Q&A

Zalmay Khalilzad: ‘I Will Reflect’ on What U.S. Could Have Done Differently

America’s man in Afghanistan reflects on Trump’s ill-fated peace deal, the pullout, and how everything went wrong.

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and an adjunct professor at American University’s School of International Service.
Zalmay Khalilzad, special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, speaks.
Zalmay Khalilzad, special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation at the State Department, testifies in a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on U.S. policy in Afghanistan on Capitol Hill in Washington on April 27. T.J. Kirkpatrick/Pool/Getty Images

Leaving Afghanistan

No U.S. official has been more closely associated with the United States’ 20-year involvement in Afghanistan—and its inglorious end—than Zalmay Khalilzad. An Afghan native, born in Mazar-i-Sharif and raised in Kabul, Khalilzad first came to the United States as a high school exchange student, studied at the University of Chicago, and rose to the upper echelons of the Republican foreign-policy establishment. 

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, then-U.S. President George W. Bush tapped Khalilzad as his envoy to Afghanistan and, later, as his ambassador to Kabul. During that time, he midwifed the country’s Loya Jirga (or “public assembly”) in Bonn, Germany, and oversaw the drafting of the Afghan constitution and the country’s first elections. He went on to serve as George W. Bush’s ambassador to both Iraq and the United Nations. 

Then-U.S. President Donald Trump, eager to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan, asked Khalilzad to return to government and negotiate a peace deal with the Taliban. Khalilzad signed the agreement in Doha, Qatar, on behalf of the United States in February 2020. When Trump left office, U.S. President Joe Biden asked Khalilzad to stay on in his position. 

No U.S. official has been more closely associated with the United States’ 20-year involvement in Afghanistan—and its inglorious end—than Zalmay Khalilzad. An Afghan native, born in Mazar-i-Sharif and raised in Kabul, Khalilzad first came to the United States as a high school exchange student, studied at the University of Chicago, and rose to the upper echelons of the Republican foreign-policy establishment. 

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, then-U.S. President George W. Bush tapped Khalilzad as his envoy to Afghanistan and, later, as his ambassador to Kabul. During that time, he midwifed the country’s Loya Jirga (or “public assembly”) in Bonn, Germany, and oversaw the drafting of the Afghan constitution and the country’s first elections. He went on to serve as George W. Bush’s ambassador to both Iraq and the United Nations. 

Then-U.S. President Donald Trump, eager to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan, asked Khalilzad to return to government and negotiate a peace deal with the Taliban. Khalilzad signed the agreement in Doha, Qatar, on behalf of the United States in February 2020. When Trump left office, U.S. President Joe Biden asked Khalilzad to stay on in his position. 

Khalilzad spent the last three years shuttling among Washington, Kabul, Doha, and other world capitals, summoning his knowledge of Afghan culture and his long-standing relationships to bring Afghans and the Taliban together for talks aimed at a political settlement to end the war. 

On Tuesday, Khalilzad spoke with Foreign Policy in his office at the U.S. State Department. He was candid about his negotiations with the Taliban, the frantic hours after the fall of Kabul, uncertainty about Afghanistan’s future, and his personal role in the 20-year conflict.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

Elise Labott: Tell me about the final days. What happened when you were trying to form a transitional government?

Zalmay Khalilzad: Well, the final days were when the Talibs were getting close to Kabul. I was in Doha, and I saw [Taliban leader] Mullah [Abdul Ghani] Baradar and company and pressed them hard that an attack on Kabul could lead to a conflict that would destroy the city and the millions of people there—5 million. It could lead to street conflict, and that would go against the agreement. The third element of the agreement between us—which they regard as sacrosanct—explicitly says negotiations between the Taliban and other Afghans, including the government, for a new Islamic government. And so we went back and forth, back and forth, but he agreed.

EL: Baradar agreed.

ZK: Baradar and the team with him. I mean, several of the ministers now in the government were there. And they said, “Okay, we agreed that for two weeks, they will”—they had some forces in Kabul that already had entered—that they will pull them out, stay at the gates of Kabul, and a delegation will come from Kabul, including former President [Hamid] Karzai, Abdullah Abdullah, Minister [Mohammad Asif] Rahimi, Minister [Mohammed Masoom] Stanikzai, and a few others.

