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The Taliban are winning on the battlefield as U.S. troops withdraw. Can Afghans stop them?

The U.S. will soon complete the troops' withdrawal from Afghanistan after 20 years of war. Nick Schifrin talks to the lead U.S. diplomat for the region, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad. Born in Afghanistan, he worked in various capacities with Presidents Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush and Donald Trump. He is currently the special representative for Afghan reconciliation under President Joe Biden.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Over the next few days, the U.S. will complete the withdrawal of most of its troops from Afghanistan, after 20 years of war.

    Nick Schifrin talks with the man who leads the U.S. diplomatic efforts in that country.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Over the last four decades, few Americans have helped shape Afghan policy more than Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad.

    He was born in Afghanistan, advised in President Reagan's State Department, was a presidential special envoy and then ambassador to Afghanistan during the George W. Bush administration, and has been the special representative for Afghan reconstruction under the Trump and Biden administrations.

    Ambassador Khalilzad, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    The Taliban across Afghanistan have seized dozens of districts. The Afghan army is ceding ground and, in some places, surrendering. And Afghan government cohesion is weakening. As you know, each of those variables existed before the U.S. announced its withdrawal, but all of those variables are accelerating.

    Given that, how do you justify the decision to withdraw?

  • Zalmay Khalilzad:

    Well, the withdrawal is based on an agreement that was signed almost two years ago.

    And that agreement had a timeline for withdrawal as a part of a package that also included commitments by the Taliban not to attack the United States forces after the signing, to cooperate not to allow the Afghan territory to be used by terrorists threatening the United States or our allies, and the start of inter-Afghan negotiation for a new government, as well as a cease-fire.

    So, the withdrawal was expected. It could have been made conditional, based on reaching an agreement and a cease-fire. But, ultimately, the president decided that it's best to conclude the withdrawal of our forces and encourage the Afghans, support the government to reach a negotiated agreement, because we don't see a military solution to the problem.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    We will talk about the political negotiations in a second.

    But I want to ask, that withdrawal is imminent, other than the U.S. troops that will stay at the airport and to guard the embassy. And yet there is still no finalized plan on how to maintain the Afghan air force, no finalized plan on how to secure the Kabul Airport, no finalized plan on U.S. military support from neighboring countries. Why not?

  • Zalmay Khalilzad:

    Well, we are working to address all of those issues.

    There is progress in securing an agreement with countries such as Turkey to secure the airport. We are still there, so that has to be in place before we are completely out of there militarily, which will be in September, based on what the president has announced.

    Two, we're also working with the Afghans to make sure they have the contracting services that they need to maintain their air force. And we are committed to achieving that, too, before September. So, we're dealing with those two issues.

    And, more, we're reorganizing our counterterrorism posture to have the access and the presence needed to monitor the situation in Afghanistan and to be able to strike terrorist targets, should that be necessary.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So, on that peace agreement, the Taliban are winning on the battlefield.

    Is the political process dead until the Afghan army can make gains or, frankly, the Taliban are at the gates of Kabul?

  • Zalmay Khalilzad:

    Well, of course, there are alternative futures.

    The best outcome would be to start negotiations now. The Talibs have to know — and we have said that to them — that if they take over Afghanistan by force, they will forgo what they say they want, with is recognition and support and legitimacy.

    And we also believe that the war will not end with the Taliban advances, because other Afghans will resist them. There is the possibility that, rather than two organized forces right now, the government and the Taliban negotiating, that, with the organization of new militias that are taking place, the situation could get more complicated.

    Rather than two organized forces negotiating peace, there could be a multiplicity of forces that could emerge as a result, making negotiations that much more difficult, increasing the prospects for a long war and for Afghanistan's neighborhoods to come in on different sides, and thus repeating the situation as was the case in the 1990s, as you know, after the Soviet departure.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The Afghan government says that negotiation with the Taliban that you mentioned earlier that called for the original withdrawal of U.S. forces by May the 1st, 2021, they say that that sidelined the Afghan government and gave leverage to the Taliban.

    You were, at the time, under incredible pressure from President Trump to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan. But, in retrospect, didn't the Taliban pocket U.S. concessions and never waiver from their desire to advance on the battlefield?

  • Zalmay Khalilzad:

    Well, I mean, the Taliban were not going to negotiate with the government before reaching an agreement with the United States.

    It would have been better, of course, if they had negotiated with the government. But 18, 19 years had passed, and that did not happen. So our agreement, in fact, with the Taliban opened the door for historic inter-Afghan negotiations, meaning the Talibs and the government sitting across the table, for the first time in 40 years of war in Afghanistan that that happened.

    Besides, of course, the Talibs agreed, in terms of U.S. interests, not to attack us after we had signed the agreement, but gave us the right to come to the defense of the Afghan forces, which was extraordinary that they would have agreed to that, but they did.

    And as our forces have withdrawn, they haven't, so far, thank goodness, attacked those forces. But both sides need to be realistic. They need to find a solution that works for Afghanistan. There's great pessimism that maybe Afghans would not come to an agreement. But I hope that's not the case ,because that would be a tragedy if they don't come to an agreement, and the long war becomes even longer, and Afghanistan's gains that have been made, the opportunities that have been provided by the United States and our allies would be put at risk.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And, Ambassador, finally, just in the little time that I have, a little bit more personally, you have been involved, as I mentioned at the top, with U.S.-Afghan policy for decades.

    Are you comfortable with what's happening now? And how do you feel, watching the news from Afghanistan today?

  • Zalmay Khalilzad:

    No, I'm not comfortable. I am unhappy that negotiations have not made the kind of progress that they should have between the two sides in Afghanistan.

    The continuation of the war is heartbreaking. I feel for the Afghan people. I have not forgotten who I am or where I was born, but I am pleased, as a U.S. diplomat, to have the opportunity to assist Afghans achieve a comprehensive and lasting peace.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, thank you very much.

  • Zalmay Khalilzad:

    Thank you, Nick. Good to be with you.

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