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Former U.S. Envoy Says Pakistani Taliban Sanctuaries Ruined Afghan ‘Golden Hour’

Former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq and the United Nations Zalmay Khalilzad.
Former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq and the United Nations Zalmay Khalilzad.

WASHINGTON, -- A former U.S. diplomat who played a key role in fashioning the post-Taliban Afghanistan says the country’s prospects were spoiled by Pakistani support for the Taliban.

Born in Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad served as U.S. President George W. Bush’s special envoy and ambassador to Afghanistan. He says Washington’s failure to deal with the issue of Taliban sanctuaries and Islamabad’s covert support of the Afghan insurgents following the demise of their hard-line regime still casts a dark shadow over the mountainous nation of an estimated 30 million people.

“The issue of the U.S. inability to deal effectively with Pakistan, and the [Taliban] sanctuary problem in Pakistan, has been the mother of all problems for U.S.-Afghan relations and of Afghanistan to some degree since 9/11,” he told RFE/RL’s Gandhara website. “It has been a big strategic factor that has shaped other factors, in my view. And it’s not appropriately appreciated by many people how important this is.”

(Read the complete transcript of his interview here)

Khalilzad, the most senior Muslim official in the Bush administration, played a key role in shaping the post-Taliban Afghanistan as one of the main architects of the Bonn Agreement that established the transitional administration that eventually led to the current political system.

Reflecting on his time as U.S. special presidential envoy (2001−03) and ambassador (2003−05) in Afghanistan, the 64-year-old says Washington failed to recognize that a Taliban insurgency was being organized in Pakistan during Afghanistan’s “golden hour,” when it was the center of global attention after U.S. Daisy-cutter bombs decimated the regime for hosting Al-Qaeda.

“If we had put a lot of pressure and attention on Pakistan early, not to allow a sanctuary to develop, we could have made a lot of more progress,” he said. “As time went on, our credibility and the attention-grabbing action had dissipated in a relative way, and Pakistan became very clever about doing just enough cooperation on other issues that protected it from the U.S. anger.”

His recently published memoirs. The Envoy: From Kabul to the White House, My Journey Through a Turbulent World, is required reading for those trying to understand the United States’ interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan following the attacks of 9/11.

Cover of Zalmay Khalilzad's recently published memoirs.
Cover of Zalmay Khalilzad's recently published memoirs.

Nearly 15 years later, the insurgents now control a large chunk of the Afghan countryside and are threatening major population centers. This week, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani warned that he will complain to the United Nations Security Council if Pakistan fails to take action against the Afghan Taliban leaders operating from its territory.

The former academic is now keen on underscoring that new generations of policymakers learn from the mistakes made by the U.S. wartime administration he served.

Khalilzad, fluent in Afghan languages, Dari, and Pashto, still has close ties to Afghan elites. He blames Washington’s inability to deal with Pakistani support for the Taliban as contributing a great deal to former Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s eventual fallout with Washington.

“President Karzai spoke publically more and more against the sanctuary and the effects of the sanctuary (the Taliban attacking in Afghanistan and the U.S. responding by attacking in Afghanistan),” he said. “This failure is in part diplomatic because we haven’t come up with an arrangement between Afghanistan and Pakistan to address this issue.”

The former ambassador, whose career spans more than four decades of government and academia, says the failure has also worsened domestic Afghan issues. He cites the example of the powerful warlords who assumed tremendous influence by joining Washington’s battle against the Taliban.

Khalilzad says that in the initial years after the overthrow of the Taliban, Karzai was keen on clipping the warlords’ wings but later allied with them.

The former envoy says that despite Washington’s objections, Karzai recalled former communist general Abdul Rashid Dostum to Afghanistan from Turkey to tap into his solid vote bank among fellow ethnic Uzbeks in northern Afghanistan in order to win his presidential rerun in 2009.

“That’s why I called the [Taliban] sanctuary in Pakistan the mother of all issues that became worse, [and] Karzai’s calculus also shifted,” he said. “For his own political survival and as well as for what he saw as potentially another conflict, he became more dependent on the very forces that he was [previously] negative toward.”

His advice to his old friend and current Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is to focus on decreasing uncertainty in the minds of an Afghan public grappling with rising insecurity, an economic downturn, and doubts over the future of the national unity administration.

“Sometimes big challenges can produce a leadership that rises to the occasion,” he noted.