Why history will judge Zalmay Khalilzad’s US exit plan from Afghanistan as an ill-conceived one

The 70-year-old diplomat is considered to be the architect of the Doha deal signed in February 2020, which helped end the US war in Afghanistan

File photo of Special Representative for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad. AP

On Monday, Zalmay Khalilzad, the veteran United States envoy, who had led the dialogue with the Taliban and helped end the US war in Afghanistan, stepped down from his role, stating in a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken that he wanted to make way in the “new phase of our Afghanistan policy”.

Blinken, in a tweet, thanked Khalilzad for “decades of tireless service to the United States”. He announced that Thomas West, who was Khalilzad’s deputy, will take over the role of the US Special Representative for Afghanistan.

Who is Zalmay Khalilzad?

Khalilzad, 70, was born in Afghanistan and grew up in Kabul. He is a veteran United States diplomat, holding previous positions under former presidents Donald Trump, Barack Obama and George W Bush.

In 2018, he was appointed as the Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation at the State Department.

It is known that Khalilzad spent 18 months in Doha, Qatar, meeting with Taliban representatives to craft an agreement, signed in February 2020, under which the Trump administration committed to the full withdrawal of American troops that current President Joe Biden completed in August.

Criticism of Khalilzad

Khalilzad has received flak for his Afghan plan, with the New York Times reporting that critics had called the “peace process little more than a fig leaf, with little regard for the fate of its government or people”.

Moreover, many critics state that he did not push the Taliban hard enough during the talks. As per a Reuters report, Khalilzad will go down in history as the face of one of the largest US diplomatic failures in recent history.

The Reuters report further states that the veteran diplomat had handed over to the militant group a lot of leverage during the talks and also had little interest in hearing different opinions from the American government.

Another criticism levelled against Khalilzad was his close ties to the Taliban itself. In the past, he had advocated for and handled business dealings with the Taliban before the 9/11 attacks.

During the recent peace talks with the Taliban, he was also of the firm opinion that the group had changed and wouldn’t be the same as when they were in power in 2002.

This claim, however, has fallen flat, as the Taliban has reneged on several of its promises — including education for women.

Even in the past, Khalilzad ignored the Taliban’s radicalism and downplayed it to the American public, depicting them as “traditional orthodox Islamic group”.

It is also noteworthy that in 2019, then Afghan president Ashraf Ghani’s national security adviser accused Khalilzad of “selling out” the government in talks while lending the Taliban a facade of credibility.

Michael Rubin, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, in his opinion piece in the Washington Examiner, harshly rebuked the diplomat and had said that it was time Khalizad was recalled.

“It is time to recall Khalilzad home. His judgment proved wrong, and he has lost control of the process. Rather than interfere where Afghans no longer want him, it is time to investigate the intelligence failures, poor assumptions, and misjudgements that tainted the peace process from day one. Khalilzad should spend his days at Senate hearings answering questions about what went wrong and why,” Michael Rubin had written.

Another issue with Khalilzad was the fact that while Americans viewed his Afghan background as an asset, Afghans themselves, viewed Khalilzad with a negative bent.

Challenges for Thomas West

With the stepping down of Zalmay Khalilzad, the Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that Khalilzad would be replaced by his deputy Thomas West, who led the US delegation to that last round of talks in Doha.

Thomas West, who previously served as the Deputy Special Representative, will be the Special Representative for Afghanistan.

In prior roles in government, he served as Special Advisor to the vice president for South Asia and Director for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the National Security Council from 2012-2015.

West faces an uphill task on US interests in Afghanistan.

It is interesting that shortly before Khalilzad’s resignation, a senior State Department official had said that Khalizad’s departure comes at a “logical inflection point.”

He was also quoted as saying that “where we are now is a very different juncture”, and this is where West fits in.

West will have to focus on holding the Taliban to account on three distinct areas: human rights, including girls’ education; safe passage of Afghans and Americans who want to leave the country; and securing the movement of humanitarian aid and aid workers.

An official said that West’s priority would be to engage the Taliban and US allies to ensure that the Taliban delivers on its promises as well as ensures that the Al Qaeda doesn’t use Afghanistan as a launch pad for international attacks.

Meanwhile, the United States has said that it would not join talks the talks on Afghanistan by Russia, which would also see the inclusion of China and Pakistan, owing to logistical reasons.

With inputs from agencies

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