Zalmay Khalilzad, a top US envoy to Afghanistan, has quit, says Secretary of State Antony Blinken. He will be replaced by his deputy, Thomas West.

Zalmay Khalilzad spearheaded US dialogue with the Taliban and was a key figure in peace talks with the group.
Zalmay Khalilzad spearheaded US dialogue with the Taliban and was a key figure in peace talks with the group. (AP)

Top US envoy to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad has stepped down, according to Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

Blinken announced Khalilzad's departure on Monday, saying that the envoy's deputy, Thomas West, would take over, less than two months after the United States withdrew from Afghanistan.

He had for years spearheaded US dialogue with the Taliban and was a key figure in peace talks with the group.

In mid-August, the US-backed Afghan government collapsed as the Taliban swept through the country at lightning speed and marched into the capital, Kabul, unopposed. 

The United States was then left seeking the Taliban's cooperation in the chaotic US evacuation from Kabul.

READ MORE: What role did US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad play in the Taliban's victory?

A veteran diplomat 

Born in Afghanistan, the 70-year-old academic turned US diplomat took senior positions under former president George W Bush, becoming the US ambassador to Kabul and then Baghdad and the United Nations.

When former president Donald Trump pushed to leave Afghanistan, he brought back Khalilzad, who led exhaustive talks with the Taliban –– without including the US-backed government in Kabul.

Those talks led to a February 2020 agreement in which US troops would leave the following year.

But peace negotiations between the Taliban and the leadership in Kabul failed to gain traction, and the government that the United States built over 20 years crumbled within days as US troops left.

Khalilzad, despite his Republican affiliation, was kept in place when Democratic President Joe Biden defeated Trump and decided to go ahead with the withdrawal.

READ MORE: Taliban to 'very soon' allow secondary school for girls, UN official says

Criticism

Khalilzad soon became a lightning rod for criticism, with even his superiors in the Biden administration –– while voicing respect for him personally –– faulting the diplomacy behind the 2020 agreement.

In an interview last month with the Financial Times, Khalilzad said that he had reached a deal with the Taliban in which the group would stay out of Kabul and negotiate a political transition.

But Khalilzad said that the deal collapsed when president Ashraf Ghani fled the country and the Taliban saw a security vacuum.

READ MORE: How international actors laid the groundwork for Taliban rule

Source: TRTWorld and agencies