New Delhi: Questions surround Zalmay Khalilzad, an enigmatic diplomat who presided over US failures in Iraq and now the return of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan.
Khalilzad, a leading US diplomat of Afghan-origin, has long been a controversial figure for his involvement in Washington’s ‘War on Terror’.
He also led Washington’s talks with the Taliban, which many see as the main precursor to the Pashtun-dominated group’s lightning victory in Afghanistan, TRT World reported.
After the Taliban’s surprisingly quick victory against the US-trained Afghan army, many government operators and experts can’t help but speculate on Washington’s role, particularly that of Khalilzad, in the Afghan group’s return to power.
Some other experts further believe that Khalilzad pursued a “special political agenda” to promote his personal and family interests.
“One man responsible for the chaos and destruction raging across Afghanistan is Zalmay Khalilzad. He should be investigated for alleged financial corruption,” says Kamal Alam, a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.
In 2014, Khalilzad’s finances were subject to an Austrian investigation which froze his wife’s accounts in the European country based on information from the US Department of Justice that he was suspected of money laundering related to business activities in Iraq and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
“This man wanted to be the president of Afghanistan. He ran to be the president of Afghanistan. No one likes him. Everyone hates him,” Alam tells TRT World.
A Turkish source, who is closely acquainted with Khalilzad, refused to go on the record about him saying because he would have to express very “negative views” publicly about someone he knows very well.
Prior to his appointment as the US envoy to Afghanistan, some of his countrymen from Afghanistan signed a petition accusing him for “ethno-nationalist motivated previous conducts”, a veiled reference to his alleged support for the Pashtun community’s dominance after the US invasion.
Alam drew attention to the fact that Khalilzad should have never been in a top mediating position between the US and the Taliban after making clear his political ambitions in his country of origin, Afghanistan.
Khalilzad had reportedly wanted to challenge in the 2009 Afghan elections, but missed the deadline to file his candidacy.
“How can an American official be neutral when he runs for the presidency of another country called Afghanistan?” Alam asks. While he has been an active participant of “the great game of Afghanistan”, there is no way he could do a job of an independent adviser, Alam adds.
Khalilzad was also considered for the position of US secretary of state by former US President Donald Trump administration.
Ahmad Rashid, a Pakistani writer, also criticised him him for “acting like a British viceroy”. Before the Soviets and the Americans, the British also invaded Afghanistan.
Alam thinks that Khalilzad is no different from Afghan warlords. “He is very much an Afghan warlord,” he says, adding: “His political agenda is the same as any other Afghan warlord.”
Even after the hasty US withdrawal, Khalilzad’s political value in Washington might increase as no Americans except him appear to have any clue about what the Taliban could do next.
“That’s why Biden kept him on because he is the only guy who could talk to the Taliban,” Alam says.
“He has failed in his mission. Just as British and French Prime Ministers Neville Chamberlain and Edouard Daladier failed to prevent (Nazi) Germany’s expansion after the September 1938 Munich Pact, Ambassador Khalilzad signed an agreement, in February 2020, in Doha, that failed to bring about reconciliation and a political settlement between belligerents,” says Ioannis Koskinas, a senior fellow in the international security program of New America.
“The Taliban were explicit in their intent of a total takeover of Afghanistan. Ambassador Khalilzad’s efforts were supposed to be about a graceful exit for the US that didn’t leave a mess behind, in Afghanistan. The Taliban achieved their goal; Ambassador Khalilzad did not,” Koskinas told TRT World.
Koskinas, a former US military officer, who served in Afghanistan for years as a member of the special forces, also sharply criticises the Afghan peace process and Khalilzad’s role in it, saying that “Doha was a sideshow, a clever move by the Taliban to gain political legitimacy and credibility”.
“There was very little political process in the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan. While the Taliban’s political representatives in Doha were talking, their commanders in Afghanistan were fighting,” Koskinas observes.
As a result, Doha talks left Afghanistan “on an arbitrary timeline” which favoured the Taliban.
“Certainly, from the outside looking in, it never seemed as if Ambassador Khalilzad was looking for ways to strengthen the Afghan government’s bargaining power, in negotiations by the time of the templated US eventual withdrawal in 2021,” he adds.
Some argue that he has played a kind of a transitional role from the Afghan government to Taliban rule by legitimising and empowering the group by holding talks with them under the Trump administration’s “ending forever wars” doctrine.
Muhammad Athar Javed, an International Security Program fellow at New America, a Washington-based think-tank, thinks that the US had a greater role than has been stated.
“The transition to Taliban rule must have been well thought. I mean it’s not an accident to be honest,” he says.
The Taliban can’t behave like that unless they have a political understanding with the US and other Western powers, according to the analyst