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Former Ambassador Weighs In On Failures In Afghanistan

Afghan security forces are fighting the Taliban across the country nearly fifteen years after their hard-line regime was ousted.
Afghan security forces are fighting the Taliban across the country nearly fifteen years after their hard-line regime was ousted.

WASHINGTON, -- Afghanistan-born Zalmay Khalilzad is a Washington insider with a career in academia and government spanning decades since 1970s. He was former U.S. President George W. Bush’s ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq, and the United Nations. In a detailed interview with RFE/RL’s Gandhara website, he assesses Washington’s failures in Afghanistan and what can be done to prevent the country from relapsing into the anarchy that followed the withdrawal of Soviet forces in 1989.

RFE/RL: Your recently published memoirs are a recollection of a long and distinguished career. When you reflect back to Afghanistan after 2001, what major mistakes did Washington commit? Was one excluding the Taliban from the new government, or was it failing to deal with Pakistan’s support for the Taliban?

Zalmay Khalilzad: First, I want to go a little further back, because I think it may be useful for your readers to go back to the 1980s for a moment, where the original mistake -- in my view -- was made: When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan [in 1979], the U.S. assumed the Soviets would ultimately prevail in Afghanistan. Based on this assumption, the U.S. strategy focused on how to increase the costs of occupation for the Soviets so that they would learn a lesson and be deterred from moving against Pakistan or Iran. And that assumption had a distorting effect in terms of post-Soviet Afghanistan in two ways.

One [mistake] was that the U.S. did not care as much as it should have about who got assistance during the fight against the Soviets. It essentially subcontracted the support through the military intelligence ISI [Inter-Services Intelligence] of Pakistan. The ISI preferred -- and the U.S. acquiesced -- that the bulk of the assistance would go to more Islamist groups, whether it be Mr. [Gulbudin] Hekmatyar’s [Hizb-e Islamic] group or others similar to it. And the justification was a chicken-and-egg issue; the ISI argued they got most of the assistance because they did most of the fighting, but then because they got the most assistance they had more ability to fight.

The second distorting effect was that the U.S. failed to develop a strategy for post-Soviet Afghanistan, because the assumption was that there would be no post-Soviet Afghanistan. Once it became clear that the Soviets were leaving, the U.S. found it hard to adjust. Washington did not embrace the goal of putting a government together in Afghanistan with the help of the Pakistanis, the Iranians -- maybe even the Soviets at that time -- that would maintain stability. Instead, the U.S. bandwagoned with Islamists who wanted to continue the fight until the post-Soviet regime was defeated. As the war continued, the U.S. became disengaged. The U.S. had accomplished its objective beyond what it had expected, which was increase the costs, and instead was able to defeat the Soviets, which had huge ramifications globally for the Soviet position.

But failing to plan for post-Soviet Afghanistan led to an Afghan civil war, among the muhajedin groups, that destroyed Kabul. The muhajedin did not rise to the occasion to come together to establish a new political order; they fought over power, and that opened the door for the rise of the Taliban, and for regional players to become much more important. As America withdrew and the Soviets disintegrated, the role of the relevant regional powers grew, and that led to the rise of the Taliban, Al-Qaeda embedding itself in Afghanistan, and ultimately to 9/11.

Zalmay Khalilzad the former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Afghanistan and the United Nations.
Zalmay Khalilzad the former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Afghanistan and the United Nations.

One of the big mistakes is U.S. policymakers shouldn’t have left a mess behind in Afghanistan, because that mess led to the civil war, which led to terrorism. Al-Qaeda, by finding a place in Afghanistan, was able to reach out and touch the United States itself.

Then in the post-9/11 period, in my judgement, with regard to the political settlement, the U.S., unlike in Iraq, did the right thing in Afghanistan, immediately going to a government run by the Afghans rather than ruling the country itself, which was the case of what happened in Iraq. On the issue of the Taliban, it was unrealistic to have the Taliban come to Bonn for the negotiations that took place to form the government for two reasons: One was that the Taliban were still fighting near Kandahar and in Kandahar itself while Bonn was being convened. So the war was still going on. Second, the Taliban were unwilling to come and be one of the factions afterward.

