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Zalmay Khalilzad explains what went wrong with the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan


A key U.S. diplomat is trying to explain what went wrong in Afghanistan. Zalmay Khalilzad left the U.S. government last week. He negotiated a peace deal with the Taliban under President Trump. President Biden kept that commitment, resulting in a chaotic U.S. withdrawal. But Ambassador Khalilzad is defending his work. He talked with Steve Inskeep.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: Zalmay Khalilzad says at the end, his job was to get the U.S. out. And he suggests the result is less disastrous than it seemed when Afghans mobbed the Kabul airport last summer. Khalilzad is unique among diplomats, a native of Afghanistan who influenced U.S. policy under all four presidents since 9/11. He talked with the Taliban in their native language. But the 2020 agreement for the U.S. withdrawal never led to a broader peace deal with the existing Afghan government. Instead, Taliban forces advanced, and that government collapsed. When we sat down yesterday, one question was whether that 2020 negotiation ensured the Taliban victory.

When the United States made a separate peace with the Taliban that did not include the Afghan government - they were supposed to be included later - did that not signal to the Taliban that the United States was not really that seriously concerned about the future of the Afghan government?

ZALMAY KHALILZAD: Well, of course, for the previous 15, 16 years prior to the agreement, the U.S. position had been that before we negotiated with the Taliban, they had to accept the Afghan constitution, the government, in other words. Over time, the military situation did not proceed as we would have liked. The Taliban were gaining in the last six, seven years prior to the agreement territory each year, more territory. The decision was made by the presidents, I think starting with President Obama, to negotiate directly with the Taliban.

INSKEEP: But the United States essentially decided our priority was getting out. And there can't be other priorities, really. Like...


INSKEEP: It would be nice if the Afghan government survived, but it wasn't something the U.S. was committed to any.

KHALILZAD: Right. That is true. The priority of the United States was to get an agreement to withdraw, and at the same time, get commitments on terrorism and to get the Afghans to the table to negotiate. In fact, the agreement had four elements - withdrawal timetable, counter-terrorism commitments, intra-Afghan negotiations and a comprehensive ceasefire. It was a package.

INSKEEP: Well, let me ask about that because it seems from the outside, the Taliban did not do what they committed to doing. They committed to a reduction in violence under the agreement with the United States. That clearly didn't happen. They committed to negotiate with the Afghan government. That, at the very least, didn't work out. They talked, at least, about having evolved in some way regarding women's rights. And now that they're in power, they don't seem inclined to do that either.

KHALILZAD: Well, let's separate issues from each other. First, what did the agreement say, and did they comply? The Taliban agreed to sit with the Afghan government to negotiate. They did that. On the violence issue that you referred to, since the signing of the agreement until the withdrawal, for 18 months, not a single American was killed by the Taliban, although...

INSKEEP: No, they are taking over more and more territory.

KHALILZAD: And we were helping the Afghan government defend those territories during that period, which was unique, that they could not attack us, but we could attack them if they attacked the Afghan government.

INSKEEP: Were the Taliban honest with you and with the United States, then?

KHALILZAD: I believe that they did make an agreement that they observed, as I give you the example of not attacking or killing a single American soldier. But it wasn't - we weren't trusting them, that we were monitoring what they were doing. We were responding when we thought it was appropriate.

INSKEEP: As you know, ambassador, a lot of the criticism for the way things turned out has been directed at you. And just over the weekend, Jeanne Shaheen, Democratic senator from New Hampshire, said, quote, "Zalmay Khalilzad had an opportunity under two administrations to hold the Taliban to account and make the rights of women and girls a priority, and he failed."

KHALILZAD: Well, I disagree respectfully. I have a lot of regard for Senator Shaheen. I know she cares deeply and passionately about the issue, and I have talked with her. And if negotiations had succeeded from our point of view, the role that we had, the influence that we had, I would have used that influence to make sure the rights of the Afghan people, including women, are a central part of any political agreement. But now the situation didn't get resolved as a result of Afghans negotiating each other, but one side collapsing and the Talibs moving in, the side that we were supporting collapsing. But now we need to use that influence that we have with regard to the rights of Afghans, including women.

INSKEEP: Does the United States really have any leverage here?


INSKEEP: I understand the United States is hanging on to Afghan assets, that it seems to have things it can hold out like recognition. But do you really think the U.S. has leverage over this government with this set of beliefs?

