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Is US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad responsible for the failure of “Mission Afghanistan”?

US special envoy to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad bonds with a Taliban delegation. (Image: Twitter)

As the  two back-to-back meetings on Afghanistan are scheduled to be held in Doha starting from August 11, observers have warned that the Taliban does not intend to reach a political settlement. The Civil War in Afghanistan is spiralling out of control, with Taliban, as of now making significant gains. The prospects are grim, as the US forces will be totally out of the country by August 31.

Is the Taliban, backed by Pakistan, the “winner” of the US and Taliban deal  signed on February 29 last year that was meant to ensure a smooth political transition in Afghanistan? It is obvious that right now, the Taliban is on top. In turn the arc-lights are on US special representative for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, whose mission faces the danger of being castigated as a grand failure.

Amid gunfire,  bombings and Taliban’s atrocities in Afghanistan, the knives are out against Khalilzad, and the demand for sacking the embattled envoy are only getting louder. Khalilzad’s bleak assessment of the peace process following  Taliban’s advances on provincial capitals that have uprooted tens of thousands of civilians has only added fuel to the fire.

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“At this point, they (the Taliban) are demanding that they take the lion's share of power in the next government given the military situation as they see it," Khalilzad told the Aspen Security Forum in an online conference last week.

Many observers and analysts are now blaming Khalilzad for working in the “interest” of the Taliban.

Fazel Ahmad Toghyan, an Afghan politician says, “as long as Khalilzad's foot is involved in the Afghan peace process, the people of this land will not achieve real and lasting peace and stability.  For more than forty years, this Taliban-clad Taliban has been deceiving the White House leaders under the name of Afghan expert.” He further adds caustically:  “ Khalilzad has been pursuing his chauvinist-fascist goals for 40 years under the name of Afghan expertise, taking American leaders’ hostage in Afghanistan.”

Michael Rubin, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, in his opinion piece in the  Washington Examiner has not minced words in calling for Khalilzad’s recall.

“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 misjudgments that tainted the peace process from day one. Khalilzad should spend his days at Senate hearings answering questions about what went wrong and why,” writes Michael Rubin.

Time to recall Afghan envoy Zalmay Khalilzad

Three years ago, when Khalilzad was picked up by the former US President Trump for the tough job to craft a peace deal to end the “forever” war in Afghanistan, many critics including the Afghan government and politicians were not “comfortable” because of his “past”.

While Presidents Trump and Biden may have believed that  Khalilzad’s Afghan background gave him extra insights as an American policymaker, Afghans broadly see Khalilzad as an exile who has been unable to leave his Pashtun ethnic chauvinism behind.

“He was born in Afghanistan and, like many Taliban, was Pashtun. He understood the nuances of Afghan culture like few others and spoke both Pashto and Persian fluently. What Pompeo saw as an advantage, however, was in reality a liability. Afghans have never trusted Khalilzad,” writes Michael Rubin.

Coming to Khalilzad’s past, Khalilzad spoke little during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and subsequent civil war but, after the Taliban seized power, he ignored and downplayed their radicalism and whitewashed their image to an American audience. He depicted them as a “traditional orthodox Islamic group” and assured Washington that they were “welcomed by the Pashtun as a cure for years of brutal anarchy.” He also falsely  assured his American audience that “the Taliban does not practice the anti-US style of fundamentalism practiced by Iran.”

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Since the 1980s – as a Reagan administration policy planner, a consultant, a Pentagon strategist and a Rand Corp. scholar – Khalilzad has been in contact with squabbling Afghan warlords and political leaders. Over the decades, he has evolved from a Cold War activist to an advocate of  friendly persuasion with the Taliban.

Khalilzad was born 70 years ago in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e Sharif and, like many Taliban, was Pashtun. It is now emerging that his advice to Biden to withdraw troops in haste also did not go down well with the Pentagon’s assessment.

Retired Gen. David Petraeus who oversaw the US forces in Afghanistan until 2011 and later headed the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), warned that the US will regret its “hasty” withdrawal of military forces from Afghanistan, where a “brutal civil war” is looming, as reported by the Washington Post . While Biden insists the US achieved its “main” goals in Afghanistan, Petraeus said he is concerned as the Taliban regains territory. “What I see now, sadly, is the onset of what is going to be quite a brutal civil war.” he said.

Transcript: Withdrawal from Afghanistan with Gen. David H. Petraeus (U.S. Army, Ret.), Col. Steve Miska (U.S. Army, Ret.) and Afghan Interpreter Fraidoon Akhtari

Afghan politics is never simple. Pakistan played a double game, and Washington was never clear whether it wanted peace or merely an excuse to withdraw. Experts feel that Khalilzad’s major blunder was to bypass the Afghan government. Instead of legitimising the Taliban, the US should have also focused on strengthening Afghanistan’s republican order to make it more representative and accountable.