Top US negotiator, Zalmay Khalilzad is known to have connections with shadowy figures in Afghanistan and experts are struggling to understand what exactly he has agreed with the Taliban.
While the US and its archenemy the Taliban announced they had arrived at some degree of compromise on February 29, no one except the chief US negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad, an Afghan American, and top Taliban leaders, knows about the 'secret' annexes to the agreement.
Days after the ceremonial signing between Khalilzad and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban’s top political leader, the armed group enigmatically launched several attacks against the US-backed Afghan government forces, killing at least 25 soldiers last week alone.
After the Taliban attacks, the US air force waged airstrikes against the armed group.
According to the agreement, there will be a period of “reduced violence”, which has to hold for seven days, and if the Taliban keeps its word on that, intra-Afghan talks between the government, the Taliban and societal groups will begin, possibly paving the way for a peace settlement.
Before seven days passed, the Taliban had attacked Afghan government targets, which meant to end the negotiations. But this week negotiations will take place anyway, increasing suspicions of what Khalilzad and the Taliban have really agreed on.
Many suspicions have been intensified due to the unknown intentions and contradictions of one particular person, Khalilzad, an enigmatic diplomat who had defended the US invasion of Afghanistan back in 2001 following the September 11 attacks to remove the Taliban from power.
The same personality is now defending the US withdrawal from the same country under President Donald Trump, a president who wants to bring troops back home, advocating less intervention overseas, which has been one of his campaign pledges. Khalilzad also contradictorily negotiates with the Taliban whom he argued for ousting in the past.
One of the main premises of the Taliban-US deal concerns Washington's withdrawal from Afghanistan in exchange for the group promising not to host or support any terrorist organisation which aims to attack the West.
Khalilzad is trying to secure a peace deal, which Trump now desperately needs as the US presidential elections approach. But his speed and expediency make some in Washington doubt that he can deliver a reliable deal.
“While officials saw the power of Khalilzad’s background and relationships, some accused him of glossing over controversial issues or liberally wheeling and dealing with US interests in his haste to clinch a deal,” the Washington Post reported.
“Some officials, especially at the Pentagon, believed Khalilzad was making dangerous concessions, especially regarding counterterrorism. They doubted his gamble that the Taliban would follow through on a vow to break with Al Qaeda and keep the Islamic State’s Afghan branch in check,” the report added.
Who is Khalilzad?
Khalilzad, Washington’s headman for negotiations, is an ethnic Pashtun, who was born in Afghanistan. The Taliban is also a Pashtun-run organisation, which is the largest minority in Pakistan, the main supporter of the armed group.
But similarities between the Taliban and Khalilzad apparently end there.
Khalilzad was once a neoconservative ideologue of the US global leadership, defending the invasion of his former home country by Washington back in 2001 when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan.
“The United States must act now to weaken the Taliban and stem the spread of Talibanism," Khalilzad said in June 2001.
He also suggested: “[To]change the balance of power by offering assistance to the foes of the Taliban and oppose the Taliban ideology--giving airtime over the Voice of America to Taliban opponents and moderate Islamic leaders.”
But now the same Khalilzad tries hard to persuade the moderate Afghan government representatives to sit down with their avowed enemies, the Taliban, to settle their differences.
Khalilzad’s contradictions do not end there.
In the past, he wanted to “press Pakistan to withdraw its support”. But now he talks with Pakistanis so that they can facilitate bringing the Taliban leaders to the negotiating table.
Despite all the changes in his politics, Khalilzad was able to claim top posts across the board from 2000s to 2020s.
Before becoming Trump’s top envoy to Afghanistan, he had also been President George W Bush’s special envoy to Kabul from 2001 to 2003. He had been the US ambassador to Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005. Later he also became the US ambassador to Iraq after Washington’s disastrous occupation of the country.
But apparently, Khalilzad wanted even more power, considering putting himself forward to run Afghanistan.
“To some in Washington, those criticisms were compounded by Khalilzad’s ties to shadowy figures or rumours that he considered running for Afghan president a decade ago, making him what one person with knowledge of the talks described as a ‘charming scoundrel,’” according to the Washington Post.