A Veteran Diplomat, a ‘Tragic Figure,’ Battles Critics in the U.S. and Afghanistan
The war ended on Mr. Khalilzad’s watch, but not on the terms he had hoped. Instead of the power-sharing government he imagined could restrain the Taliban, the militant group has assumed total control over the country, which is now facing economic collapse and famine.
“Zal emerges from this as a quite tragic figure,” said Eric S. Edelman, a former national security official who worked with Mr. Khalilzad under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.
As colleagues at the Pentagon in the late 1980s, Mr. Edelman and Mr. Khalilzad helped drive U.S. policy in support of mujahedeen fighters in Afghanistan resisting Soviet occupiers. During the Bush administration, they again backed resistance fighters, who this time were battling the Taliban as the United States invaded in 2001.
“He did a lot to create a modern, post-Taliban independent state,” Mr. Edelman said of Mr. Khalilzad. “And then to be in part the handmaiden of its demise — I don’t know how you can see that as other than tragic.”
Mr. Khalilzad had been out of government for years when, during the 2016 presidential campaign, he introduced Mr. Trump for a foreign policy speech hosted by a think tank with which he was affiliated. A lifelong Republican, Mr. Khalilzad did not endorse Mr. Trump, noting his “provocative views.” But the introduction earned him good will in Mr. Trump’s inner circle.
Then, in 2018, Mr. Khalilzad told officials in the Trump administration that Taliban representatives were interested in talking about a peace agreement. That September, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appointed him envoy for “the singular mission” of “developing the opportunities to get the Afghans and the Taliban to come to a reconciliation.”
In practice, however, the talks focused on the terms of the U.S. withdrawal that Mr. Trump sought. Eighteen months and hundreds of hours of bartering in Doha, the Qatari capital, produced an agreement in February 2020 under which the United States agreed to withdraw all its troops and the Taliban promised to halt attacks on American forces and never harbor terrorist groups.
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