Zalmay Khalilzad, a veteran US diplomat, has been tasked, by Trump administration of the United States of America, with leading efforts to end the drawn-out war in Afghanistan, and planning a result-oriented peace dialogue directly with the Taliban representatives. Mr Khalilzad is a blunt interlocutor having a history of hawkish views on foreign policy issues. He has decades of experience in the diplomatic circles as he served as ambassador of the United States to United Nations, Iraq and Afghanistan.
The new mission has brought back Mr Khalilzad to focus on the country of his birth, and the place where he has served as US ambassador from 2003 to 2005 under President George W. Bush at a time when he had to steer a regime change in Afghanistan in the messy aftermath of the fall of the Taliban. Indeed, he was instrumental in setting up the government structure in Afghanistan and helping the country through the first elections in 2005. However, the current mission by its very nature is much different from the previous one.
Khalilzad has been appointed the Special Representative for Afghanistan by the Trump administration in order to hold a conclusive dialogue with the Taliban and the Afghan government. “The purpose of this entire trip is to talk about the peace and reconciliation progress,” US State Department’s spokesperson Heather Nauert told a news briefing in Washington. “Any time we are there on the ground, we are making headway.” She noted that the US administration has appointed Khalilzad a special envoy and his main job would be “to fight for this issue every single day” and to “work hard on this issue with his team.”
Before Khalilzad’s mission, in July this year, the Trump administration had already held first direct talks with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, where Deputy Assistant Secretary Alice Wells met Taliban representatives.
On October 08, Khalilzad and his team met Taliban representatives in Doha. According to Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, six Taliban representatives and Mr Khalilzad “talked about the end of occupation and a peaceful resolution for the Afghan issue,” adding that “both the sides agreed to continue their meetings in the future.” The details of the meeting were, however, not shared with any media outlet, yet one can assume that the talks will be fruitful and it is a good omen for the future dialogue and a meaningful conclusion, provided both the parties stick to their vows and promises.
The meeting in Doha came days after the Taliban put out a statement calling on Afghans to boycott parliamentary elections scheduled to be held on October 20. It is a dilemma that on the one hand, meetings are being held for a negotiated settlement of the Afghan dispute while, on the other, general elections were also held despite the fact that Taliban had been fiercely opposing those.
Mr Khalilzad held a flurry of meetings within a few days. Apart from his meeting with the Taliban, he met Qatari Deputy Prime Minister, flew to Pakistan where he met Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi and held delegation-level talks with senior officials led by Pakistan foreign secretary Ms Tehmina Janjua and met Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman — United States sees Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as having influence on the Taliban. He also had a meeting with Ashraf Ghani, the President of Afghanistan, to take him into confidence, and assure that the United States will fulfil its promises.
It is important to note here that the general elections were held in Afghanistan at a time when only 60 percent of Afghan territory is under the control of government in Kabul. Remaining areas are either under the control of the Taliban or they have heavy on-ground presence there. To avoid any untoward incident, Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission (IEC) deployed 54,000 members of Afghan security forces to protect 21,000 polling stations in 5,100 polling centres in the country’s 33 participating provinces on the election day.
In the end, it seems apt to conclude that understanding the Afghan quagmire has always been an uphill task for all. Elections were held by the Afghan government under the auspices of the United States but it is also true that the latter is persuading Taliban for peace talks by using all possible means. The elections have been held successfully which means Khalilzad’s mission is going in the right direction. But, here is the million-dollar question: what will be the future of Afghan parliament, the incumbent government and the status-quo proponents in government caucuses. There is a pressing need to chalk out a clear-cut plan in either case, if the dialogue with the Taliban remains successful or faces failure. The inclusion of Afghans, civil society, women, political parties and regional players in the whole process would be of pivotal importance for Khalilzad’s mission.
Zalmay Khalilzad: Top 10 Facts
1. Born in 1951 in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif, Khalilzad attended the American University of Beirut before earning a doctorate from the University of Chicago in 1979.
2. He taught at Columbia University from 1979 to 1986, and has over the years also held key positions at prominent US think tanks.
3. Known by many in Washington as “King Zal,” the 67-year-old Khalilzad is fluent in English, Arabic, Pashto and Dari.
4. His experience as a foreign policy operative – having a hawkish viewpoint – dates back to the 1980s, when he served as an adviser to the Reagan administration.
5. He spent most of the 1990s in the private sector, but returned to public service when Bush appointed him to the National Security Council with an Afghanistan brief.
6. He was instrumental in setting up the government structure in Afghanistan and guiding President Hamid Karzai through the first elections in 2005.
7. After the Kabul posting, the Bush administration appointed Khalilzad the US ambassador to Iraq in 2005.
8. Khalilzad was the introductory speaker for then-candidate Donald Trump’s first major foreign policy speech in April 2016.
9. On September 5, 2018, Khalilzad was appointed by President Donald Trump to serve as a special envoy to Afghanistan.
10. Khalilzad has also been a fierce critic of Pakistan and like many American officials has accused it of playing a “double game” by supporting militant groups in Afghanistan despite being a US ally.