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Sunday, December 5, 2021

Zalmay Khalilzad steps down as US envoy following chaotic exit from Afghanistan


The Washington envoy was among several officials criticised for allowing the Taliban to take over Kabul without a fight.

Top US envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad resigned on Monday following Washington’s chaotic exit from Afghanistan in August, officials confirmed.

Khalilzad submitted his resignation on Friday, two months after the Taliban took over Kabul on 15 August following a series of territorial gains in the country, Reuters reported.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Khalilzad will now be replaced by his deputy Thomas West. The new envoy will be coordinating “closely with the US Embassy Kabul presence in Doha on America’s interests in Afghanistan,” a statement said.

Questions over Khalilzad’s possible resignation first surfaced earlier this month after he failed to attend talks between the US and Afghanistan’s Taliban-led interim government, the first such discussions to take place since the foreign troop withdrawal.

In the resignation letter obtained by CNN reporter Natasha Bertrand, Khalilzad said that “the political arrangement between the Afghan government and the Taliban did not go forward as envisaged”.

“The reasons for this are too complex and I will share my thoughts in the coming days and weeks, after leaving government service,” he added.

The former envoy had attended various meetings to discuss the Afghan peace process.

Most recently, Khalilzad participated in Troika meetings on Afghanistan in Doha, which took place from 10 to 12 August, just days ahead of the Taliban takeover.

Afghan university students transferred to Qatar campus

The Afghan-born envoy had served as the US representative to Afghanistan throughout the former Donald Trump presidency and under the Joe Biden presidency for nine months.

Last year, Khalilzad led face-to-face negotiations between the Taliban and the US, which resulted in the signing of the February agreement in Qatar that set 1 May 2021 as the deadline for the complete withdrawal of foreign forces.

Under the agreement, the troop pull out was set to be conducted on the condition that the Taliban halts its support for terrorist organisations. The accord also stipulated the release of 5,000 Taliban fighters in exchange for 1,000 Afghan government prisoners held by the group.

However, President Biden changed the deadline to 11 September this year – before it was later revised to 31 August – without conditions.

Many Afghans believe the agreement paved the way for the collapse of the former Afghan administration, accusing Khalilzad of being behind the damage.

“Zalmay Khalilzad was firstly and lastly an American diplomat entrusted to deliver what the White House wanted. That was the case in the 80s/early 2000s/late 2010s. In Iraq and Afghanistan. Love or hate him, don’t lose sight of the bigger picture and inadvertently exonerate DC,” tweeted Ahmed-Waleed Kakar, a London based independent analyst and the founder of The Afghan Eye.

In a previous interview with Foreign Policy, Khalilzad defended his actions by saying that the Taliban did fulfil key areas of the February agreement by not attacking American troops during their exit from the country.

“I respect those who say we shouldn’t have negotiated with the Talibs without the government being there. But we don’t know how much more fighting would have taken for the Talibs to agree to that,” he said.

At the time, Khalilzad continued to hold negotiations with the Taliban to ensure the safe departure of Americans from the country.

Current and former US officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told Reuters that the former diplomat became the face of one of Washington’s diplomatic failures in recent history.

The US has come under particular criticism from the international community for its 20-year invasion of Afghanistan that brought little change to the country, which then ended with a hasty exit that was followed by more scenes of instability.

When the Taliban took over Kabul, thousands of Afghans flocked to the airport in a desperate attempt to flee. Witnesses saw US forces shooting in the air to disperse Afghans trying to enter Hamid Karzai International Airport.

As a strategic ally and host of the Taliban’s political office, Qatar found itself at the centre of diplomatic and humanitarian efforts to facilitate negotiations and evacuations from Afghanistan.

Qatar managed to safely evacuate more than 50,000 Afghans and foreigners while continuing to hold talks between world powers and the Taliban to achieve peace and stability in Afghanistan.

The Gulf state has also been facilitating the Afghan peace process for several years, which officials said would have continued if former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani had not fled the country in August.

“Qatar has played a key role in assisting the evacuations of American citizens and others who were in danger. It has committed to being an active player in Afghanistan and continues to host this round of peace talks,” Ambassador Nathan Sales, the former coordinator for counter-terrorism within the US Department of State, said in an interview with Lusail News on Sunday.

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