Khalilzad, an enigmatic Afghan-American political figure, assured Americans that the current Taliban will be a different one. He projected himself as an insider, who wielded lasting influence over the Taliban.

Zalmay Khalilzad, a prominent member of Afghanistan’s Pashtun community, is one of the leading American diplomats who has served in difficult countries like Iraq and Afghanistan after the US launched a so-called ‘war on terror’ following the September 11 attacks.

He also led Washington’s talks with the Taliban, which many see as the main precursor of the Pashtun-dominated group’s lightning victory in Afghanistan. Since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1970s, Khalilzad maintained crucial contacts with what Washington called the Mujahideen back then. Eventually, many of those US-backed Mujahideen became leaders of the Taliban movement in the 1990s.

As Kabul’s sudden fall to the Taliban ended two decades of American occupation in Afghanistan, dislodging the Washington-backed government with the armed group not even firing a shot, many blame Khalilzad for playing a role in winding down America’s longest war and undoing years of hard work the US had put in to rebuild the country.

Some experts believe that Khalilzad pursued a ‘special political agenda’ to promote his personal and family interests.

“One man responsible for the chaos and destruction raging across Afghanistan is Zalmay Khalilzad. He should be investigated for alleged financial corruption,” says Kamal Alam, a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

“This man wanted to be the president of Afghanistan. He ran to be the president of Afghanistan. No one likes him. Everyone hates him. He is like a perfect carpet seller from Tehran,” Alam tells TRT World. 

Alam drew attention to the fact that Khalilzad should have never been in a top mediating position between the US and the Taliban after making clear his political ambitions in his first country, Afghanistan. Khalilzad had reportedly wanted to challenge the former President Hamid Karzai in the 2009 Afghan elections, but missed the deadline to file his candidacy.

“How can an American official be neutral when he runs for the presidency of another country called Afghanistan?” Alam asks. While he has been an active participant of “the great game of Afghanistan”, there is no way he could do a job of an independent adviser, Alam adds. Khalilzad was also considered for the position of the US Secretary of State by the Trump administration.

US peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad appeared to maneuver Afghan President Ashraf Ghani with the US-Taliban peace deal signed in February 2020.
US peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad appeared to maneuver Afghan President Ashraf Ghani with the US-Taliban peace deal signed in February 2020.
(The Afghanistan Presidential Palace / AP Archive)

Born in Afghanistan, Khalilzad moved to the US in the 1970s and became a naturalised US citizen in 1984, working for different American administrations from Ronald Reagan’s to Donald Trump’s. Like Karzai, who was brought to Afghanistan by American forces to ensure a political transition after the 2001 invasion, the fleeing President Ashraf Ghani, a respected anthropologist, who replaced Karzai, also held the US citizenship.

During the Reagan administration, Khalilzad was involved in secret talks with Afghanistan’s famous Mujahideen movement, advocating a policy of backing the jihadists against the Soviet occupation.

In order to encourage jihadist motives, the US had reportedly developed an Afghan educational program in which the University of Nebraska Omaha produced school textbooks, which included a variety of pictures of weapons and military vehicles alongside Islamic references on jihad and similar themes. After taking over Afghanistan in the 1990s, the Taliban continued to use US-produced textbooks at schools after taking out heads from pictures.

From warmaker to peacemaker

After defending the Afghan jihad in the 1970s and 1980s against the communist Soviets, Khalilzad became a full-fledged defender of the former US President George W. Bush’s War on Terror after the September 11 attacks. He was regarded as part of the then-infamous neoconservative movement, which advocated regime changes in countries like Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran by using military force.

After the catastrophic invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, which Khalilzad furiously defended, the Afghan-American became the US ambassador to both countries at different times during the 2000s.

While Alam thinks that Khalilzad is “a great diplomat” serving for every Republican administration since Reagan, “he represents the extreme failure of American policy in Iraq and Afghanistan for the last 15 years.”

While he has been known as a perfect warmaker, he suddenly appeared to become a peacemaker under the former Trump administration, which sought a quick exit from Afghanistan under the former president’s famous ‘ending forever wars’ doctrine.

“Khalilzad’s biggest failure is lying to people and telling everyone a different story just to please Trump because Trump told him ‘Just get me out of here. I don’t care about anything else’,” Alam says.

“Khalilzad is a perfect bazzari (marketer). He would go to everyone and tell the same story. He would go to the Taliban saying ‘you are amazing and I am with you’. He would go to Ghani saying ‘you are amazing and I am with you’. He would go to Pakistan saying them the same thing,” Alam says.

The same guy is clearly responsible for the current mess in Afghanistan and he should be kept accountable for it, according to Alam. “There are American senators and senior congressmen, who urge the White House not only to oust him but also interrogate him for his actions,” Alam says. “There are allegations of massive corruption concerning his actions,” the analyst notes.

Afghans crowd at the tarmac of the Kabul airport on August 16, 2021, to flee the country as the Taliban were in control of Afghanistan.
Afghans crowd at the tarmac of the Kabul airport on August 16, 2021, to flee the country as the Taliban were in control of Afghanistan.

An American ‘warlord’

Alam thinks that Khalilzad is no different from Afghan warlords. “He is very much an Afghan warlord,” he says. “His political agenda is the same as any other Afghan warlord.”

After the US invasion of Afghanistan, the war-torn country has been run by various warlords, whose corrupt management was enabled by both Kabul and Washington, laying out essential conditions for the Taliban’s return. The Taliban has long claimed that the movement will end all corrupt practices, ensuring justice.

According to different people, he has both political and business interests for his tribe and family in Afghanistan, Alam says. “He is using everything to secure himself,” he says.

He also wants to project himself as the only person, who is able to talk to the Taliban, on behalf of Americans, according to Alam. While a new Democratic administration is in power in Washington, nothing suggests yet that Khalilzad could be out of the game. He still holds his position as the US envoy to Afghan peace talks.

Even after the hasty US withdrawal, Khalilzad’s political assets in Washington might get more valuable as no Americans except him appear to have any clue about what the Taliban could do next. “That’s why Biden kept him on because he is the only guy who could talk to the Taliban,” Alam says.

In 2018, Khalilzad was instrumental in ensuring the release of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban’s co-founder and the current political leader, from the Pakistan custody. Since then, Khalilzad and Baradar have been the two main guys of the Taliban talks.

Despite providing a strong criticism to Khalilzad’s Afghanistan conduct, Alam still thinks that the Afghan-American might do something good with his Taliban talks after his many failures. “He claims that the Taliban is not the same group of the 1990s. He says they are reformed and more democratic, being willing to allow elections and share power with minorities, Uzbeks, Tajiks and others,” Alam says.

After capturing the Afghan capital without any fight, the Taliban declared a general amnesty, pledging that no one’s life and property will be in danger.

“But this is too early to speculate,” Alam says, regarding how much the Taliban has changed. “We will find out whether Khalilzad has a hidden genius in himself or not in the next three and four months through how the Taliban behave,” he concludes.

Source: TRT World

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