Interview: Former U.S. envoy Khalilzad on leaving Afghanistan to the Taliban
Zalmay Khalilzad was tasked by two U.S. presidents with negotiating an orderly U.S. exit from Afghanistan. Instead, one year ago, Kabul collapsed, the U.S. mounted a frantic evacuation, and the Taliban took total control.
What he's saying: "It's very unfortunate that we couldn't get a political agreement before the Taliban moved in," Khalilzad tells Axios in a phone interview.
Flashback: There was still a glimmer of hope for a power-sharing deal, he argues, until Aug. 15, 2021.
- The Taliban had agreed to halt its advance outside Kabul and meet a delegation of senior Afghan politicians, including former President Hamid Karzai. But when President Ashraf Ghani fled, Khalilzad says, he left a vacuum.
- The Taliban initially offered to let the U.S. military secure Kabul temporarily, Khalilzad says. Then-CENTCOM Commander Gen. Kenneth McKenzie later testified that there was no "formal offer" from the Taliban, and "we did not have the resources to undertake that mission.”
- Instead, Taliban fighters swept into the city. The militant group later formed a government made up entirely of its own hardliners. The U.S. was out and Khalilzad's mission was over. He left the government last October.
The backstory: An Afghan-born veteran diplomat, Khalilzad was named by Donald Trump as special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation in 2018 and retained by President Biden.
- Both presidents wanted out of Afghanistan. While Khalilzad says he viewed the U.S troop presence as its primary leverage over the Taliban, both presidents saw it as a "burden."
Khalilzad says he and others argued internally that Biden should leave troops in Afghanistan until certain conditions were met — in particular, some form of intra-Afghan agreement on the future governance of the country.
- "I said, 'No, I cannot guarantee that there will be a political settlement, but it will provide us leverage with the Taliban,'" Khalilzad recalls. "The president thought we might never get to an agreement and we might get stuck there."
- Between the lines: Biden's pessimism was hardly unreasonable, given the lack of progress in intra-Afghan talks prior to the fall of Kabul.
Now in power, the Taliban are held hostage by some of its more hardline elements, Khalilzad contends.
- For example, he says most senior Talibs believe girls should be allowed an education, and yet the Taliban government has offered a series of shifting explanations as to why schools can't yet be reopened.
- "They emphasize unity because they don't want to fight each other, but at the same time there are clear differences inside," Khalilzad says. "That makes it frustrating dealing with them, because... all factions have to agree before they can give a definitive response."
Until the group moves toward a more inclusive government and society, it won't gain broad acceptance domestically or recognition and sanctions relief internationally, Khalilzad argues.
- That means the U.S. still has leverage in Afghanistan, Khalilzad insists. And now the administration isn't operating on a tight timetable or worried about risks to U.S. troops.
- "The question is whether there can be a tradeoff — what we would do in exchange for what they do."
What to watch: Khalilzad says his understanding is that the U.S. has signaled to the Taliban that it would be open to talks if two conditions are met: that American detainee Mark Frerichs be released and that schools be reopened to girls.
- A State Department spokesperson told Axios those were "two key priorities of ours" and that "a lack of progress will hinder improvement in our relationship with the Taliban."
- Khalilzad notes that even if relations do improve, negotiating with the Taliban will be sensitive politically.
Worth noting: Khalilzad says the harboring of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri by at least some elements of the Taliban was a "clear violation" of the Doha Agreement, which he negotiated and signed in 2020.
- He also notes that the sudden Taliban takeover last August left the sides without a clear roadmap for implementing some aspects of the deal.
- Meanwhile, Ghani used one of his first interviews from exile in the UAE to blame Khalilzad for the fall of Kabul. Speaking to Axios, Khalilzad calls the comments "unfortunate" and questions how much "self-reflection" Ghani has done.
Go deeper... One year on: Afghanistan in anguish