[The new government] has to be inclusive but not power sharing 50-50, which was our proposal to them at one point. They had agreed to that, but their argument was about who would be number one. The Talibs wanted to be number one, replace President [Ashraf] Ghani with one of them, and Ghani was refusing to accept that.

Why did President Ghani do what he did? Why did the forces behave the way they did?

[It was] no longer realistic to talk about 50-50, but inclusive, yes, it has to include figures from the current government, ethnic groups, and so forth. So I said we want that announced, and they announced it. And President Ghani also agreed to that, that these people who are going will have full authority to negotiate. 

EL: When was this?

ZK: This is what? Aug. 12? In our case, that they won’t attack Kabul was announced by the Taliban, and I know they withdrew some forces. So in the evening, Baradar asked for a meeting, and [U.S. Centcom commander] Frank McKenzie was there also, and Frank wanted to see them as well. So we met, let’s say 10 hours later or maybe 11 hours later.

Within two to three hours of the announcement and the agreement of President Ghani, reports start coming that he has disappeared, that he has left the country, that he has left the palace. So we meet with Baradar [and] I introduced Frank to him, and we had come to explain that his mission now was to withdraw the rest of the U.S. forces, and to do that, he was going to bring in more forces. And he didn’t want the Talibs to interfere with that, that if there was interference, we would robustly defend ourselves—you know that kind of language—and that we think he should stay out of Kabul.

EL: And that all went out the window.

ZK: [Baradar] says, “Are you going to take responsibility for Kabul’s security?” And Frank McKenzie [is] like, “What was he talking about?” So I told them: “Can you explain why you’re raising this issue?” He said there is a huge problem of law and order in Kabul, and darkness is coming soon. And who’s going to take responsibility for what will happen in Kabul? We want you to take it. Because we just agreed not to go into Kabul for two weeks. We want you to take responsibility. Well, Frank says, “my mission is what I described.”

I think he may have said I’m not taking responsibility for the security of Kabul but definitely “my mission is what I described.” That’s what I’m here for, to make sure you understand what I’m going to do. They keep pushing: What happens to Kabul? Who’s gonna restore order, or who’s gonna keep order? So [Baradar] said, “But what would you say then if we go in to secure Kabul?” And [McKenzie] says, “I told you what my mission is.”

EL: If it wasn’t your mission, it had to be their mission.

ZK: That’s what he was trying to get us to say: “You can go for this mission.” We didn’t say that.

EL: But you didn’t say “don’t go.”

ZK: We didn’t say, “don’t go.” We advised them to be careful. We had this map, which is the area where we’re going to be focused on and areas around it. If they move toward that area, we could perceive that as a threat and act. And so the Talibs took that not as a green light, but at least we didn’t warn them that if you go in, you will risk an attack by the United States.

So that’s the last day, so lots of issues can arise from that. Why did President Ghani do what he did? Why did the forces behave the way they did? The question is, you know, we invested so much in this force. The numbers were impressive on paper, the capabilities were there, internal weapons, air power—especially special forces of the military, which we thought was quite significant and capable and dedicated, some of them, that perform extremely courageously as individuals, as units. There were forces at work for our various other agencies that were all there. What happened?

EL: In the end, when they knew the United States was going to withdraw, were they left fighting for a government they didn’t want to defend?

ZK: We haven’t done enough work to say what definitively happened in terms of that. But that’s what it looks like. And there have been some quick assessments of why, even as districts were falling, people saying that many commanders were changed. There are others who say, you know, people didn’t think this thing was worth fighting for. Could it be the standing of the government changed with the soldiers because of corruption and perceptions of corruption? I don’t know; we don’t know. This will take a lot more time. 

EL: In those last days or months, you were trying to get Ghani to agree to a transition. And in the end, not only did he not make a transition, but he left. Why wasn’t there more pushing of him to say, “You need to do X, Y, and Z, or we’re out?”

ZK: It’s a legitimate question. A lot of Afghans complain that we pushed him too much as some people are saying that we didn’t push him hard enough on the negotiations. But we kept repeating to him, and you should see Secretary [Antony] Blinken’s letter.

EL: I did see it.

ZK: Yeah? We were pretty stark. I mean, I think President Ghani may have been—

EL: In denial?

