A Veteran Diplomat, a ‘Tragic Figure,’ Battles Critics in the U.S. and Afghanistan
WASHINGTON — The failure to rescue Afghanistan from the Taliban weighs on many American generals and diplomats. But few had as personal a stake as Zalmay Khalilzad.
Raised in Kabul and naturalized as a U.S. citizen, Mr. Khalilzad worked on Afghanistan policy under four American presidents before stepping down last month.
The battle for Afghanistan is lost, for now. But Mr. Khalilzad has embarked on a new fight: to defend his reputation against accusations that he bears special blame for the chaotic fall of Kabul, the Afghan capital, to the Taliban in August.
Mr. Khalilzad has been on a public-relations tour of sorts, sitting for numerous interviews in recent weeks to argue that he tried his best to broker peace despite vanishing leverage and an intransigent Afghan government. Calling his work incomplete, he is also applying unwelcome public pressure on the Biden administration to work with the Taliban.
His critics say the deal he reached with the Taliban under President Donald J. Trump was either delusional or cynical, a means of providing thin political cover for America’s abandonment of his native country.
Mr. Khalilzad “was the architect of the grand deception scheme,” Amrullah Saleh, who served as Afghanistan’s first vice president until the Taliban took control of Kabul, tweeted on Oct. 28. He said that Mr. Khalilzad treated Afghanistan “as a sacrificial goat,” caring for it “to the moment of slaughter.”
During a recent interview at his son’s high-rise apartment outside Washington, with sweeping views of the National Mall, Mr. Khalilzad rejected such criticism with a tone of bemused forbearance.
“I respect those who say, ‘This was a defining war for the future of the Islamic world, and no matter what we must prevail,’” he said. “Well, yeah. Sure, there’s a lot of things I wish for — but it wasn’t realistic, because they couldn’t convince the presidents, Congress and others.”
He added: “I tried to say, ‘OK, America wants to leave militarily. But let’s do also the right thing for Afghanistan. Because given my Afghan-ness, I was very much in touch with the feelings of the Afghan people. I took the job in part to see if I could end the war also for Afghanistan, for the people.”
The war ended on Mr. Khalilzad’s watch, but not on the terms he had hoped. Instead of the power-sharing government he imagined could restrain the Taliban, the militant group has assumed total control over the country, which is now facing economic collapse and famine.
“Zal emerges from this as a quite tragic figure,” said Eric S. Edelman, a former national security official who worked with Mr. Khalilzad under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.
As colleagues at the Pentagon in the late 1980s, Mr. Edelman and Mr. Khalilzad helped drive U.S. policy in support of mujahedeen fighters in Afghanistan resisting Soviet occupiers. During the Bush administration, they again backed resistance fighters, who this time were battling the Taliban as the United States invaded in 2001.
“He did a lot to create a modern, post-Taliban independent state,” Mr. Edelman said of Mr. Khalilzad. “And then to be in part the handmaiden of its demise — I don’t know how you can see that as other than tragic.”
Mr. Khalilzad had been out of government for years when, during the 2016 presidential campaign, he introduced Mr. Trump for a foreign policy speech hosted by a think tank with which he was affiliated. A lifelong Republican, Mr. Khalilzad did not endorse Mr. Trump, noting his “provocative views.” But the introduction earned him good will in Mr. Trump’s inner circle.
Then, in 2018, Mr. Khalilzad told officials in the Trump administration that Taliban representatives were interested in talking about a peace agreement. That September, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appointed him envoy for “the singular mission” of “developing the opportunities to get the Afghans and the Taliban to come to a reconciliation.”
In practice, however, the talks focused on the terms of the U.S. withdrawal that Mr. Trump sought. Eighteen months and hundreds of hours of bartering in Doha, the Qatari capital, produced an agreement in February 2020 under which the United States agreed to withdraw all its troops and the Taliban promised to halt attacks on American forces and never harbor terrorist groups.
