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Former U.S. Envoy Defends Controversial Peace Deal With Taliban

U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad (left) and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban's top political leader, shake hands after signing the peace agreement in Doha on February 29, 2020.

A year after the Taliban returned to power in Kabul, a former top U.S. diplomat who negotiated and signed a controversial peace deal with the group gave his view on why it failed to secure reconciliation among Afghans.

In an interview with RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad discussed various aspects of the February 2020 agreement with the Taliban that paved the way for the complete U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan in return for the Taliban's counterterrorism guarantees and agreement to hold peace talks with the pro-Western Afghan government.

"The Doha agreement was historic," he said of the pact he signed as the U.S. envoy for Afghan reconciliation with the Taliban's top negotiator, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, in the Qatari capital. "It was the result of the change in American policies and the situation on the ground inside Afghanistan."

Critics blame the agreement for the collapse of the pro-Western Afghan government 17 months after the Doha agreement was signed. They claim the agreement favored the Islamist group that had fought Afghan forces and international troops for nearly two decades.

The agreement was hailed at the time by both the United States and the Taliban as providing a road map for the orderly withdrawal of U.S.-led forces.

But Khalilzad says the agreement was not fully implemented, implying that if it had been, events may have turned out differently.

"Based on the Doha agreement, a lot of work is still incomplete," he said.

While Washington withdrew its troops from Afghanistan and the Taliban largely stopped attacking the Western forces after the agreement, the group refused to join a cease-fire with the Afghan government.

The two sides also failed to begin peace talks within days of the Doha deal signing on February 29, 2020. The agreement had explicitly stipulated that the two sides would begin negotiations on a future political system.

Khalilzad points to this as the main reason for the collapse of the Afghan government, and he blames the pro-Western government in Kabul for that.

He rejects claims that the government or key Afghan figures were kept in the dark about negotiations. He says President Ashraf Ghani, former President Hamid Karzai, Peace Council chief Abdullah Abdullah, and other leading political figures were all kept informed about the developments in the peace talks and various aspects of the agreement, including its two secret annexes.

Khalilzad says that while signing the agreement with the Taliban, the United States issued a joint declaration with the Afghan government to reiterate its support for the country.

Washington also put enormous effort behind a cease-fire and peace talks after the Doha agreement, but the Taliban did not agree to a truce and was accused by many of intentionally dragging its feet while pressing ahead militarily.

Khalilzad insists that the United States was keen on securing an agreement between the Afghan parties. Khalilzad blames Ghani for not honoring an agreement to participate in planned talks to form a transitional government in the run-up to the collapse of his administration on August 15, 2021.

"[A transitional government] couldn't be formed because Ghani fled Afghanistan and the Afghan security forces collapsed," he said, adding that Ghani's government was hoping the new administration of President Joe Biden would abandon the Doha agreement, initiated while Donald Trump was president.

Biden postponed the final troop withdrawal from May to September but declared his backing for the Doha agreement while U.S. diplomats worked on facilitating intra-Afghan talks.

In a recent interview, Ghani severely criticized Khalilzad and declared the Doha agreement a "tragedy."

Ghani is not the only critic of the Doha deal.

In a report published in May this year, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), a U.S. government watchdog, blamed the agreement for the collapse of the Afghan security forces in August last year ahead of the Taliban takeover.

"The single most important factor in the [Afghan military's] collapse in August 2021 was the U.S. decision to withdraw military forces and contractors from Afghanistan through signing the U.S.-Taliban agreement in February 2020 under the Trump administration," SIGAR's report noted.

"[This was] followed by President Biden's withdrawal announcement in April 2021," the report added.

But Khalilzad disagrees with that assessment.

He says that in addition to the Afghan forces' "high dependence" on U.S. support, other factors led to the collapse of Afghanistan's security forces.

"There were political problems and the issue of corruption and political infighting," he said, adding that the controversial September 2019 presidential elections resulted in Ghani and his rival, Abdullah, declaring themselves president. "This threatened the disintegration of the Afghan security forces."

Khalilzad first served as U.S. ambassador and special presidential envoy for Afghanistan after U.S. forces toppled the Taliban's hard-line regime in late 2001. He had a significant role in shaping the post-Taliban government in Afghanistan and implementing Washington's policy toward the war-ravaged country.

He returned in September 2018 as the U.S. special envoy for Afghan reconciliation. He was tasked with ending the war through peace talks, and he signed a preliminary peace deal with the Taliban 18 months later.

The former diplomat says Washington had decided to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan because the war was not progressing as it had hoped. Support for the war among Afghans had diminished as the casualties of the security forces mounted.

"The situation in the world had changed and the problem of terrorism had evolved," he said, alluding to a widely held belief during the last years of the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan that the Taliban was unlikely to evolve into an international terrorist threat and Washington's war on terrorism had severely weakened Al-Qaeda.

"America had concluded that the cost of war in Afghanistan needs to be brought down," he said.

Khalilzad says that all sides in the war had a role in the collapse of the government, but that Afghan leaders were primarily responsible.

"The bad habit in Afghanistan is that no one accepts responsibility and even don't accept facts," said Khalilzad, the man who many say bears a large measure of responsibility for the Taliban takeover.

"They only blame a foreigner or a foreign country because everything [allegedly] happens for their interests."