ZK: Ill advised. Like, I have to say, we didn’t see all of this also coming. Some of our people may have seen it as individuals, that maybe without us, this thing might collapse relatively quickly. But a lot of us did not see the way it happened and the speed of development. People thought it might take years if it happens. Then as these districts started to fall, some people shrank the time that it might take. But Ghani, whenever I saw him and when the secretary spoke to him the night before all of this happened, he was of the view that even our departure, sometimes he would say it was a blessing. 

EL: Wasn’t the writing on the wall though?

ZK: I had a lot of conversations with him, as you can imagine. But he was of the view that the Talibs would not be able to win militarily. He believed that very, very passionately and strongly until, I think, they were surrounding Kabul. Maybe then he thought for the first time because—imagine if he had offered to step aside for the sake of peace a year earlier, six months earlier, when negotiating a power sharing from a position of relative strength. His name would have been golden, someone walking away from power for the sake of peace. But he was for a long time saying that the constitution doesn’t allow him to accept what the peace process would require: a new constitution, a power-sharing government.

EL: When you started negotiating with them—

ZK: With the Talibs?

EL: With the Talibs. I mean, wasn’t it a foregone conclusion that they would eventually be running the country?

ZK: We could have done two things or more than two things. One would have been just to withdraw without agreement. We could have done that. But we thought it would be good to get, you know, withdraw in an orderly fashion. And two, that there would be commitment, see what we can get on counterterrorism from them.

Because, you know, we did get orderly withdrawal, meaning they agreed not to attack us while we withdrew during the 14 months. In fact, it became closer to 18 months by the end with Biden’s additional time not to attack us, and they didn’t. And two, they made commitments on counterterrorism and took us a long time to get them to agree to mention al Qaeda—no terrorist group, including al Qaeda, individuals or groups. And three, what was important was to give Afghanistan a chance for peace. During the 14 months of withdrawal or the 16 months, it will be a time for Afghans, for the first time in the republic, to sit together and negotiate something and to come to a new government and cease-fire.

EL: But by accepting that the government wouldn’t be involved, wouldn’t be leading the negotiations, by making the government make concessions—like releasing Taliban prisoners and such—were those intra-Afghan talks set up for failure?

ZK: No, because when it came to negotiating the future of Afghanistan, it was the government and the Talibs. 

EL: No, I know, but you negotiated an exit from Afghanistan without the government.

ZK: For eight, whatever number, of years before the negotiations with the Talibs, we would have wanted the Talibs and the government to sit and negotiate with each other without anything from us. But the Talibs said this government is not legitimate, is a puppet government, and would not sit with it. When I was ambassador, we had a very ambitious agenda, in which there was no talking to the Talibs without them accepting the constitution, without them breaking with the terrorists and renouncing violence. Those were the three pre-negotiation conditions the Taliban had to meet.

I respect those who say we shouldn’t have negotiated with the Talibs without the government being there. But we don’t know how much more fighting would have taken for the Talibs to agree to that. And that’s where a lot of commentators don’t deal with the underlying forces or balance that caused us to do that, which was that we were losing ground. Since after [former U.S. President Barack Obama’s] surge, each year we were losing ground to the Talibs, meaning Talibs were taking more territory. So unless we agree to another surge, time was not on our side. 

EL: But if you kept seeing them gain territory, wasn’t it a foregone conclusion that they were going to take over? You know, some Afghans have said that this is like a Gandamak Treaty 2.0, right? Where the Afghans said to the British: “We’ll leave British India alone. You leave Afghanistan alone.” Like suggesting that you said that to the Talibs: “You can have Afghanistan. Just leave us alone.” 

I think that the grand miscalculation of the Afghan leadership was this: that we were not going to leave.

ZK: No, we didn’t say quite that. If we had done that, we wouldn’t have fought the Talibs after they agreed to that. Look what we get the Talibs to agree to. I mean, in some ways, it’s surprising to me. One is that during the period of our withdrawal, we will continue to assist that Afghan government. We provided military assistance and so forth. Second, that we could defend the Afghan forces, that we could attack [the Taliban]—they agreed we could attack [alongside] the Afghan forces. They wouldn’t attack us. 

We could have—and that’s another debate, a legitimate debate. Should we have made that a tight linkage, meaning we say we won’t withdraw unless there is an agreement between the Talibs and the government on a new government? That could have been an option. But there was a lot of pessimism here, whether the Afghans could ever come to an agreement with each other. And therefore, if you made it a tight condition—

EL: You’d never leave.