But there may have been an opportunity for reconciliation later -- and I have to say this carefully because of the uncertainty that exists about what really happened. After the Bonn Agreement, when President Karzai was named chairman of the interim authority, there is some information that is uncertain in terms of its veracity, as far as I’m concerned, that the Taliban leadership met with President Karzai – not Mullah Mohammed Omar but others – near Kandahar and presented him with some requests in exchange for which they were willing to pledge allegiance to the new government. Now, I have never asked Karzai about this, and he has never discussed this with me, even though in January 2002 I became the presidential envoy of Afghanistan. I saw him very regularly and intensely, and there was no sharing of this information that the letter had presented to him and what they were expecting from the Afghan government and the coalition and what they wanted in return from the coalition. When I asked Karzai many years later when I became aware of this -- was there such a letter, and where was this letter? -- he said to me he had given it back to the people who had given it to him and, as to why this was not brought up, there was no satisfactory answer given. And so there may have been a missed opportunity -- and I have to emphasize “may,” given the uncertainty -- that perhaps something could have been done at that time.

When I became ambassador in late 2003, after being also focused on Iraq for a while, I rigorously pursued a conversation with the Taliban. I met with Mullah [Mohamad] Ghaus, the first foreign minister of the Taliban. We together went to see President Karzai in the palace and discuss reconciliation, and we discussed the establishment of a mechanism for reconciliation with Mr. [Sibghatullah] Mojadidi being named as the head. Delegations were sent to Pakistan to reach out to the Taliban. But by then, I believe, if there had been an opportunity earlier, it had been diminished. The Taliban had begun to be reconstituted in Pakistan, and many of those who went back and forth were either arrested in Pakistan or were killed. I think that by 2004, it seems to me, Pakistan had managed to get significant influence as these Taliban leaders were recovering and reconstituting in Pakistan, and Pakistan did not want them to reconcile with this new Afghan authority. And so, that is at least my take, that maybe we lost or missed an opportunity in the earlier period. Not in Bonn, because that was unrealistic. Maybe after Bonn, when the war was over. In the initial few months after President Karzai took over in Kabul, maybe January to June or July, there may have been a window of opportunity of 2002.

RFE/RL: When you were ambassador, you were critical of Pakistan’s role, particularly the Taliban sanctuaries in Balochistan and tribal areas and Pakistan’s relationship with the Haqqani network. Why has Washington failed to deal with this, which has even led people like Karzai to question the sincerity of the United States in rebuilding Afghanistan?

Khalilzad: I think 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. 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. I think the U.S. has gone through phases on this issue. There was an initial phase where it was not recognized what the problem was -- that there was a sanctuary developing and that an incipient insurgency was developing in the initial phase. And that has to do with the culture of U.S. intelligence and U.S. decision-making, in my view. Because we did not get, for a long time, a specific piece of information that the Pakistani leadership had sat together and at this day and this hour decided to allow a sanctuary and to start an insurgency in Afghanistan.

There was some ambiguity. Yes, there was some information that some Talibs were in Pakistan from the beginning although not specific information about each individual, like where was Mullah Omar at any one point. I couldn’t say they knew where he was at each minute all the time. But there was the issue of what was sanctioned by Pakistan. And then there was the question of what various Pakistanis knew. Was it the president, General Musharaf, with whom the U.S. and the West have good relations generally? He was cooperating on many issues, including over flights of Pakistani territory with U.S. aircraft. He was allowing some bases to be used by the U.S., he was allowing supplies to get through Pakistani territory to go to Afghanistan, he was arresting some Al-Qaeda people. All of that also protected him, in my view, from severe pressure on the Taliban issue. I think that that, too, may have been a mistake, in my view, not to have to paid a lot of attention earlier, in what I call a ‘golden hour’ when you do something big and significant, like use force, like we did to overthrow the Taliban, you get everyone’s attention that something serious is going on. You have a lot of credibility, and I think as in the case of the Taliban as has been discussed before, 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. 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 and potential massive pressure for allowing the Taliban to go on.

Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai
Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai

Pakistan also denied it was doing this for a very long time, allowing a sanctuary to develop. I think the U.S. has tried different methods to deal with this problem, but those efforts have been ineffective. It has tried to get Afghanistan and Pakistan to come together and talk together even at the summit level, to try to engage Pakistan in saying, “Don’t do this.” It has tried to use economic pressure, and it has tried withholding military supplies as pressure. But what the U.S. has tried to do so far has been ineffective, which is a fair criticism.

But when you look at the Afghans looking at the situation, it has raised questions about U.S. motivation, conspiracy theories, questions about what our intentions were, whether we wanted to succeed in Afghanistan or not. And it also affected the relationship between the U.S. and President Karzai, in particular as he 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). So this failure, which is in part diplomatic because we haven’t come up with an arrangement between Afghanistan and Pakistan to address this issue, has been very costly to the United States and has had a huge impact.

