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The Taliban’s Man in Washington
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The Taliban’s Man in Washington

Zalmay Khalilzad is blaming Afghans for the failures that resulted from his deal with the Taliban.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the former U.S. special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, is making his rounds in the media. As should be clear to everyone by now, Khalilzad’s servile diplomacy helped pave the way for a swift Taliban victory over the now deposed Afghan government this year. Nonetheless, Khalilzad is trying to defend his record. His arguments are self-serving piffle.

Consider what Khalilzad had to say during an appearance on CBS News’ Face the Nation on October 24. 

First, Khalilzad tried to blame exiled Afghan President Ashraf Ghani for failing to reach a “political settlement” with the Taliban. Ghani’s tenure was an unequivocal failure, and few will rise to Ghani’s defense. But it’s nonsensical to claim that Ghani held the keys to peace. The Taliban never had any interest in a political compromise. The group’s leaders repeatedly made it clear that they were waging jihad to resurrect their Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the same totalitarian regime that was deposed in late 2001. This was a sacred duty for the jihadists and the principal motivation for their 20-year war. 

The Taliban did not hide its ultimate political objective. The Taliban repeatedly referred to itself as the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” in the February 29, 2020, agreement with the U.S. Somewhat clumsily, the State Department inserted language into that same accord saying the U.S. does not recognize the Taliban’s regime. But that did not stop the Taliban from insisting that it be called the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.” Khalilzad struck the deal anyway. And that was a dead giveaway.

The simple fact of the matter is this: There was no “political settlement” to be had. The Taliban was fighting for total victory—exactly as it played out this year. There is no valid counterfactual scenario in which Ghani, or any other Afghan official, could have persuaded the jihadists to settle for anything less than the resurrection of their authoritarian government. 

Therefore, Khalilzad’s story rests on an entirely dishonest premise.   

Khalilzad claims that the State Department should have “pressed President Ghani harder,” as if the failure to reach a negotiated compromise was Kabul’s fault. How would that have worked? The U.S. forced the Afghans to fight for a draw between February 29, 2020, when Khalilzad submitted to the Taliban in Doha, and August 15, 2021, when the jihadists took over the country. The U.S. kept insisting that there was “no military solution” to the war, dangling the prospect of a fanciful political settlement, even as the Taliban and al-Qaeda fought for victory. 

Indeed, Khalilzad’s submissive diplomacy helped the Taliban’s men win the war during that same time-period. Remember: Ghani and his representatives were excluded from Khalilzad’s negotiations with the Taliban. Regardless, Ghani’s government acquiesced to the pressure Khalilzad placed on it by freeing 5,000 Taliban prisoners from Afghan jails. Despite supposed assurances from the Taliban that these fighters would stay out of the war, some of the newly freed jihadists immediately returned to the battlefield and helped their brethren overthrow the Afghan government. The Taliban and al-Qaeda can thank Khalilzad for this boost in manpower.  

As Susannah George of the Washington Post has reported, Khalilzad’s bilateral deal with the Taliban hastened the demise of the Afghan military and security forces in other ways as well. Khalilzad’s accord “demoralized” many members of the Afghan forces, signaling that the Taliban was going to return to power. To be sure, there were many other problems, ranging from corruption to poor Afghan leadership. But after Khalilzad’s agreement, many Afghan commanders decided to cut deals with the jihadists, rather than risk losing an all-out fight. We can criticize the Afghans for failing to muster more of a defense, but their defeat took place in the context of Khalilzad’s diplomacy. 

Again, Ghani was a feckless leader. But that doesn’t absolve the U.S., which was supposed to be the real power in the war. And Khalilzad himself deserves much of the blame for the way the endgame unfolded.

Curiously, Khalilzad doesn’t blame the Taliban—at all. Isn’t that strange? The Taliban wouldn’t even agree to a ceasefire, despite multiple pleas from Kabul, and never had any intention of entering into meaningful peace talks. But you’d be hard-pressed to find any criticisms of the Taliban in Khalilzad’s presentation to the public. Instead, he is still vouching for the Taliban’s supposed counterterrorism assurances. 

On Face the Nation, Khalilzad once again endorsed the Taliban as America’s de facto counterterrorism partner, saying “we are convinced that they are not allowing- they are not allowing plotting and planning operations by Al-Qaeda against the United States.” Who is the “we”? 

Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, recently testified before Congress that the Taliban has not lived up to any of its alleged counterterrorism assurances. Not a single one. “Perhaps most importantly for U.S. national security, the Taliban has never renounced al-Qaeda or broke its affiliation with them,” Milley testified.

After Face the Nation’s Margaret Brennan pointed this out, Khalilzad would concede only that the U.S. “should press” the Taliban “to do more on the issue of terrorism.” But he nonetheless made it sound as if the Taliban was somehow abiding by its counterterrorism pledges. Khalilzad did not offer a shred of evidence to back this up. 

In fact, when Brennan asked Khalilzad if Ayman al-Zawahiri, the global leader of al-Qaeda, was currently residing in Afghanistan, he could only offer this lame response: “I don’t know whether the Taliban know it. The Taliban that I dealt with, they told me they did not know where he was.”

And that was good enough for Khalilzad. Meanwhile, there is ample evidence showing that al-Qaeda continues to operate throughout Afghanistan and remains intertwined with the Taliban, while Taliban’s propagandists lie about al-Qaeda’s presence and blame America for the 9/11 hijackings.

Khalilzad tries to take credit for the fact that the Taliban didn’t kill any Americans after the Doha deal was signed. But this wasn’t a diplomatic achievement. The Taliban was always willing to allow the U.S. and NATO forces retreat. For instance, Khalilzad negotiated a hard withdrawal date of May 1, 2021. After the Biden administration missed this date, the Taliban abstained from attacking American forces, because the jihadists understood that the U.S. and its allies were still leaving. There is some uncertainty regarding the circumstances of the ISIS attack outside the airport in Kabul, which killed 13 U.S. service members in August. It is possible that the Taliban allowed the suicide bomber to do his deed. But for the most part, even as the Biden administration surged thousands of troops into the country to manage a chaotic withdrawal, the Taliban didn’t mount a campaign against the American forces. The Taliban and al-Qaeda could have done so easily, but they were content to watch the U.S. leave, knowing they had finally taken over the country. The U.S. didn’t need a worthless piece of paper to get its forces out of the country.

Zalmay Khalilzad’s role in this sorry affair will be discussed for years to come. Khalilzad will continue to scapegoat others, but no one should credit his excuses. The only parties that should be thanking Khalilzad for his service are the Taliban—and al-Qaeda.  

Tom Joscelyn is a senior fellow at Just Security.