ZK: You never leave; in a sense, you’re saying you’re going to stay. 

EL: Do you think Ghani was ever serious about negotiating an inter-Afghan agreement with the Taliban? 

ZK: I think for most of the period, my judgment is that he was reluctant because— 

EL: That would spell the end of his power.

ZK: This new government idea meant that perhaps he wouldn’t have led the government. It took us a long time to get him to even appoint an inclusive delegation to go to Doha. As soon as I got this job, I asked for an authoritative delegation from the Taliban, and then I asked for an inclusive delegation from Afghanistan from the government. That took us quite a long time—you say 18 months together?

I think that the grand miscalculation of the Afghan leadership was this: that we were not going to leave. 

EL: Do you feel the Trump administration boxed you in in any way—like with the timeframe? 

ZK: Well, I mean, my instructions from the president and [former] Secretary [of State Mike] Pompeo were quite clear there. 

EL: So you had certain parameters?

ZK: Parameters in the view of whatever we did, and Pompeo was, I mean, I was very closely interacting with Pompeo, in particular. Every administration has some culture of decision-making. This [current] administration, all Democratic administrations, have many more processes. But no, this wasn’t, I decided on the time, I decided on the sequence, I decided on the terrorism, I decided on the … any of this boggles the mind. Am I’m flattered that some people think that it was [me] deciding everything. 

EL: Given your experience, it’s natural that people would think that you’re the only person that could do it. Is it also possible that—were you too close to the subject? 

ZK: Well, I mean, others will have to judge that. But I believe I knew the situation in Afghanistan and the psychology of the Afghans and how to be effective with them. But you know, I was asked, and so I—

EL: You have to serve.

ZK: I also thought that for our legacy, it was important that we leave not only protecting our interest in terrorism because that is what people—leadership—decided. They decided it was too expensive given the changes in terms of the terrorism picture, that this was not worth $40 billion and a war. And that we also do the right thing for the Afghans by having a peace process to end their war as well. 

I was very disappointed by the way we left after the Soviet [withdrawal in 1989]. We did something huge together with the Afghans again. Then we abandon them? We shouldn’t do that. We should do our best to respond to this yearning of the people for peace by bringing the parties together and encouraging an agreement.

I think we fell short together. And you have to learn from what happened.

EL: Do you envision a situation where you’re jointly fighting the Islamic State together? 

ZK: Well, they are fighting ISIS. And I have to be very careful because we don’t want to undermine things. I think on ISIS, they played a vital role in ending the territory of ISIS in Afghanistan. We will watch that closely. We are, this is obviously of vital importance, we hold them to their commitments on terrorism, including al Qaeda. At the same time, you know, I’ve had the experience. When I was in Iraq, we managed to get the Sunni Arabs that were working together in an insurgency with forces that supported or worked with al Qaeda in Iraq to turn—

EL: Like an Anbar Awakening?

ZK: Like an Anbar uprising and shift. So we should be open to the possibility that people change because their interests change—and not to close the door to that possibility. 

EL: Looking back 20 years, 21 years? Is there anything that you would have done differently, that you wish you had more time to do?

ZK: So obviously, we did do relatively well on the counterterrorism front. You know, al Qaeda in Afghanistan is not what it was. Two, we had a very salutary effect on Afghanistan. People live longer, are more educated, wealthier. The physical face of Afghanistan, of Kabul, changed fundamentally. On the building of a vision—that of a democratic, self-sufficient, secure Afghanistan—I think we fell short together. And you have to learn from what happened. 

Could we have done things differently? Was there a problem of ends and means that our ambitions were too large compared to the strategy and resources? How we built the [armed] forces? Could it have been done differently to make it more resilient and more self-reliant and motivated to fight? Should we have pushed harder for a political settlement earlier? Yes, I reflect on those, and I will reflect on them for some time to come.

Correction, Sept. 15, 2021: A previous version misstated the name of Afghan minister Mohammed Masoom Stanikzai.

Elise Labott is a columnist at Foreign Policy and an adjunct professor at American University’s School of International Service. As a correspondent for CNN for two decades, she covered seven secretaries of state and reported from more than 80 countries. Twitter: @EliseLabott

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