One might find it a bit odd to find Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad squeezed in between panels that mostly excoriated the U.S. foreign policy of the last 40 years — especially the last two decades — talking about the failed U.S. war in Afghanistan.
After all, “Zal” as he’s called in Washington circles, played an intricate role in that policy, particularly acting as envoy, ambassador, and go-between for the U.S. and Kabul through two Republican administrations (if you count the advisory role he played under the Reagan Administration during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, make that three). Tightly aligned with what he now calls a misbegotten occupation and war with the Taliban, his critique today may be perceived as scapegoating or good 'ole fashioned CYA. And maybe it is. But one can hardly fault his conclusions, as self-serving as they may be.
“We did not understand this place very well,” he said of Afghanistan, his home country. He was speaking Wednesday to the Advancing Security: Realism, Restraint, and the Future of Foreign Policy conference sponsored by Stand Together and the Charles Koch Institute in Washington, D.C. Many of the folks in the room were connected to organizations funded and supported by the two organizations as a part of a years-long effort to challenge primacist thinking in the Beltway and in academia (disclosure: the Quincy Institute is a grantee of CKI).
"Afghanistan has historically been very hostile to foreign occupation. It was a tough nut to crack. At first we tried to keep footprint light but unfortunately over time that changed,” said Zalmay, who despite this seeming restraint-oriented thinking today, used to be a bit of a primacist himself.
Will Ruger, vice president for foreign policy at Stand Together, and Trump's nominee for U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, led the interview on stage and thanked the former ambassador for helping negotiate the Doha Agreement in 2020 that led to the ultimate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan in August. Khalilzad, who has taken a lot of slings and arrows for supporting Biden's decision to keep to the Trump agreement, said the situation in Afghanistan had deteriorated to the point where it was clear the “Taliban was gaining ground each year” and the war “was unwinnable.” This informed his support for a negotiated settlement.
Khalilzad was kept on by the Biden administration but resigned two weeks ago. He promises a tell-all book to set the record straight. He sprinkled a few breadcrumbs out there as a sneak preview, however. To hear him tell it, Afghanistan president Ashraf Ghani was deluded into thinking that America would be there forever, affecting his interest and/or ability to prepare for the swift Taliban takeover and embarrassing collapse of his government (from which he fled the first chance he got).
Ghani was a Washington creature, Khalilzad charged, having been educated and bred in the Washington-New York establishment. He had many friends in the court of the Imperial City, “encouraging him to believe we would be always be there. One of the mistakes we made was that we were not tough enough on him.”
“Ghani was delusional in my judgement because he thought Biden was not serious about wanting to withdraw," he added. "Maybe he was listening to voices in Washington that wanted to stay forever.”
Ruger asked if any of those same courtiers are secretly hopeful that in the event that ISIS or other Al Qaeda offshoots exploit the weak security situation, the U.S. will have to go back in al la Iraq. Khalilzad didn’t mince words when he said yes, but hoped that the Biden administration could “preclude” that necessity. The only way to do that, he said, was to work with the Taliban, and he is worried the administration is dragging its feet on the inevitable.
“There is a risk that for political reasons we will do the wrong thing. I think the administration feels that anything that looks like engaging the Taliban would be too costly politically,” he said, hinting that this was one of the reasons he left the government. “I think that is wrong-headed in my view. I believe if the disintegration of Afghanistan as I have described it happens, you will get civil war. The underpinnings are there.”
That would lead not only to violence and more radicalization, but a humanitarian and refugee crisis beyond what you are even seeing now, he said. Then, “the political cost to the administration will be even higher.”
He hopes for an add-on agreement that will hold the Taliban to “what we want” in exchange for what “they want,” which is the withheld aid, getting off terrorism lists, and international recognition.
Perhaps Zal will be part of such an agreement in the future. For now he is like many in Washington today, putting their own involvement in the 20-year debacle into the best-light perspective. He says there is a “lot of finger pointing” (including his own?) and urges a “serious look” at what went wrong. “It would be humbling,” he said.
That would be refreshing.