The deal also included a Taliban pledge to begin direct talks with the U.S.-backed government in Kabul, as Mr. Pompeo had directed. But the Afghan government was reluctant, and the Taliban seemed unwilling to compromise on their goal to establish a religiously based Islamic emirate.
Critics say Mr. Khalilzad negotiated little more than a relatively safe U.S. retreat.
“I believe Ambassador Khalilzad was too willing to make concessions to the Taliban and to throw the Afghan government under the bus,” said Lisa Curtis, who worked closely with Mr. Khalilzad in the Trump administration as the National Security Council’s senior director for South and Central Asia. “It was clear to many people that the Taliban was not interested in a peace process, but only in pursuing a military path to power.”
Mr. Khalilzad’s supporters say that he was handed an impossible task when he joined the Trump administration.
“I’ve been very critical of the February 2020 agreement that he negotiated,” Mr. Edelman said. “But I will say in his defense: Trump cut the legs out from under it. What kind of negotiating leverage does he have when the president is repeatedly saying, ‘We’re going to get the hell out of Afghanistan!’”
While he defends the agreement, Mr. Khalilzad also argues that the United States lost the will to fight in Afghanistan, partly because of the failures of “my former military colleagues.”
Ms. Curtis also noted that Mr. Khalilzad halted talks after a Taliban attack on Bagram Air Base, which killed two people and wounded 73 others — none of them Americans — but resumed them two days later. “It made the U.S. look weak and desperate,” Ms. Curtis said.
She lamented Mr. Khalilzad’s acceptance of a Taliban demand that the Afghan government release 5,000 Taliban prisoners, many of them hardened fighters, in exchange for only 1,000 prisoners. Mr. Khalilzad said that prisoner swaps were a traditional trust-building measure during peace negotiations.
One leading critic of the U.S. withdrawal, Mr. Trump’s now estranged former national security adviser, John R. Bolton, does not blame Mr. Khalilzad.
“I worried that Khalilzad was giving away too much, not because he was a poor negotiator, but because those were Pompeo’s instructions,” Mr. Bolton wrote in his 2020 memoir, “The Room Where It Happened.”
Mr. Bolton wrote that Mr. Trump once said of Mr. Khalilzad, in a meeting with several senior officials, “I hear he’s a con man, although you need a con man for this.”
It was unclear what Mr. Trump meant. But Mr. Khalilzad has been the subject of complaints about his profitable leaps between government and the private sector, and, in at least one previously unreported instance, his workplace conduct.
When the Taliban first took power in the 1990s, Mr. Khalilzad was a paid consultant for Unocal, a company exploring a possible oil pipeline through Afghanistan. He wrote at the time that the group “does not practice the anti-U. S. style of fundamentalism practiced by Iran” and called for American aid, which critics said could have benefited a pipeline project.
Shortly after leaving the Bush administration, in which he had served as the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Mr. Khalilzad represented the investment board of the country’s semiautonomous Kurdistan region. He was then a board member of an oil and gas investment company in the Persian Gulf with a financial stake in Kurdistan.
Mr. Khalilzad also underwent internal scrutiny at the State Department. Shortly before his departure, the department’s office of civil rights concluded a monthslong investigation into alleged workplace misconduct during the Bush administration. The Times reviewed emails from investigators sent in mid-August, days before the fall of Kabul, saying the report was headed to senior department officials. The officials believed Mr. Khalilzad had acted inappropriately, but the report did not recommend any disciplinary action.
Mr. Khalilzad denied wrongdoing and said that the same claim had been investigated by the Trump administration and found to be without merit. He said the claim was reopened under Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken “without the opportunity for me to provide my full input.”
Understand the Taliban Takeover in Afghanistan
Who are the Taliban? The Taliban arose in 1994 amid the turmoil that came after the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989. They used brutal public punishments, including floggings, amputations and mass executions, to enforce their rules. Here’s more on their origin story and their record as rulers.
