Team Biden Urged to Keep Trump’s Afghan Envoy
Biden’s foreign-policy team is weighing the merits of letting Zalmay Khalilzad keep his job or letting him go.
This article is part of The Biden Transition, Foreign Policy’s ongoing coverage of how U.S. President-elect Joe Biden builds a new White House administration—and what the new team’s policies might be.
Afghan policy experts are quietly urging the Biden transition team to consider asking President Donald Trump’s Afghan peace envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, to remain on the job as a transitional negotiator after President-elect Joe Biden is inaugurated on Jan. 20.
The effort reflects a belief that the ultimate end game sought by Trump and Biden—the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan—is largely the same and that a move to immediately replace Khalilzad at a sensitive stage in U.S. peace negotiations with the Taliban could complicate that effort.
Khalilzad, a veteran diplomat from the George W. Bush administration who grew up in Kabul, has a deep relationship with Afghan leaders such as President Ashraf Ghani dating back decades and command of the major languages of the region. But his contacts with the Taliban, with whom he negotiated decades ago on behalf of a California oil company looking to build a pipeline through Afghanistan, has badly dented his popularity in Kabul. Afghan government officials resented being largely cut out of Washington’s secretive deal-making with the group that once harbored Osama bin Laden.
While Biden shares Trump’s goal of ultimately withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, Trump has drastically accelerated the timeline of the withdrawal in the past week, announcing a further reduction of troop levels in the country, to about 2,500. The move has rattled NATO allies and angered Trump’s allies on Capitol Hill, who warn a sudden drawdown could destabilize the country and undercut U.S. leverage in peace talks with the Taliban—thereby leaving a Biden administration with an even more precarious situation in Afghanistan.
Biden’s top foreign-policy advisors, including Antony Blinken, Jake Sullivan, and Michèle Flournoy, are said to be open to considering a possible extension for Khalilzad but are by no means committed.
“I think there are scenarios in which the new administration may seek to build on what Zal has done, and there are scenarios in which they may opt for something different,” one former U.S. official said. “If there is progress over the next few months and Zal is in a good position to continue that progress, I can certainly see a scenario where they would ask him to stay for some period of time. But I don’t think anyone should expect they are indispensable in a circumstance like this.”
Officials close to the campaign say they don’t expect the Biden administration to make any major policy or personnel decisions on Afghanistan during the transition and that any final decision will be formed by a coldhearted assessment of what approach would best serve U.S. interests—and how Trump’s rushed troop drawdown will alter the prospects for peace talks with the Taliban once Biden inherits the matter in January.
For now, the campaign’s top foreign-policy advisors are essentially soliciting recommendations from a wide range of foreign-policy experts, including some who have called for Khalilzad to stay and others who say it is time for a new approach.
For those who favor an extension, Khalilzad’s contacts and institutional knowledge of the peace negotiations are irreplaceable as Washington transitions from one president to the next, even as progress on the talks has sputtered and stalled amid a huge uptick in Taliban terrorist attacks.
“Zal is uniquely positioned to move forward the peace process in Afghanistan,” said Christopher Kolenda, a former senior advisor on Afghanistan and Pakistan in the Barack Obama-era Defense Department. “The dynamic circumstances will require some agile approaches and a willingness to make new mistakes.”
But even if he doesn’t succeed, there may be some logic to letting him continue.
“The people I’ve spoken to all feel there is no rush to replace Zal,” said another U.S. analyst familiar with the internal deliberations. “Let him finish the job he started.”
“He is also arguably the best qualified person to negotiate with all the parties,” the analyst added. “He knows them all, he knows the language, he knows the cultural context. There are a bunch of Biden people who agree with what he is doing.”
But others are not so sure.
“Zal is clearly trying to position himself as acceptable to the Biden team,” said another former U.S. official. “But this decision is going to be made partly on policy and partly on politics. I wouldn’t be surprised if he is kept on for a brief transitional time. My personal wager is ‘not for long.’”
“I see a stronger logic for replacing him than keeping him,” the official added. “It’s not like he is having wild success.”
The Biden transition team declined to comment for the story, and the president-elect has not publicly given any indication on whether or not Khalilzad or other Trump diplomatic appointees would retain their posts in the new administration.
Khalilzad’s relations remain strained with some House Democrats, who are still steaming that they had to threaten him with a subpoena to brief them on his peace talks in Afghanistan—though the decision to refuse the congressional request was reportedly taken by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
In the hyperpartisan atmosphere in Washington, Biden’s transition team is facing pressure, particularly among the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, to expel all Trump-era appointees from government for a fresh start, according to several experts who advised and consulted the Biden campaign. Moreover, Khalilzad himself is the source of controversy within Afghanistan, where he once reportedly weighed running for the presidency himself.
Khalilzad’s controversial standing among many corners of the Afghan government was thrown into the spotlight last year, when Afghanistan’s top national security advisor, Hamdullah Mohib, accused Khalilzad of trying to unseat Ghani and take power for himself in colonial-style rule. His comments drew sharp backlash from the State Department but underscored the tensions between the U.S. and Afghan governments during Khalilzad’s negotiations with the Taliban.
Trump has used the lame-duck period to set the Pentagon on a course to draw down to 2,500 U.S. troops in the country by Jan. 15—five days before Biden is to be inaugurated as president. National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien told reporters on Tuesday that the administration wants all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan and Iraq by the spring of 2021.
“By May, it is President Trump’s hope that they will all come home safely—and in their entirety,” O’Brien said. “I want to reiterate that this policy is not new. This has been the president’s policy since he took office.”
But the hasty, and partial, pullout has plenty of detractors. “There’s no rationale here really for cutting the force now. It doesn’t serve any purpose,” said James Cunningham, who was U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2012 to 2014 and who said the decision would leave foreign allies who have fought alongside U.S. troops for years in the lurch. “It just is going to make life more difficult until the new administration comes in.”
Biden has pledged to leave a residual counterterrorism force in the war-torn nation, setting the table for potential turbulence as the handoff occurs. With the peace talks wavering in October, the Taliban embarked on a military offensive in Afghanistan’s strategic Helmand province that displaced as many as 35,000 people.
The case for an extension of Khalilzad’s mandate as Afghan envoy has emerged in discussions among members of the Afghanistan Study Group, co-chaired by Kelly Ayotte, a former Republican senator from New Hampshire; Joseph Dunford, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and Nancy Lindborg, the former president and CEO of the U.S. Institute of Peace. The study group includes key policymakers such as Flournoy, who has been mentioned as a potential defense secretary under Biden, and Stephen Hadley, a former U.S. national security advisor under George W. Bush. And several of the participants have been providing informal advice to Khalilzad.
Hadley suggested that there could be a case made for keeping Khalilzad at least during the transition. “I don’t see [the Biden team] shutting [the talks] down. I could see them resetting the position of the United States in the negotiations and try to correct some deficiencies and problems that have emerged,” he said.
If that is the case, he added, “you can argue that you don’t want to fire him on day one, but you would want to have Khalilzad for a period of time to transition. You’d want to keep the talks alive until you reset, and once you reset, you can decide whether you want a new negotiator.”
Hadley said the latest plan by the Trump administration to draw down the U.S. military presence to 2,500 troops could have been worse.
“I think it’s basically a compromise to allow the president to say he has dramatically reduced our troop levels and that we are on the road to ending these so-called endless wars without going to zero, which everyone agrees would be precipitous and disruptive, undermine the talks, and would not be in America’s interest.”
Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch
Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer