Questions surround Khalilzad, an enigmatic diplomat who presided over US failures in Iraq and now the return of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan.
Zalmay Khalilzad, a leading US diplomat of Afghan-origin, has long been a controversial figure for his involvement in Washington’s ‘War on Terror’.
Following the September 11 attacks, he had served in both Afghanistan and Iraq as a US envoy, exerting enormous influence over the construction of the Afghan state under US occupation, involved in everything from overseeing the country’s constitution to the establishment of its presidential system.
He also led Washington’s talks with the Taliban, which many see as the main precursor to the Pashtun-dominated group's lightning victory in Afghanistan.
After the Taliban’s surprisingly quick victory against the US-trained Afghan army, many government operators and experts can’t help but speculate on Washington’s role, particularly that of Khalilzad, in the Afghan group’s return to power.
Some argue that he has played a kind of a transitional role from the Afghan government to Taliban rule by legitimising and empowering the group by holding talks with them under the Trump administration’s “ending forever wars” doctrine.
Muhammad Athar Javed, an International Security Program fellow at New America, a Washington-based think-tank, thinks that the US had a greater role than has been stated.
“The transition to Taliban rule must have been well thought. I mean it’s not an accident to be honest,” he says. The Taliban can’t behave like that unless they have a political understanding with the US and other Western powers, according to the analyst.
“Overall, the picture appears to be cautiously optimistic,” he adds, referring to the fact that the Afghan capital, Kabul, which has at least six million people, one sixth of the country’s population, came under Taliban control without any fighting and bloodshed.
Javed also thinks that Khalilzad had a hand in the supposed evolution of the group that was on display during the Taliban’s first press conference.
By saying the Taliban has changed, “he is making strategic communication to stakeholders,” Javed says. “That strategic communication has built a positive image of the Taliban.”
Despite the complete chaos across the Kabul airport, where people desperately tried to escape Taliban rule, Javed believes that the main actors in the peace talks from the Taliban to the US government are currently trying to implement their understandings outlined in the Doha agreement.
According to this understanding, the Taliban will not allow foreign terrorist groups like Al Qaeda to use Afghan soil to attack the US and that the new Kabul government under the group should be inclusive. The Taliban’s recent language and its actions appear to be in line with what was signed in the peace agreement with the US, Javed says, meaning the group is sticking to its word.
In Kabul, Taliban leaders continue to hold talks with leading US-backed leaders like Hamid Karzai, the former president, and Abdullah Abdullah, the second most powerful man under the ousted Ashraf Ghani government. They also stated that the new government will be “inclusive”.
The Taliban also declared a general amnesty, pardoning their enemies and pledging that no one’s life and property will be in danger.
“There should be a sigh of relief within the US administration and Zalmay Khalilzad that one way or another this culmination of twenty years of war ended in a peaceful transition and not in war,” Javed says. He also cites the EU reaction, which said that it will continue to keep its relations open with Afghanistan if the Taliban respects human rights, as a positive sign.
Preventing the civil war, which had raged across the country after the Soviet withdrawal in the 1989 and the US invasion of 2001, is “the biggest contribution that had been made by Khalilzad and other US diplomats,” according to Javed.
But other experts believe that this kind of thinking gives Khalilzad “too much credit.”
“He has failed in his mission. Just as British and French prime ministers Neville Chamberlain and Edouard Daladier failed to prevent (Nazi) Germany’s expansion after the September 1938 Munich Pact, Ambassador Khalilzad signed an agreement, in February 2020, in Doha, that failed to bring about reconciliation and a political settlement between belligerents,” says Ioannis Koskinas, a senior fellow in the international security program of New America.
“The Taliban were explicit in their intent of a total takeover of Afghanistan. Ambassador Khalilzad’s efforts were supposed to be about a graceful exit for the US that didn’t leave a mess behind, in Afghanistan. The Taliban achieved their goal; Ambassador Khalilzad did not,” Koskinas tells TRT World.
Koskinas, a former US military officer, who served in Afghanistan for years as a member of the special forces, also sharply criticises the Afghan peace process and Khalilzad’s role in it, saying that “Doha was a sideshow, a clever move by the Taliban to gain political legitimacy and credibility.“
“There was very little political process in the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan. While the Taliban’s political representatives in Doha were talking, their commanders in Afghanistan were fighting,” Koskinas observes. As a result, Doha talks left Afghanistan “on an arbitrary timeline” which favoured the Taliban.
“Certainly, from the outside looking in, it never seemed as if Ambassador Khalilzad was looking for ways to strengthen the Afghan government’s bargaining power, in negotiations by the time of the templated US eventual withdrawal in 2021,” he adds.
The analyst also doesn’t see much of a change in the Taliban. “They’ve just gone to school for the last 20 years. They’ve learned, they’ve adapted, and they’ve gotten better at fighting this insurgency and understanding their opponents. But their goals have not changed.”
Khalilzad and special interests
Some other experts further believe that Khalilzad pursued a 'special political agenda' to promote his personal and family interests.
“One man responsible for the chaos and destruction raging across Afghanistan is Zalmay Khalilzad. He should be investigated for alleged financial corruption,” says Kamal Alam, a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.
In 2014, Khalilzad’s finances were subject to an Austrian investigation, which froze his wife’s accounts in the European country based on information from the US Department of Justice that he was suspected of money laundering related to business activities in Iraq and the UAE.
“This man wanted to be the president of Afghanistan. He ran to be the president of Afghanistan. No one likes him. Everyone hates him,” Alam tells TRT World.
A Turkish source, who is closely acquainted with Khalilzad, refused to go on the record about him saying because he would have to express very “negative views” publicly about someone he knows very well.
Prior to his appointment as the US envoy to Afghanistan, some of his countrymen from Afghanistan signed a petition, accusing him for “ethnonationalist motivated previous conducts”, a veiled reference to his alleged support for the Pashtun community’s dominance after the US invasion.
Alam drew attention to the fact that Khalilzad should have never been in a top mediating position between the US and the Taliban after making clear his political ambitions in his country of origin, Afghanistan. Khalilzad had reportedly wanted to challenge Karzai in the 2009 Afghan elections, but missed the deadline to file his candidacy.
“How can an American official be neutral when he runs for the presidency of another country called Afghanistan?” Alam asks. While he has been an active participant of “the great game of Afghanistan”, there is no way he could do a job of an independent adviser, Alam adds. Khalilzad was also considered for the position of the US Secretary of State by the Trump administration.
Ahmad Rashid, a Pakistani writer, also criticised him for “acting like a British viceroy”. Before the Soviets and the Americans, the British also invaded Afghanistan.
Born in Afghanistan, Khalilzad moved to the US in the 1970s and became a naturalised US citizen in 1984, working for different American administrations from Ronald Reagan's to Donald Trump's. Like Karzai, who was brought to Afghanistan by American forces to ensure a political transition after the 2001 invasion, Ghani, a respected anthropologist, who replaced Karzai, also held US citizenship.
Since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1970s, Khalilzad maintained crucial contacts with what Washington called the mujahideen back then, advocating a policy of backing them to stop the advance of communism. Taliban movement founded in 1994 traces its roots back to this same ‘mujahideen’.
From warmaker to peacemaker
After defending the Afghan jihad in the 1970s and 1980s against the communist Soviets, Khalilzad became a full-fledged defender of former US President George W. Bush’s War on Terror after the September 11 attacks. He was regarded as part of the then-infamous neoconservative movement, which advocated regime change in countries like Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran through military force.
While Alam thinks that Khalilzad is “a great diplomat” serving for every Republican administration since Reagan, “he represents the extreme failure of American policy in Iraq and Afghanistan for the last 15 years.”
While some characterise him as a hawkish neocon, he reappeared as peacemaker under the former Trump administration, which sought a quick exit from Afghanistan.
“Khalilzad’s biggest failure is lying to people and telling everyone a different story just to please Trump because Trump told him ‘Just get me out of here. I don’t care about anything else’,” Alam says.
“There are American senators and senior congressmen, who urge the White House not only to oust him but also interrogate him for his actions,” Alam says. “There are allegations of massive corruption concerning his actions,” the analyst notes.
An American ‘warlord’
Alam thinks that Khalilzad is no different from Afghan warlords. “He is very much an Afghan warlord,” he says. “His political agenda is the same as any other Afghan warlord.”
After the US invasion of Afghanistan, the war-torn country had been run by various warlords, whose corrupt management was enabled by both Kabul and Washington. The Taliban has long claimed that the movement will end all corrupt practices and warlordism, ensuring justice.
He also wants to project himself as the only person who is able to talk to the Taliban on behalf of the Americans, according to Alam. While a new Democratic administration is in power in Washington, nothing suggests yet that Khalilzad could be out of the game. He still holds his position as the US envoy.
Even after the hasty US withdrawal, Khalilzad’s political value in Washington might increase as no Americans except him appear to have any clue about what the Taliban could do next. “That’s why Biden kept him on because he is the only guy who could talk to the Taliban,” Alam says.
In 2018, Khalilzad was instrumental in ensuring the release of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban’s co-founder and the group’s current number two, from Pakistani custody. Since then, Khalilzad and Baradar have been the two main guys in the Taliban talks.
Alam still thinks that the Afghan-American could play a positive role. “He claims that the Taliban is not the same group of the 1990s. He says they are reformed and more democratic, being willing to allow elections and share power with minorities, Uzbeks, Tajiks and others,” Alam says.
“But this is too early to speculate,” Alam says, regarding how much the Taliban has changed. “We will find out whether Khalilzad has a hidden genius in himself, or not, in the next three to four months,” he concludes.