Zalmay Khalilzad, speaking publicly for the first time since stepping down as the U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan, said the United States did not put enough pressure on Afghanistan’s president to share power with the Taliban.
In an interview with CBS broadcast on October 24, Khalilzad also expressed doubts about the decision by the current U.S. administration to drop conditions on the pullout deal he had negotiated with the hard-line Islamist group during the administration of President Donald Trump.
President Joe Biden has faced criticism for the chaotic nature of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the sudden takeover by the Taliban following the 21-year-long Western involvement in the war-ravaged country.
Biden, in turn, has put much of the blame on the deal negotiated by Khalilzad during months of talks with the Taliban in Qatar, saying it tied the administration’s hands when it assumed office on January 20.
The February 29, 2020, agreement between Washington and the Taliban paved the way for the United States to pull its forces out of Afghanistan. The deal did not involve President Ashraf Ghani’s government in Kabul.
But Khalilzad said the deal was "a conditions-based package" that included eventual negotiations between the Taliban and Kabul, as well as a permanent cease-fire.
Khalilzad added that Biden decided "to do a calendar-based withdrawal," without regard to conditions on the ground.
"That was a decision made way above my pay grade," added the 70-year-old Khalilzad, who stepped down on October 18.
He contended that the Taliban would have eventually agreed to face-to-face meetings with Ghani’s government, although he did not offer specifics to back the claim. Taliban representatives had refused to meet with the Kabul government, calling it a puppet of the West.
Still, Khalilzad appeared to place most of the blame on Ghani, who he said never agreed to share power with the Taliban.
"They preferred the status quo to a political settlement," he said of the Kabul leadership.
"I believe the biggest difficulty was that President Ghani and a few other Afghan leaders did not believe that we were serious about withdrawal for a long time.
"And then when it became clear that the U.S. was leaving, then they miscalculated the effects of the continuing war. They were not serious about the political settlement.
"It's my judgment that we didn't press him hard enough. We were gentle with President Ghani. We used diplomacy. We encouraged him," Khalilzad said.
Ghani’s government -- and many in Washington -- assailed Khalilzad’s deal with the Taliban for cutting Kabul out of the negotiated deal.
The last U.S. soldiers left Afghanistan by the end of August -- two weeks after the Taliban had captured the capital as Afghan security forces offered no resistance.
Khalilzad told CBS: "I'm not saying it was an orderly withdrawal. This was an ugly final phase. No doubt about it."
But "it could have been a lot worse. Kabul could have been destroyed, street-to-street fighting could have occurred," he added.
In September, Khalilzad told the Financial Times that Ghani's abrupt departure from Afghanistan helped sink a deal in which Taliban fighters had agreed to hold off entering the capital and negotiate a political transition.
Ghani is currently in the United Arab Emirates following his exit from Afghanistan.