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Don’t Blame Khalilzad for the Afghanistan Debacle

Zalmay Khalilzad achieved what he was asked to do: Get the United States out of Afghanistan.

By , president of Vizier Consulting, a political risk advisory firm focused on the Middle East and South Asia.
A close up photo of Zalmay Khalilzad's face.
Zalmay Khalilzad, special envoy for Afghanistan reconciliation, testifies before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee in Washington on April 27. Susan Walsh/Pool/Getty Images

Leaving Afghanistan

Zalmay Khalilzad’s three-year tenure as the U.S. special representative for Afghan reconciliation has come to an end. In a letter of resignation submitted to U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken last week, Khalilzad wrote “now is the right time” to step down “at a juncture when we are entering a new phase in our Afghanistan policy.”

The knives came out as soon as the announcement was public. Khalilzad’s many detractors in Washington and the Afghan diaspora were quick to perform a postmortem on his tenure, terming it an abject failure.

One Washington think tanker compared the 2020 deal Khalilzad secured with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, to the 1938 Munich Agreement that France, Great Britain, and Italy signed with Nazi Germany. Ex-Afghan intelligence chief Rahmatullah Nabil tweeted that Khalilzad was a “con man” who “was expelled from the scene after dragging Afghanistan into an irreversible catastrophe.”

Zalmay Khalilzad’s three-year tenure as the U.S. special representative for Afghan reconciliation has come to an end. In a letter of resignation submitted to U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken last week, Khalilzad wrote “now is the right time” to step down “at a juncture when we are entering a new phase in our Afghanistan policy.”

The knives came out as soon as the announcement was public. Khalilzad’s many detractors in Washington and the Afghan diaspora were quick to perform a postmortem on his tenure, terming it an abject failure.

One Washington think tanker compared the 2020 deal Khalilzad secured with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, to the 1938 Munich Agreement that France, Great Britain, and Italy signed with Nazi Germany. Ex-Afghan intelligence chief Rahmatullah Nabil tweeted that Khalilzad was a “con man” who “was expelled from the scene after dragging Afghanistan into an irreversible catastrophe.”

At first glance, the many harsh reviews of Khalilzad’s performance—excluding the ad hominems—seem to have merit. Today, there is no meaningful “Afghan reconciliation” to speak of. The previous regime’s powerbrokers—save for former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, former Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, and a handful of other minor notables—have fled the country along with more than a hundred thousand of their fellow Afghans. The Taliban are reestablishing their emirate once again. The country they rule is on the brink of an economic collapse and humanitarian catastrophe. After 20 years, Afghanistan has come full circle.

But to pin the blame on Khalilzad for this horrid outcome is unfair. One can quibble with certain particulars of the Doha Agreement, but Khalilzad got what was close to the best possible deal for the United States given its fast-eroding leverage and his actual mandate as special representative. And making Khalilzad the fall guy absolves the actual culprits—chief among them former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.

Although the term “Afghan reconciliation” was literally in Khalilzad’s job title and he devoted considerable effort toward advancing such a process, facilitating an accord among Afghans to end their 43-year civil war was ultimately not his primary responsibility.

In reality, former U.S. President Donald Trump and U.S. President Joe Biden made clear that what they ultimately sought from Khalilzad was to secure a safe exit from Afghanistan while establishing a framework to address U.S. counterterrorism concerns. Khalilzad was more or less successful in achieving both limited objectives.

Today, the Taliban continue to cling to the notion of the Doha Agreement as binding. And since the fall of Kabul, the group has held multiple meetings with top CIA officials, indicating that counterterrorism dialogue continues.

These talks may prove to be fruitless, as was the case with bilateral engagement on al Qaeda in the 1990s. The Taliban’s selection of al Qaeda-linked Sirajuddin Haqqani to serve as Afghanistan’s top internal security official is disconcerting. Yet the Haqqani network, as a calculated, cunning “nexus player” with ties to competing regional actors—including Pashtun tribes, local and international jihadi groups, al Qaeda, and Pakistani intelligence—could choose to use its relationship with al Qaeda to either enable the terror group’s external operations or restrain them.

If Haqqani chooses the former, the United States is not without options. The fragile Taliban regime would face the United States’ diplomatic and military coercive might, global isolation, and potential collapse once again.

In the end, Khalilzad was able to deliver Taliban consent to an organized, relatively secure withdrawal of U.S. forces from a losing battle while also giving Afghans a chance to find a political settlement to their long civil war. Since the signing of the Doha Agreement, not a single U.S. troop died as a result of Taliban violence—even as U.S. forces continued to kill Taliban fighters in airstrikes. Given the Taliban’s fractious nature and their rank-and-file’s deep disdain for the United States, this was no easy feat.

The U.S. exit was, of course, punctuated by the deadly attack on Kabul’s airport by the Islamic State-Khorasan, which took the lives of well over 100 Afghan civilians and 13 U.S. service members. But that tragedy was enabled by the chaos that ensued from Ghani’s precipitous departure.