RFE/RL: How can Washington salvage this situation by cooperating with China or bringing in China or other allies like Saudi Arabia to pressure Pakistan into delivering the Taliban? But why have we not seen any positive results on that front as well despite engagement at the highest level?

Khalilzad: Three things are needed. One is that the U.S. engagement has to become multilateral in terms of other friends and allies that Pakistan values, who also may see a problem in Pakistan’s connections with the extremists, be it the Taliban or the Haqqani or the Taliban with Al-Qaeda, or as the relationships continue and even as other extremist groups from Central Asia or from China are coming. Others may feel threatened by this development, such as China or Saudi Arabia. Whether they could facilitate an agreement between Afghanistan and Pakistan? There are legitimate Pakistani concerns, such as the Pakistani Taliban having bases or sanctuaries in Afghanistan. The aim is to secure an understanding that there could be no sanctuary in Pakistan for extremists aimed at Afghanistan and no sanctuary in Afghanistan for extremists seeking to attack Pakistan.

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

​But at the same time, other things are very important. One thing is to harden Afghanistan against this threat so that the Pakistani calculation could change. They might say, “This has gone on for a long time; it’s not working.” They might then recalibrate. Therefore, policy hardening in Afghanistan against the Taliban is important, by strengthening its military, by strengthening politically, by strengthening economically, and the Afghans coming together in the face of this threat and therefore addressing some of the weaknesses of the unity government.

The third is to take advantage of the weaknesses of the Taliban. This is not only to focus on reconciliation. Also, since the announcement of the death of Mullah Omar, there has been a degree of fragmentation of the Taliban when you have not only Mullah [Akhtar Muhammad] Mansur’s group, which is the biggest, but also Mullah Rasul’s group, that have been fighting against each other. You have [Mullah Abdul Jalil], the former deputy minister, who also has some group, and there are other people and commanders who are dissatisfied.

Both the Afghan government and the United States and other friends need to organize themselves to develop relations with some of these other factions and encourage some of them to join the peace process and to fragment the Taliban further. I understand that for reconciliation you need one address to deal with, and I regard that not to be as promising given the pattern of behavior that we have seen in the last few weeks. Now, I think the door to reconciliation must be kept open, and there has to be more attention to the weaknesses of the Taliban in the same way they are trying to take advantage of the weaknesses of the Afghan government side.

So I would think that this three-tier approach is absolutely necessary.

RFE/RL: One of the issues I think is on a lot of Afghan minds is the whole issue of empowering what some people in Afghanistan refer to as warlords. How would you respond to criticism that people like you were in charge of the policy when the warlords got away with so much power and they were supported and there has been no accountability for them?

Khalilzad: I think that’s a legitimate issue for historians, Afghan analysts, political forces and especially forward-minded young people to think about and address, and I think it’s a fair point. I would say three things very quickly on that, too. One is that the United States had relied on some of these warlords to overthrow the Taliban. The U.S. had had a very light footprint on the ground, and so that was one way to get the power; they got the assistance, they played a role, and the U.S. dealt with them [as allies]. And to the U.S., I think, we became convinced, at least during my time, that the problem of warlords was a serious problem that needed to be addressed. But we thought of it in two ways. The first was that we needed to shift the balance away from them in favor of the government that was formed at the center by DDR-ing them: by decommissioning, demobilizing, and reintegrating their militias. Japan was in the lead.

We achieved a lot of success in taking heavy equipment from a lot of the warlords, and we thought also that politically they needed to be supportive of the government and the government needed to integrate them. And with regard to the problem of justice -- number two -- we thought that there had to be a balance between the requirements of peace and stability in not opening many more fronts. To go to war to pursue the requirement of justice, the government, not the coalition or the United States, but the government needs to get stronger to build up this balance to enable something along the lines of the South African model, or others, as some truth and reconciliation.

And times when the warlords were not behaving consistent with this Bonn Agreement, at least during my time, we were quite tough and strong with them. I feel myself very strongly that during the period I was there, we weakened the warlords quite significantly and not only through DDR but at times we for example flew airplanes on General Dostum’s house when he was behaving inconsistent with this new Afghanistan’s values [in 2004] when he didn’t want to allow the Afghan national army forces to cross Shiberghan into the [neighboring town] of Maimana [in northern Afghanistan] where there were problems.

