Zalmay Khalilzad: Former Afghanistan envoy says he quit because debate wasn’t rooted in reality
“One reason I left the government is that the debate wasn’t really as it should be — based on realities and facts of what happened, what was going on and what our alternatives were,” Khalilzad said Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
He will be replaced by his deputy, Tom West, who led Afghan policy for the Biden presidential transition team and has been working closely with Khalilzad for months.
In the interview, Khalilizad defended his dealings with the Taliban and the US withdrawal agreement he helped negotiate under former President Donald Trump, which was supposed to see the exit of US troops from Afghanistan by May of 2021. Biden criticized that deal as weak.
“I don’t allow people to mislead me. I do my homework,” Khalilzad said. “This was not Zal Khalilzad alone doing this. I had the military, the intelligence, everyone with me.”
Still, he conceded some missteps. He said the US could have “pressed President (Ashraf) Ghani harder,” an acknowledgment the US hadn’t been tough enough on the former Afghan leader who fled his country amid the chaotic withdrawal.
And he admitted the process of ending the war wasn’t pretty.
“I’m not saying it was an orderly withdrawal. This was an ugly and final phase. No doubt about it. Could have been a lot worse,” Khalilzad said.
In a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken obtained last week by Fintech Zoom, Khalilzad said he decided it was the right time to step down “at a juncture when we are entering a new phase in our Afghanistan policy.”
“The political arrangement between the Afghan government and the Taliban did not go forward as envisaged. The reasons for this are too complex and I will share my thoughts in the coming days and weeks, after leaving government service,” Khalilzad wrote in the letter, which was dated October 18.
Khalilzad served under both Trump and Biden as the Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation. A diplomatic veteran who is well-known in foreign policy circles, Khalilzad has also served as a US ambassador to Iraq and the United Nations.
Khalilzad led the talks with the Taliban in Qatar that resulted in the Doha agreement with the Trump administration to fully withdraw US troops by May 2021, a role which brought him considerable scrutiny.
During those talks, Khalilzad’s counterpart was Taliban co-founder Abdul Ghani Baradar, who was recently named Afghanistan’s acting deputy prime minister. At times, Khalilzad had a contentious relationship with Afghan government officials who viewed him as favoring the Taliban. Khalilzad’s own deeply personal ties to Afghanistan, where he was born, and his free-wheeling approach to the negotiations have also been viewed as controversial by some and effective by others.
But Khalilzad was asked by the Biden administration to stay on after Biden won the election even though, traditionally, an incoming administration replaces politically appointed officials with their own team, particularly on foreign policy matters with such significance.
This story has been updated with additional background.