Zalmay Khalilzad, who served as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq and as U.N. ambassador during the administration of President George W. Bush, has been named President Trump’s special adviser to Afghanistan. His job will be to try to bring the Afghan government and the Taliban to a reconciliation.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo confirmed the appointment on Tuesday.
“Ambassador Khalilzad is going to join the State Department team to assist us in the reconciliation effort, so he will come on and be the State Department’s lead person for that purpose,” Pompeo told reporters aboard a flight bound for Pakistan.
Khalilzad will “be full-time focused on developing the opportunities to get the Afghans and the Taliban to come to a reconciliation. That will be his singular mission statement,” Pompeo said.
During the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Khalilzad, 67, played a key role in rebuilding and reimagining governments in both countries. He had a hand in Afghanistan’s first post-Taliban elections and in crafting the constitution of Iraq.
“He became known for his ability to weave through warring tribal factions and his ability to quickly get senior Afghan officials on the phone or to summon them to his office, including President Hamid Karzai,” The New York Times reported during Khalilzad’s stint as ambassador to Afghanistan — the country of his birth — from 2003 to 2005.
Robin Raphel, a former assistant secretary of state for South Asia, says Khalilzad’s appointment is a sign that the Trump administration is getting serious about a political solution to America’s longest war.
“I think that’s important,” she says, “and personally I think that’s long overdue, because I think everybody realizes — and I include in this the Taliban — that things in Afghanistan are getting too fractured, that there are too many players and Afghanistan could become the next Syria if attention is not paid to the political as well as the military dimensions.”
Raphel has been involved in U.S. Track II diplomacy with the Taliban, and a top State Department official has had recent contacts, too. This is something that Khalilzad could build on, Raphel says.
“He’s a very experienced guy,” she says. “He knows the political and cultural terrain in the region. He’s a gifted diplomat. So I think the potential is for him to bring a lot.”
Former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ronald Neumann is skeptical.
“He’s a great deal-maker, but I don’t know if there’s a deal to be made,” he says.
Neumann cites recent advances by the Taliban, and says the U.S. needs to be committed to the fight as well as to the diplomacy. As for the Taliban, he says, they haven’t moved from their position that they will only negotiate with the U.S. — and only about America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan.
“At the end of the day, they have to be willing to negotiate with the Afghan government,” he says. “We can’t negotiate how Afghans will live with each other.”
President Trump ordered an increase in troop levels as part of his Afghan strategy last year, but has grown frustrated with the war’s progress.
In an August 2017 interview with CNN, Khalilzad said Trump’s plans to boost the number of troops in Afghanistan by up to 5,000 “is prudent to prevent the situation from getting worse.” He also emphasized the need for a comprehensive strategy for maintaining stability that includes a regional approach as well as involvement in resolving “Afghanistan’s internal issues.”
“It is very important that you signal the desire that you’re prepared to stay there for as long as it takes,” said Khalilzad, who had been critical of President Obama’s announcement of a departure date for troops.
Gen. John Nicholson, the outgoing commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, has called reconciliation key to ending the war.
“We’d like to see a reconciliation between the Taliban and the Afghan government so they resolve their differences politically,” he told NPR’s Rachel Martin. “We’d like to see the Taliban renounce their connections to al-Qaeda. These are some of the demands that have been discussed in past years. And I think these are some of the things that’ll be discussed going forward.”
Still, Khalilzad’s appointment comes in the context of a deteriorating situation, with high-profile Taliban attacks in major cities and its rejection of the Afghan government’s recent offer of a second ceasefire, following a three-day ceasefire in June that saw Taliban fighters entering cities without their weapons, taking selfies with civilians and asking directions to the best ice cream shops.
In Afghanistan, views of Khalilzad — who currently runs Gryphon Partners, described as a “global advisory firm focused on frontier markets” — are mixed. “There are many politicians here who blame Khalilzad for many of the woes that Afghanistan is undergoing and they oppose his appointment,” says Borhan Osman, the International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Afghanistan.
There are “those who are not happy with the balance of power, who think certain ethnic groups have had an outsized role in the post-war order,” he said, referring to Pashtuns. “And they oppose it on ethnocentric grounds. There are others who have different grievances, mainly about how warlords were imposed and empowered at the cost of exclusion of others, thanks to the U.S. policies that Ambassador Khalilzad was overseeing.”
But many others welcome Khalilzad, Osman says. “Of course he has many friends, supporters, in the current elite. They see him as a powerful Afghan-American who has a better understanding of Afghanistan, who has been involved in shaping the politics over the past 17 years, and he has continued to be useful since. That’s their view.”
In neighboring Pakistan, Khalilzad is disliked and viewed with suspicion. “He became the first U.S. official — very senior, with direct access to [President] Bush, who criticized Pakistan publicly, and particularly its covert policy of sheltering the Taliban, providing sanctuary to the Taliban,” says Abubakar Siddique, who covers Afghanistan and Pakistan for Radio Free Europe. “He was never liked by Pakistan, particularly by the Pakistani military.”
“He’s been very critical of Pakistani policies, rightly or wrongly,” says Pakistani journalist and author Zahid Hussain. “He is a person who held Pakistan responsible for everything which had gone wrong in Afghanistan.”
Siddique says that at a time when the Trump administration is probing the idea of negotiating with the Taliban, Khalilzad is a sensible choice for special envoy.
“At a sensitive time when Washington is clearly looking to go for a peace process with the Taliban, including them in the Afghan political process, to bring them back into the Afghan political fold, he is the right person. He speaks the major Afghan languages, Pashto and Dari, he knows the political players, he knows the elites very well, he knows the problems and issues,” Siddique says.
While Pakistani officials may distrust Khalilzad, he brings some advantages “that very few American diplomats have,” Siddique notes. “He’s met the broad spectrum of political players and elites and military generals. He knows what their problems are. He knows how to reach out to people.”
Khalilzad served as a State Department policy planner during the Reagan administration and argued that the United States should arm Afghan mujahideen fighters in their war against Soviet forces in the 1980s. After the Soviet Union withdrew, the mujahideen turned on each other, the country descended into civil war and the Taliban rose to power.
“A lesson that I have learned from my years of dealing is that you have to be very careful about what you assume would be the outcome of very big struggles,” Khalilzad said in an interview with NPR’s Renee Montagne after his memoir, The Envoy: From Kabul to the White House, My Journey Through a Turbulent World, was published in 2016.