Similarly when Ismail Khan and his rival commander Amanullah Khan were about to engage in a war to destroy [the western Afghan city of] Herat. We sent helicopters to Shindand [district in Herat] and made it clear that no one could cross a particular bridge that was separating Shindand from Herat, and I went there personally to Herat to ask Ismail Khan if he couldn’t stay there anymore in Herat. But that required a very deft sort of mix of coerciveness with respect, and that’s why I went personally to deal with Ismail Khan.

Former Islamist warlord, Abdul Rasul Sayyaf (C) sits with his two vice-presidential candidates, Mohammad Ismail Khan (L) and Abdul Wahab Erfan (file photo)
Former Islamist warlord, Abdul Rasul Sayyaf (C) sits with his two vice-presidential candidates, Mohammad Ismail Khan (L) and Abdul Wahab Erfan (file photo)

​But I think later as the Taliban pressure increased its operations it became, in my view, less willing to pursue the type of policy we were pursuing in 2003 and 2004, when I was there. I think that they feared, unwisely, that by pursuing that line of you cooperate, you integrate, you respect and maybe there will be accountability and reconciliation somewhere down the road. I feared that, if you continue with this line with making accommodations, it will open new fronts, and they became suspicious of U.S. motives. As the sanctuaries produced more violence, it even created suspicions of the period that I was there. They questioned the motives of putting pressure on the warlords: Were the U.S. trying to weaken us, put us at odds with each other?

I’ve had this conversation with President Karzai, when he raised questions in the earlier phase. He was one pushing me and pushing the U.S. to do more against the warlords. At a later phase, he became more dependent on them and became their advocate. For example, when Dostum had been pushed to go to Turkey, to leave Afghanistan, he was the one who brought him back [in 2009] before the election. That’s why I called the sanctuary in Pakistan the mother of all issues -- as that became worse Karzai’s calculus also shifted. And 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.

One other footnote to this is that as the situation got worse, and we became more militarily engaged with lots more forces than was the case when I was there, we did something that was unintended. It reflects the fact that parts of the U.S. government were pursuing their own priorities. Some of our military units and security institutions became dependent on the warlords for transportation of the supplies that they needed, for security of facilities, and through that road they also got financial resources from contractors. The warlords became contractors with the U.S., so I think that I would make a distinction between the earlier period when we were on a good trajectory, in my view, of weakening and integrating them, to one where they are re-empowered after that time.

But this is an important issue with lessons to be learned about how you might do this and what could happen differently.

RFE/RL: Afghanistan does not have a problem of separatism. But we also have sometimes these kinds of ethnic tensions and the warlords using them to grab more power. Do you see Afghanistan as able to deal with such internal issues?

Khalilzad: Two points on this. One is that you’re right that in Afghanistan separatism does not have roots, although the country is made up of different ethnic groups who all want to capture Kabul or fight over power arrangements in Kabul. Maybe now I hear that there might be some issue of decentralization as a way for people to run their own areas more than in the past. Afghanistan for a long time in the past was more of a unitary state, but now there’s been an emphasis that maybe part of the solution may be something like decentralization may be the solution for the future, as things like ethnicity have become more politicized by some of the warlords or leaders who see that as an instrument or a mechanism as protecting their base of power or remaining power. And some may feel politically, even younger folks -- although I hear maybe contrary reports -- that the younger Afghans from different ethnic groups are quite nationalistic or patriotic, which is positive.

But some would say Afghanistan is a nation with deep roots; however, state-building and institutions have been quite weak. During the war against the Soviets and during the civil war and after, the state institutions were largely destroyed. And after 9/11, the rebuilding of institutions got under way initially very slowly and maybe then more energetically, but still it was incomplete. State building happened in the midst of many other challenges, including the challenge of the Taliban, and the agreements that were based on ground realities at that time in terms of balance of power that that may not have been reflective of Afghanistan as a whole as it might have been under normal times. So I would say that Afghanistan’s state institutions need attention as part of this hardening of Afghanistan the strengthening of Afghanistan’s state institutions.

RFE/RL: Regarding another neighbor, Iran. In your book, you have discussed in detail your push to engage with Iran. Surprisingly, Iran was very warm and forthcoming and cooperated with the United States in overthrowing the Taliban, and in dealing with its the aftermath. But in 2003, President Bush labeled it part of the Axis of Evil. How did it happen? What went wrong?

