Why you should care
Because 17 years is a long time to stay anywhere.
OZY Newsmakers: Deep dives on the names you need to know.
Zalmay Khalilzad’s CV could register on the Richter scale, it’s that heavy. With a portfolio that covers behind-the-scenes strategizing with a succession of U.S. presidential administrations — Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush and now Donald Trump — the 67-year-old Khalilzad’s time in the trenches negotiating ways forward for a part of the world aggressively resistant to any kind of handling that’s not deft has been an accomplishment in and of itself.
Khalilzad, now Trump’s Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation at the State Department, is presently being blamed/credited for brokering the framework of a full military withdrawal deal in principle between America and the Taliban. After five days of meetings in Qatar, the new deal framework announced Monday — 17 years in the making — seeks to extricate American blood and treasure from Afghanistan, a country it only took the Soviets about a decade to figure out was somewhere they didn’t need to be.
“No one has a monopoly on the diplomacy of peace,” Khalilzad said in a recent tweet. “And all have contributions to make.” A fairly anodyne statement for a country that is desperately in need of it. Afghanistan, a country of about 35 million people, has in military campaigns from Alexander the Great to the Brits to the Soviets to the United States lived up to its moniker as the graveyard of empires.
Khalilzad is serving up some realpolitik that’s hard to argue with.
So against a diplomatic stasis that saw the United States presence there become a political football in the 2016 campaign, and more recently former Defense Secretary James Mattis wanting to end the war but having no plans for a drawdown only to finally be outflanked by Trump, who declared Afghanistan a “total disaster” that we should leave immediately. Trump kicked in plans to do so, Mattis resigned, and via Khalilzad’s ministrations, we now have a framework with the militants agreeing to prevent Afghanistan from being a staging ground for terrorist groups like al-Qaida — largely who the U.S. chased into Afghanistan in the first place post-9/11.
Khalilzad, ethnically a Pashtun and religiously a Sunni Muslim himself, grew up in Afghanistan and moved to the U.S. for high school. He attended the American University of Beirut and the University of Chicago before climbing to the top of the Republican foreign policy ranks. He helped plan the launch of this very war for George W. Bush, then served as ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq and the United Nations. After a decade out of government, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pulled him back in last September. With some right-time, right-place politicking — and fluency in at least five different languages — Khalilzad fashioned as peaceful of a resolution to the conflict as we’re likely to get. And no sooner had he done so, in a region where second-guessing can’t be helped, did the second-guessing start.
Ryan Crocker, former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, Kuwait and Lebanon, and now a diplomat in residence at Princeton, almost immediately bashed it in a Washington Post op-ed. “The framework was reached without the involvement of the Afghan government,” Crocker wrote. “[W]e were just negotiating the terms of our surrender.”
“It’s been 17 years already,” says Michael Doran, who served on George W. Bush’s National Security Council. “What are we trying to achieve?” A question ringing through foreign policy circles since the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011. So while Khalilzad’s solution might have won the day, winning the battle is totally different.
Neither this nor a barely noticed suspected money laundering case that hit Khalilzad back in 2014 (and was subsequently dismissed) has slowed Trump’s embrace of the man and his pending solution. And at least for now, both sides are claiming “progress” has been made. While naysayers see this as little more than an acknowledgment that we’re not going to defeat them, Khalilzad is serving up some realpolitik that’s hard to argue with.
“Peace is America’s highest priority in #Afghanistan,” Khalilzad tweeted. “A goal we believe all Afghans share.”
In 2016 Khalilzad, a married father of two, published a political autobiography, because of course he did. The Envoy: From Kabul to the White House, My Journey Through a Turbulent World packs all of Khalilzad’s beliefs in effective foreign policy and planning backed by bipartisan commitment in every one of its 336 pages. A careful reading of the last part of the title though sums it all up: through a turbulent world. Not past it. We should only be so lucky.