Zalmay Khalilzad interviewed over the weekend by CBS's Margaret Brennan on Face the Nation (screenshot/CBS)
Khalilzad speaks, and … it’s complicated

In his first interview post-Afghanistan withdrawal, the longtime US diplomat is sometimes selective, other times brutally honest.

Last week, Zalmay Khalilzad resigned as Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation. No other American diplomat saw the 20-year occupation from a more intimate vantage point. Khalilzad served as a hopeful ambassador to Afghanistan at the dawn of America’s two-decade occupation, and was later given the unenviable task of negotiating the U.S. withdrawal. His resignation from government has now freed him to share his take on the last three years of negotiations with the Taliban, and he did so in a recent exclusive interview with Face the Nation. 

Margaret Brennan asked Khalilzad important questions, but at times they could have been reduced to “why couldn’t you dictate outcomes in Afghanistan?” Khalilzad defended the U.S.-Taliban agreement he helped negotiate in Doha and was extremely critical of Ashraf Ghani’s administration. He implied that Ghani and his inner circle campaigned against true peace negotiations because they preferred the “status quo compared to a political settlement in which they might not have the jobs that they had and, and the resources that the US was providing…” 

He rejected descriptions of the Afghan security forces and political elite as helpless against a U.S. military withdrawal. He also reminded viewers that the period before the departure was mired with violence and corruption. Actually, Khalilzad’s frankness was a departure from the euphemisms that have come to define the way the Beltway discusses Afghanistan. His insistence that ultimately, the destiny of Afghanistan is the responsibility of Afghans alone, was provocative in this instance only because it’s now commonplace to speak about Afghanistan in a manner that verges on the colonial. His candid nature and the unfair expectations placed on him as an Afghan-American diplomat may explain attempts to scapegoat him. 

But Khalilzad also failed to truly grapple with the reality that the Taliban likely never wanted a negotiated settlement. In fact, the Taliban could create a power sharing government today if they so willed it. His criticism of the Ghani administration is fair, but it would be more salient if accompanied by a similarly clear-eyed critique of the Taliban he negotiated with. His characterization of the U.S.-Taliban agreement as conditions-based when the timeline of withdrawal was the only truly verifiable condition is misleading at best. Selective criticism and detached optimism earned Khalilzad the ire of many Afghans. But he also spent much of the last 20 years attempting to strengthen U.S.-Afghanistan ties, and to give the fledgling republic a fighting chance.

Khalilzad’s knowledge of Afghanistan’s history, culture, and languages was rare in the U.S. government. He was, after all, born an Afghan. But he became an American and served in Afghanistan on behalf of the United States. This identity allowed him to traverse the politics of the Afghan republic and Taliban alike, but also clearly burdened him with conflicting expectations from Washington and Kabul. 

Khalilzad’s recognition that Washington did not understand Afghanistan and likely never will is a lesson that proponents of intervention abroad have yet to take to heart. According to Khalilzad, “[O]ur [Washington’s] record of predicting things, unfortunately, we need to be a little humble in this regard.” What’s certain is that remaining in Afghanistan militarily would have almost assuredly led to an endless cycle of violence. In this, Khalilzad did the United States a great service. The details in between will likely define his legacy.

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