Khalilzad: First of all, it is true that after 9/11, we did engage with Iran. They were there for Bonn, and before Bonn even, some of the elements of our government were in touch with Iranians. They were helpful in establishing ties with some of the Northern Alliance figures, and in Bonn they played a public role in terms of working with us to reach an agreement on the government. But there was, even from the beginning, two Irans, which is a challenge in that region, too. There was a two-track approach, where diplomats like Javad Zarif in Bonn were very helpful while the Revolutionary Guards element, which was General [Qasim] Sulaimani’s operation, was doing things in clear contradiction with what the diplomats were doing. I think President Bush’s statement about the Axis of Evil – which I did not support and I was not part of the discussions that led to it – may have reflected this other track, and of course it was taking other things than just Afghanistan perhaps into account. But I think even in the aftermath of that statement, we continued to engage in Afghanistan, and when I was ambassador, after the Axis of Evil speech had been made, I met regularly with the Iranian ambassador, who is now ambassador again, Mr [Mohamad Reza] Bahrami. We met regularly at the residence of the UN envoy during my time, Mr. Lakhdar Brahimi and Mr. Jean Arnault, the two people who were envoys during my time.

So some people may exaggerate that negative effect that statement had on cooperation and on dialogue. No, we continued the engagement, and sometimes it was useful.

RFE/RL: The Taliban are behaving like terrorists when they use indiscriminate force in a civilian neighborhood such as the recent attack in Kabul that killed and injured hundreds. While some of their leaders are on terrorist lists, the Taliban as a movement and as a group are still not a terrorist group. Why is that?

Khalilzad: I condemn in the strongest terms these attacks by the Taliban. They are indiscriminate. They have taken responsibility for it. They said when they announced their spring offensive that they would not attack civilian targets, and yet within a couple of days of their statement they did this attack. I think we need to think about two things: One is that given this is terrorist type of action, should one regard the whole group and characterize them, list them, as a terrorist group? Look at what the implications are, for Afghanistan, for the U.S.; the international community needs to look at that. And two, one needs to be less hopeful about the reconciliation process. While I said it before, we need to keep that door open to that possibility, but much more effort needs to be put toward fighting the war more effectively and going after the fault lines inside the Taliban with a razor sharp attention. One has to organize oneself, in a joint cell between Afghanistan and its friends, to exploit that and to fragment the Taliban.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani

The government must also look at how to mobilize, whether it can mobilize, the population to defend the country through a more participatory mobilization process. The U.S. needs to look at how it can assist Afghanistan more effectively, because I believe the Taliban are trying to shift the balance even more decisively. Unfortunately, if there is any doubt in the mind of the Afghan general population about which way the balance is going, what the prospects are, that uncertainty about the future can have a negative effect on the security side as well as on the economic side and the political side. So I think this is a very serious issue that requires a re-examination as to whether there is need for a significant adjustment in the approach to the Taliban and to the conflict.

RFE/RL: One last question. You know the current Afghan president very well. The unity government has been kind of delivered mixed result at best -- its basic achievement is that it has not fallen apart yet. But its facing major political and security threats. What kind of future you see for this administration?

Khalilzad: I hope that the leadership will rise to the occasion. Sometimes big challenges can produce a leadership that rises to the occasion, or sometimes the opposite happens. They are being tested, the leadership. While it’s clear that the election for president is in five years, that’s the term, but the unity government is the result of a political agreement, and that agreement calls for a Loya Jirga to be held within a few years. Given that it looks like they can’t hold a constitutional Loya Jirga, there is need for a serious discussion within the government and between the government and the political forces as to what can be done within these two years.

With regard to the future of the unity government, and a consensus of forces that need to cooperate, as between the president and the CEO, other forces that need to be part of the political process should come about. And that is a challenge that I think they must address. They cannot ignore it, in my view, this issue as if there is no issue; that would be, I think, a miscalculation to treat it that way politically. Second is that the government, particularly Ashraf Ghani, has a good long-term vision for Afghanistan. He’s a smart fellow, experienced in state building not only in Afghanistan but also around the world. But I think the challenge is how to translate that longer-term vision to produce results in the short term, to decrease uncertainty in the minds of the people, which could have negative effects on security and economy and investment. It also may encourage hedging behavior where the population rather than being entirely supportive of the government some begin to kind of look at alternative futures and become indifferent or even helpful [to the insurgents].

The fact that a truck bomb can come all the way close to the center of power should raise questions. If the population is supportive, the government should have been alerted by people to this plot. I think there is at this time a kind of crisis where everyone should try to come together and support the president and the government to confront this challenge, and the government needs to, as I said before, review its strategy and plan whether adjustments are needed to it. But at the same time, the government must address the people’s concerns about security, about the political timeline, the people’s concern about the economy. It can’t risk losing more support of the people because that would be undermining the government.