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Two decades of America's war in Afghanistan ended in chaos late this summer, and the future of the country remains in grave doubt under Taliban rule. Nick Schifrin speaks with a former top American diplomat, Zalmay Khalilzad, who spent much of those 20 years helping to manage America's role, and ultimately, its withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The future of Afghanistan remains in doubt under Taliban rule after 20 years of American war ended there in chaos this summer.
And now Nick Schifrin speaks with a former top American diplomat who spent much of those 20 years helping to manage America's role and ultimately its withdrawal from Afghanistan.
From the beginning to the end of America's war in Afghanistan, no American played a larger role than Zalmay Khalilzad.
Back in 2001, he helped write the Afghanistan constitution. He was President George W. Bush's special representative and then ambassador to Afghanistan until 2005. For the last three years, he negotiated the agreement with the Taliban that led to the U.S. withdrawal and, just in the last few months, has been intimately involved with the scramble to evacuate Americans and allies from Afghanistan, the country where he was born.
Zalmay Khalilzad, welcome back to the "NewsHour."
Zalmay Khalilzad, Former U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Conciliation: Well, it's great to be with you, Nick.
You resigned just a few days ago. Why?
Well, I thought that we were in a new phase in Afghanistan with the Taliban takeover. And my job was reconciliation between the republic and the Taliban and to bring American troops home and make sure we get assurances on terrorism, succeeded with bringing Americans home and terrorism commitments, but not with regard to reconciliation between the two sides, with one side collapsing.
So it is a new chapter in our relationship. And, second, I am concerned that politics in our country could have a negative effect on the choices we make going forward.
Well, let's look forward then.
The most recent Taliban U.S. meeting occurred in Doha. You were not the leader on the U.S. side. That was led by the deputy CIA director. Your replacement has not been given your seniority. Do you believe the Biden administration is emphasizing counterterrorism too much and downgrading diplomacy?
I think counterterrorism is important. That is vital. Of course, we have to be attentive to that.
But I also believe that we have other interests, and our values are involved. There is a question of, do we want the Afghan state, the Taliban state to collapse? That will affect terrorism. And there are regional implications and even alliance implications if Afghanistan was to collapse. Millions of refugees might be — might head to Europe.
The U.S. is withholding billions of Afghan reserves.
You have said that the U.S. should continue to withhold it until the Taliban meets certain conditions.
But the U.N. says 97 percent, 97 percent of Afghanistan could fall below the poverty line by next year.
Does the U.S. not need to do more right now to prevent Afghans from dying?
What I advocate is that we sit with the Talibs and see if we can reach a detailed agreement on what it is that they need to do in exchange for what it is that we will do, a kind of step-by-step road map.
But perhaps more than anyone, you know that road map would take a long time. There are Afghans who will die from hunger in the next weeks and months.
Does the Biden administration not need to do more now?
Well, we should do what we can for the humanitarian needs of the Afghans.
There are moneys that the bank has, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, that we could encourage that they release those funds to pay teachers' salaries, health care workers, to the civil servants; 500,000 Afghans work for the state.
And at the same time, our allies, they are moving in that direction it to provide more humanitarian assistance. The European Union just announced that they will be open their mission in Afghanistan within a month.
Let's look back a little bit over the last couple of years.
In the end, you worked for two presidents who wanted out of Afghanistan. The deal you negotiated under President Trump had conditions. But by the end of 2020, he drew down the number of troops beyond what he had to, and wanted to withdraw all of them, in fact.
And then, this year, President Biden decided to withdraw, despite the fact that the Taliban had not met those conditions. Did you agree with both presidents' decisions?
Well, I worked for them, so I would have preferred a condition-based approach. And the agreement had that feature. It was condition-based, four elements, interrelated, a package.
President Biden decided to go for a calender-based approach.
Did President Biden have the option to say, the Taliban are not living up to their agreement, we don't have to withdraw?
There was — there are things in the agreement, such as we could hold them to no hosting if there are people there as a condition that — and could have argued that not been made.
But the concern was that, if we do that, especially on the political negotiations, that we would perhaps remain stuck there for a long time.
We have been talking about 2021, President Biden's decision.
Let's go back to president 2020 an President Trump. You were under enormous pressure to sign a deal that included a U.S. withdrawal. Do you believe you could have received a stronger deal under a president who was less publicly pushing for withdrawal?
Well, I did sometimes say to the president that if — our leverage is the presence. If we withdraw the presence, the Taliban incentive to give us what we want on other things would be more limited, if not undermined.
Do you think President Trump gave away that leverage by withdrawing?
But the president had made it clear that we had been there for a very long time. We were not succeeding militarily. In fact, we were losing ground. So he was anxious to withdraw.
I will give you a chance to answer some of your critics.
You negotiated, of course, directly with the Taliban, not with the Taliban and the Afghan government. And into the 2020 agreement went a deal to release 5,000 prisoners by the Afghan government, Taliban prisoners.
You did so over the government's objection. Was it a fatal mistake, in retrospect, not to be negotiating both with the Taliban and the Afghan government?
We were negotiating with both, but not together, because I was shuttling between Doha and Kabul. I was showing drafts to the Afghan government.
We would have preferred, obviously, to do it together with them. But the Taliban regarded the government as a puppet, a government that had been imposed by the U.S. forces, forces that they regard as occupation forces.
But, by inserting 5,000 prisoners…
… to the prisoners, yes.
… by forcing the Afghan government to accept something that the U.S. was demanding, does that not play into the Taliban's claim that that's a puppet government?
Doesn't that delegitimize the Afghan government?
Well, the Afghan government had problems of legitimacy, given the problems of its election fraud, the problem of two presidents announced having inauguration the same day they were going to destroy the army from inside by dividing them between the two.
But on the prisoners, this was a confidence-building measure in exchange for the Talibs agreeing to sit with the government as the government.
Senior military leaders I talk to say, with all due respect, history will not judge you well. And they say that you fatally weakened the will of the Afghan army to fight by signing that deal in 2020.
I believe that the circumstances that we confronted in 2018-'19, which were the result of the previous 17 years of problematic policies, failed efforts at building institutions, not dealing with problems such as the issue of sanctuary, and the choice that was made to bring the war home, deal with the remaining issues of Afghan-Afghan issues by diplomacy, by our other instruments, the American military was not the right instrument to enforce an agreement among Afghans.
Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, thank you very much.
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Nick Schifrin is the foreign affairs and defense correspondent for PBS NewsHour, based in Washington, D.C. He leads NewsHour's foreign reporting and has created week-long, in-depth series for NewsHour from China, Russia, Ukraine, Nigeria, Egypt, Kenya, Cuba, Mexico, and the Baltics. The PBS NewsHour series "Inside Putin's Russia" won a 2018 Peabody Award and the National Press Club's Edwin M. Hood Award for Diplomatic Correspondence. In November 2020, Schifrin received the American Academy of Diplomacy’s Arthur Ross Media Award for Distinguished Reporting and Analysis of Foreign Affairs.
As the deputy senior producer for foreign affairs and defense at the PBS NewsHour, Dan plays a key role in helping oversee and produce the program’s foreign affairs and defense stories. His pieces have broken new ground on an array of military issues, exposing debates simmering outside the public eye.
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