KHALILZAD: Well, it has leverage. It is perhaps the single most important country that the Taliban see as an obstacle for the objectives that they have, which is recognition, normalcy, assistance and freezing of assets, future relations, diplomatic presence, all of that. So we have to think about, what were our choices? Since we were not winning the war, we have to recognize when we were doing what we were doing before, it wasn't working. Two to 300 Afghans on average were dying every day. We were taking casualties, spending a lot of money, and yet we weren't prevailing. So therefore, the decisions were made way above my pay grade as to what would serve America's interests in the current circumstances.

INSKEEP: I want to come back to the question of leverage. Is there a risk that Afghanistan under the Taliban will become like Iran, in that the United States may have any number of levers it can pull - it can use sanctions, it can offer inducements, it can talk about frozen assets - but ultimately, the government of Iran wants to do what it wants to do and wants to pursue its interests as it sees it? Isn't the Taliban government going to end up doing the same?

KHALILZAD: Well, that's certainly one future for Afghanistan. But my judgment is the Talibs are interested more than the Iranian regime was. The Talibs are saying, please come back, please reopen your embassy. And they believe that the United States is the key player internationally in whether they are accepted, things move towards normalcy and that they are willing to listen and to engage and to negotiate on future relations.

INSKEEP: Are you suggesting it could be more like Vietnam, where years after a long war, the United States establishes normal relations with Vietnam?

KHALILZAD: That's another future. But whether they would do what it would take for us to respond in that way - that's the challenge for them.

INSKEEP: I'm thinking about another possibility here. We have seen at least the initial steps that the Taliban government will take when it comes to the rights of women. Before they took power, they spoke somewhat openly about the rights of women, suggested there might be some room for some moderation in their views. Then they got into power, and as soon as they started thinking about specific decisions, they thought - actually, they have been more restrictive about women's rights than people would have anticipated.

KHALILZAD: Definitely. Definitely. But compared to Taliban of the '90s, now women are allowed to go to private universities. They are - the private universities are open, and women are going to university. High schools in several provinces - they are open and others. They don't believe in co-education. They believe that men and women should go separate, the boys and girls, and they are saying that will do the same for the rest of the country. They just need to organize the schools appropriately. Unlike the last time where women should not wear shoes that made noise in the 1990s, that women could not go out without a male escort - those kind of more extreme backwardness that were manifested in the '90s is not the case now, but it is not acceptable, the limitations that they have imposed. In any move towards normalcy, we would have to prioritize those concerns.

INSKEEP: Are you being unfairly blamed for the failures of this policy?

KHALILZAD: Well, I think that some people are looking for scapegoats rather than looking at the causes that got us to do that. And sometimes, I get that impression that people think I was the commander in chief, I was the chief diplomat, the chief decision-maker. No, I carried out the instructions of the presidents and was very realistic as to what my mandate was and what I could do and what I couldn't, and brought the options to management, as I like to call it, and then having heard from the president which option he likes, try to do as best a job as I could do to carry his wishes out.

INSKEEP: You are in a remarkable position because for the last 20 years, presidents have changed, administrations have changed, top generals have changed. American soldiers rotated in out of Afghanistan. But you, in one way or another, have been involved in U.S. policy toward Afghanistan for most of the last 20 years.


INSKEEP: What are you thinking about now?

KHALILZAD: Well, I think I will be involved going forward as a private citizen. I think Afghanistan is an unfinished business. We have done a lot with Afghanistan. We have transformed Afghanistan in many ways. We did not succeed in using our military instruments and our engagement in the way that we carried it out to transform Afghanistan into a democratic, prosperous, peaceful country.

When I worked with President Bush, he believed that the Middle East - the broader Middle East, from Pakistan to Morocco - was the zone of conflict, like Europe was in the 19th and 20th century. And the same formula that worked for Europe to become a zone of democracy, economic development and peace - that's what we need to embrace for this region. And that's why Iraq and Afghanistan were seen as the two pillars for the transformation of this region. We succeeded in overthrowing the Taliban. We succeeded in decimating al-Qaida. But in building a democratic Afghanistan and defeating the Talibs, empowering more secular and democratic forces, there were shortcomings. We didn't succeed, and we need to learn lessons from that.

INSKEEP: Ambassador, thanks for taking the time.

KHALILZAD: Well, it's great to see you again, Steve.

INSKEEP: Zalmay Khalilzad negotiated a 2020 agreement with the Taliban.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.