January 16, 2021
President-elect Joe Biden may have no choice but to allow Zalmay Khalilzad to stay on as U.S. envoy to Afghanistan for reasons of continuity amid the ongoing negotiations between Kabul and the Taliban. Khalilzad, a native Afghan turned American cowboy, is not taking any chances, however, as he aggressively pushes President Ashraf Ghani to form an interim government. And based on the historical record, it would not be surprising to see Khalilzad himself seek a place in any new configuration of power.
The Trump administration will come to an end on January 20, a date negotiators on both sides of intra-Afghan talks have been apparently waiting on. Biden will inherit a situation in Afghanistan that includes stalled peace talks and rising violence. However, Biden and his team seem to be on the same page conceptually with the outgoing administration and are unlikely to change course.
In general, Afghanistan is out of sight and mind in Washington, so Khalilzad continues to run free looking for opportunities to craft the end game suitable to his own needs. Reports surfaced from Kabul that the envoy and Ghani are not on speaking terms because Khalilzad wants to potentially unseat the democratically-elected president and usher in an interim regime.
A caretaker government would likely include representatives of the Taliban, Ghani’s political opponents, and Khalilzad in who knows what type of role. The State Department of course swiftly conducted damage control.
“We have not advocated, and the United States is not advocating, an interim government. The outcomes of Afghanistan Peace Negotiations are up to Afghans & we believe those outcomes should reflect the wishes & aspirations of the Afghan people,” U.S. Chargé d’Affaires Ross Wilson said in a tweet on January 13.
Concern over a Khalilzad power move is not mere paranoia. A Ghani adviser infamously captured the crux of the man’s ambitions when he claimed that Khalilzad wanted to become a “viceroy” of Afghanistan. The comment came as the U.S. envoy appeared to be undermining the Afghan elections – and marginalizing the Afghan government – to ensure his precious pact with the Taliban was not overshadowed.
Khalilzad operates in the in-between of inter-state politics and has somehow evaded accountability for some disastrous moves. When he has not been directly part of the game, he has profited off it in the private sector. AEI Scholar Michael Rubin once wrote that Khalilzad’s history of “conflating personal political ambition, business interests, and diplomacy gives Afghans profound unease.” Rubin vividly captured the essence of Khalilzad – where there is a buck to be made, there goes Zalmay.
“If Khalilzad were envoy to Madagascar, he would likely somehow become involved in the coffee and vanilla trade,” Rubin wrote in 2019.
There appears to be no limits to Khalilzad’s imagination. After missing the filing deadline to run for Afghan president in 2009, he somehow persuaded Hamid Karzai that it might be a good idea to carve out an unelected role for Khalilzad to fill described as a chief executive officer (ironically the title Abdullah Abdullah would take on as Ghani’s co-leader).
Karzai, in turn, was reportedly able to get President Obama to buy into the proposal. The plan was probably ditched because it would make Kabul appear even more illegitimate. The Afghans already looked at Karzai as a foreign puppet because he was installed by the U.S. in the first place after Khalilzad strong-armed King Zahir Shah aside in 2002, which many believe ruined the only chance to unify the country.
However, putting aside Khalilzad’s personal ambitions, a legitimate question can be raised: does it make sense to form an interim government if that is the only way to get the insurgents to halt attacks and stop assassinating government officials?
However, this only begs more questions. If Kabul does cave to these demands, why does anyone think the Taliban will stop the violence? Or does the violence stop when – and only when – the Taliban have complete control?
Critics have argued that the negotiations thus far has amounted to a series of giveaways by Kabul with the Taliban sacrificing nothing in return. The reason Kabul agreed to release Taliban prisoners was under tremendous pressure from Washington.
Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies Director Davood Moradian thinks forming an interim government at this stage in the talks would be irresponsible.
“It would mean dismantling the current government, and the members would have no real authority to make an agreement,” Moradian told The Washington Post. “This might be a possible outcome of talks, but it cannot come first.”
Moreover, Ghani has previously made a viable point as to why relinquishing power prematurely might be a bad idea, citing the fate of Afghan communist leader Najibullah – whom the Taliban hung in the streets in 1996.
“Dr. Najibullah made the mistake of his life by announcing that he was going to resign,” Ghani said at an event hosted by a Washington think tank last June. “Please don’t ask us to replay a film that we know well.”