Indeed, if the United States was to look for the individual most responsible for the current Afghan tragedy, it would be Ghani.

In November 2018, a month after his first exploratory talks with the Taliban, Khalilzad met with Ghani as well as a broad segment of Afghan stakeholders to encourage them to begin the process of setting up a team to negotiate with the Taliban. But formal intra-Afghan talks only began in September 2020, almost two years later. Although it took 16 months for the United States and the Taliban to conclude a deal, it took 22 months for intra-Afghan talks to simply begin after Khalilzad’s Taliban meetings became public.

Instead of awakening to the real possibility of a full U.S. departure, Ghani hunkered down and remained focused on retaining power as his first term came to an end. He obstructed and needlessly prolonged preparations for the intra-Afghan talks. It took six months for the Ghani government to announce a list of peace talk participants. And when it did, in April 2019, it was an absurdly large list of 250 people. The Taliban rejected the proposal as unserious, and the talks were delayed. By then, the United States and the Taliban had already agreed to a draft framework of a deal.

Ghani remained in office past his constitutionally determined term and then held presidential elections in September 2019, marked by a low reported 18 percent turnout and allegations of widespread rigging, precipitating yet another political crisis. On March 8, 2020, a week after the United States and Taliban signed their deal, Ghani and his opponent, Abdullah, held parallel inaugurations, with both claiming to have won the presidency.

This political debacle was by no means Khalilzad’s fault. In fact, in contrast to most other voices in Washington, Khalilzad wisely recommended the creation of an interim government instead of another divisive presidential election. Elections only serve to deepen Afghanistan’s violent divisions. It made no sense to hold them when pro-republic forces needed to form a united political front in talks with the Taliban.

But Khalilzad’s proposal triggered a hyperbolic response from the Ghani government. Ghani’s protégé and national security advisor, Hamdullah Mohib, attacked Khalilzad as behaving like a “viceroy.”

Khalilzad’s only fault was he could see the writing on the wall. Afghanistan suffered yet another election crisis, and Ghani eventually got his second term. But in August, when push came to shove, Ghani and Mohib fled the country, upending the transition plan Khalilzad had agreed to with the Taliban and leading to Kabul’s airport chaos.

A month before the fall of Kabul, as the Taliban were steadily advancing, Mohib was photographed cruising around London in a Bentley with Afghanistan’s then-“peace minister.” Team Ghani could talk the talk but not walk the walk. Instead, it ran away.

Ideally, the United States should not have left Afghanistan without at least a comprehensive, intra-Afghan accord in place (which I argued for in this very publication in August 2019). But to achieve such an agreement within a reasonable time frame would have required pressing Ghani to make the necessary concessions for the sake of peace. There was no appetite in Washington to do that.

Although Khalilzad had the direct support of Trump and his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, in the Taliban talks, he did not control U.S. policy toward the obstinate Afghan government. As former diplomat Peter Tomsen notes, Afghan leaders can be stubbornly defiant even with patrons they are completely dependent on. The Soviets resorted to poisoning or shooting intransigent Afghan clients. But Trump didn’t possess the will or strategic patience to get entangled in Afghan domestic politics. He simply wanted out of Afghanistan. And Khalilzad delivered the terms for the safe exit he desired.

Khalilzad stayed on the job even after Trump made a bizarre Camp David invitation to the Taliban in August 2019 and then canceled talks with the group after they declined. And afterward, as former U.S. special representative to Afghanistan James Dobbins rightly noted, Khalilzad was able to revive the talks and “persuade the Taliban to give some additional concessions.”

The Doha accord’s initial 14-month withdrawal deadline extended past the January 2020 U.S. presidential inauguration, giving the incoming Biden administration a small window of opportunity to reassess the agreement. And when Biden decided to extend the withdrawal deadline another five months, Khalilzad was even able to get the Taliban to tacitly agree without incident.

Khalilzad will leave a conflicted legacy on Afghanistan. He has helped shape U.S. policy toward his country of birth for almost the war’s entire duration. At times, his heavy-handedness—such as when he orchestrated Karzai’s selection as interim head of state in 2002 over the more popular former king, Mohammad Zahir Shah—proved to be harmful as Karzai was subsequently tainted as an U.S. puppet.

But in what was likely Khalilzad’s final phase as a public servant, he proved to be a realist who delivered for the administrations he served; outmaneuvered a bureaucracy and political establishment used to kicking the can down the road on Afghanistan; multi-lateralized the peace process by including key players China, Russia, and Pakistan; and managed erratic presidents in Kabul and Washington.

Khalilzad helped secure the least bad option for the United States, enabling it to avoid a situation where it would have had to surge troops to prop up an incompetent, erratic, and unpopular Ghani government. For that, Khalilzad won’t be getting a Nobel Peace Prize. But he did indeed serve his country well.

Arif Rafiq is president of Vizier Consulting, a political risk advisory firm focused on the Middle East and South Asia. Twitter: @arifcrafiq

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