve the U.S. military presence there. And last summer he directed Khalilzad to negotiate only with the Taliban, dispensing with previous U.S. policy that demanded the Afghan government be a party to talks.

In the last few days, Khalilzad announced a tentative peace framework that dismayed many longtime Afghanistan watchers, because it appeared to accede to at least a partial U.S. withdrawal in exchange for no real concession from the Taliban. Khalilzad told the New York Times that the Taliban had committed to “do what is necessary that would prevent Afghanistan from ever becoming a platform for international terrorist groups or individuals.”

But the Taliban have long agreed to grant just such assurances if the Americans leave, experts point out—and Khalilzad himself knows this very well. “They’ve been talking about this since the days of Mullah Omar,” the late Taliban leader from the early 2000s, said Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador to the U.S. and now a scholar at the Hudson Institute. “They said then, ‘We are willing to consider it…’ which is what they’re saying now, so what has really changed?”

Khalilzad also said the Taliban must agree to talk with the Afghan government and to a cease-fire, but former colleagues said Khalilzad himself may not know how much latitude he will have from Trump to hold firm on those key points, given the pressure from the White House to withdraw.

“I don’t think he knows what Trump’s going to do,” said James Dobbins, the former U.S. envoy to Afghanistan who was Khalilzad’s boss in late 2001, when they convened the Bonn conference creating the new Kabul government. “He was in negotiations when Trump made his announcement about [halving] the troops. He was as blindsided as anybody.”

Asked about Khalilzad’s instructions, a State Department spokesperson told Foreign Policy on Tuesday: “Any final agreement must include an intra-Afghan dialogue that includes the Taliban, the Afghan government and other Afghan stakeholders.”

Nonetheless, the new framework has raised fears that the United States is in a rush for the exits and prepared to cease its critical support of the Afghan central government and military at a time when the Taliban are proving stronger in the field. To some longtime observers, anything less than a formal peace pact between the Taliban and Kabul—one that would delay U.S. withdrawal until full implementation—would be in effect an American surrender without saying so.

“If we withdraw as we’re talking about in an 18-month timeline, you will simply see the Taliban move in and retake the country,” Ryan Crocker, the former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, told Foreign Policy. “We’ve seen this before, at the Paris peace talks with Vietnam.”

No analogy could be more distasteful to “Zal” Khalilzad, who spent a good part of his professional career as part of a senior policy clique in Washington that sought to reassert American power and vanquish the ghosts of Vietnam.

In addition to being Afghan-born and a hands-on diplomat involved with building the post-Taliban government from its earliest days—he’s an old school friend of Ashraf Ghani, the current president—Khalilzad is a lifelong strategist of American hard power with long-standing personal ties to the neoconservative movement. Khalilzad’s credentials as a booster of U.S. power go back many decades, dating to his Ph.D. studies at the University of Chicago along with Paul Wolfowitz under the tutelage of Albert Wohlstetter, an arch-hawk who derided deterrence theory as weak and pushed for greater arms buildups during the Cold War.

As an aide to Wolfowitz, then the undersecretary of defense for policy, Khalilzad in 1992 was the main drafter of the “Wolfowitz Doctrine,” which declared openly that it was U.S. policy to prevent the rise of any nation as a rival to the lone superpower. Khalilzad served under Wolfowitz during and after the first Gulf War, when the strategists he worked with believed they had “kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all,” as then-President George H.W. Bush put it after Saddam Hussein’s retreat from Kuwait.

Khalilzad was also intimately involved from the earliest days of America’s involvement in Afghanistan, going back to the Reagan administration. He knew all too well the consequences of the first U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, when Bush turned his back in 1989 after the mujahideen forced a Soviet withdrawal, ultimately leaving the country to the Taliban.

When the United States invaded Afghanistan more than a decade later, after 9/11,  nothing incensed Khalilzad more—by his own admission— than the decision of President George W. Bush’s defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, to leave behind a meager “footprint” of U.S. observer troops and proffer the “the most under-resourced nation-building effort in history,” as Dobbins once described it to me. Rumsfeld inveighed against “nation-building” and had a favorite analogy for letting U.S.-invaded nations fend for themselves: He said that a swift U.S. withdrawal would be like “taking our hand off the bicycle seat,” as an adult does when he is training a child to ride a bike.

In a 2016 interview with C-SPAN, Khalilzad said that his biggest disagreement with the Bush administration was over this issue in Afghanistan. “I thought that in a piece of territory that we regard as vital,” he said, “… we needed to have friendly forces control that territory, and that we had done it in Europe, in Korea, in Japan after World War II. … That meant we had to help them establish institutions to be able to carry out that mission, and therefore, we had to do willy nilly what we would call state and nation building.

“And we came to that reluctantly and I remember it was Secretary Rumsfeld telling me, Zal, get your hands off the bike. And one time I lost my cool and said, ‘Mr. Secretary, show me where this damn bike is, because when I went to Afghanistan they had hardly anything.’”

As is well known, Rumsfeld and his fellow hawks, including his deputy, Wolfowitz, were then eager to leave Afghanistan behind and invade Iraq, partly in an effort to reassert American power. Rumsfeld, who didn’t consider Afghanistan to be a real war at all, was even quoted as saying he wanted to turn to Iraq because “there aren’t any good targets in Afghanistan. And there are lots of good targets in Iraq.”

“There’s a feeling we’ve got to do something that countsand bombing some caves is not something that counts,” as Newt Gingrich, then a member of Rumsfeld’s Defense Policy Board, put it to me in late 2001 .

They were eager to overcome the “Vietnam syndrome” forever.

Nearly 18 years later, the most wrenching irony of all would be if Afghanistan fails, the Taliban return to power, and they harbor terrorists who are bent on another 9/11—in which case Afghanistan could easily be known as America’s next Vietnam.

And depending on what happens in the Afghan framework talks—they are scheduled to resume in late February—Khalilzad may find his life’s work and goals at risk.

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh

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