Zalmay Khalilzad, US special envoy to Afghanistan, steps down

Thomas West will succeed Zalmay Khalilzad as US special envoy for Afghanistan Reconciliation. West was part of the national security team of US President Joe Biden when he was Veep
A file photo of US special representative for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad in Washington, DC, US. Khalilzad has stepped down from his role. (AP/File)
A file photo of US special representative for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad in Washington, DC, US. Khalilzad has stepped down from his role. (AP/File)
Updated on Oct 19, 2021 11:09 PM IST
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ByYashwant Raj

Zalmay Khalilzad, the US special envoy for Afghanistan Reconciliation who negotiated the February 2020 accord that led to the withdrawal of US-led international forces, has resigned.

He will be succeeded by his deputy Thomas West, who was part of the national security team of US President Joe Biden when he was vice-president.

US secretary of state Antony Blinken announced Khalilzad’s departure in a statement on Monday, saying, “As he steps down from his role, I extend my gratitude for his decades of service to the American people.”

In his resignation letter to Blinken, Zalmay wrote, as reported by The Washington Post, “I decided that now is the right time… at a juncture when we are entering a new phase in our Afghanistan policy.”

Zalmay Khalilzad was a familiar figure in New Delhi where he dropped by often to keep the Indian government in the loop on the Afghan peace process.

But the US evidently did not tell the Indians all that was happening as external affairs minister S Jaishankar recently said that “we were not taken into confidence on various aspects” of the 2020 agreement.

Khalilzad, an Afghan-American, was named special representative in 2018 by then secretary of state Mike Pompeo to lead negotiations for a settlement in Afghanistan that could pave the way for the withdrawal of US forces and end one of America’s endless wars.

Zalmay Khalilzad failed to bring the Taliban and the elected government of then Afghanistan president Ashraf Ghani to the table, but did succeed in getting a deal signed by the US with the Taliban in February 2020, which provided the basis for the withdrawal of US-led troops by Biden, completed in August.

The controversial accord was widely slammed for giving away too much to the Taliban in return for very little. And Khalilzad, who negotiated the deal with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a Taliban co-founder and now a deputy prime minister, carried the burden of the criticism.

“Khalilzad negotiated a bad deal with the Taliban, which triggered a debacle that he failed to anticipate or handle,” said Husain Haqqani, former Pakistani ambassador to the US and South Asia expert at Hudson Institute, a leading US think tank. “He equated US withdrawal with peace, and bypassed and marginalised America’s Afghan allies. Khalilzad handed the keys to Kabul to the Taliban in return for promises everyone knew the Taliban would not keep. One can only hope Tom West does a better job of understanding who the Taliban are and what might be the limits of negotiating with them.”

Biden has said that it was not an agreement that he would have signed, and he and his officials often said it tied their hands on Afghanistan.

But instead of renegotiating it, he went ahead to honour America’s commitment to withdraw its forces, though the Taliban did not abide by most their commitments.

“The Talibs committed to not allow terrorist groups, including Al-Qaida, [to] plan or carry out attacks against the security of the US and our allies,” Khalilzad wrote in his letter. “They further agreed not to allow terrorists to recruit, train or fundraise in the territories they controlled. They also agreed to negotiate directly with the existing Afghan government for a power-sharing agreement and a comprehensive and permanent ceasefire.”

The Taliban remain thick with Al-Qaeda, which remains present in Afghanistan, according to assessment by several intelligence agencies and analysts.

Zalmay Khalilzad was expected to leave office in May after Biden announced a timeline of the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, shifting the Trump administration’s deadline from May 1 to September 11, and subsequently to August 31.

He was asked to stay on, but his exit had been on the cards for a while. Speculation was rife when he missed the first post-withdrawal meeting between the US and the Taliban in Doha on October 9, in which West led the US team.

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