Who are the Taliban leaders? These are the top leaders of the Taliban, men who have spent years on the run, in hiding, in jail and dodging American drones. Little is known about them or how they plan to govern, including whether they will be as tolerant as they claim to be. One spokesman told The Times that the group wanted to forget its past, but that there would be some restrictions.
How did the Taliban gain control? See how the Taliban retook power in Afghanistan in a few months, and read about how their strategy enabled them to do so.
What happens to the women of Afghanistan? The last time the Taliban were in power, they barred women and girls from taking most jobs or going to school. Afghan women have made many gains since the Taliban were toppled, but now they fear that ground may be lost. Taliban officials are trying to reassure women that things will be different, but there are signs that, at least in some areas, they have begun to reimpose the old order.
What does their victory mean for terrorist groups? The United States invaded Afghanistan 20 years ago in response to terrorism, and many worry that Al Qaeda and other radical groups will again find safe haven there. On Aug. 26, deadly explosions outside Afghanistan’s main airport claimed by the Islamic State demonstrated that terrorists remain a threat.
How will this affect future U.S. policy in the region? Washington and the Taliban may spend years pulled between cooperation and conflict. Some of the key issues at hand include: how to cooperate against a mutual enemy, the Islamic State branch in the region, known as ISIS-K, and whether the U.S. should release $9.4 billion in Afghan government currency reserves that are frozen in the country.
A State Department spokesman declined to comment on Mr. Khalilzad’s case. The department’s office of civil rights, which handled the case, would not discuss its Trump-era inquiry.
On Feb. 29, 2020, Mr. Khalilzad signed a four-page agreement that pledged the withdrawal of all U.S. troops by the following May.
“Today is a day for hope,” Mr. Khalilzad said, sitting next to the Taliban leader Abdul Ghani Baradar in Doha.
In the months afterward, U.S. troops began to draw down.
After the election last year, Mr. Blinken asked Mr. Khalilzad to stay on, in recognition of his “distinguished work” and the need for “continuity,” the State Department said at the time.
In April, President Biden announced that he would fulfill Mr. Trump’s pledge to withdraw troops by September. But Mr. Khalilzad said that “Blinken, like myself and others, would have preferred a conditions-based approach, I believe.”
Mr. Khalilzad continued to pursue a political settlement. With the Taliban demanding the resignation of President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan as a first step toward a transitional government, Mr. Khalilzad pressed him to accede.
“This is a historic opportunity for you,” he recalled telling Mr. Ghani. “Imagine! Forty years of war, millions killed and injured. And you — it’s during your period that Afghanistan ends its long nightmare.”
Mr. Ghani refused. Critics say that Mr. Khalilzad’s pressure undermined the Afghan leader while legitimizing the Taliban.
The two men have known each other for nearly 60 years, since their boyhood in Kabul, where Mr. Khalilzad recalled that his mother was protective of his physically smaller friend. “She wanted to make sure that we weren’t roughing him up or anything,” he said.
The men remained close after they moved to the United States for their education, but their relationship as adults has been colored by decades of ideological and political differences.
Mr. Khalilzad denied that he had leaned excessively on Mr. Ghani. He also suggested that Mr. Ghani tragically miscalculated his leverage and failed to understand that the United States was truly leaving.
As the Taliban closed in on Kabul in mid-August, Mr. Ghani fled the country, and his government collapsed. The war was finally over.
Mr. Khalilzad stayed on for several more weeks, helping to evacuate Americans and at-risk Afghans and pressing the Taliban to form an inclusive government that respects human rights.
On Oct. 18, Mr. Khalilzad submitted his resignation. America’s engagement with Afghanistan has entered a new phase, he said, one in which he was more useful as an independent voice — particularly to make the case that the United States must work with the Taliban to help avert Afghanistan’s collapse into anarchy that could lead to a surge of refugees and breed terrorism.
Asked whether he thought he would set foot again in the country of his birth, Mr. Khalilzad did not pause.
“Definitely,” he said. “The struggle for Afghanistan continues.”