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Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad is stepping down as the U.S.’ top diplomat for Afghanistan, the State Department announced Monday, after a tumultuous three years in which he negotiated a peace agreement with the Taliban that promised a U.S. troop withdrawal, and helped execute the Biden administration’s chaotic departure from Afghanistan as the Taliban took over the country in August.
He will be replaced by his deputy, Thomas West, who served in Afghanistan for the State Department and the National Security Council staff during the Obama administration, and for Joe Biden when he was vice president.
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A senior State Department official, in an interview previewing the announcement, said Khalizad’s departure comes at a “logical inflection point.” The peace process he led is dead and the U.S. is keeping the Taliban at arm’s length while increasing humanitarian assistance, the official said. Khalilzad “ably and capably led the process” that led to the 2020 peace agreement, the official said, “and where we are now is a very different juncture.”
The official said Khalilzad was not fired, explaining that the administration chose “continuity” at the beginning of the year, and that Khalilzad “always said his time would be finite.”
A separate senior State Department official, not authorized to speak to the media on the record, called Khalilzad’s departure “a mutual decision,” and that Khalilzad offered to remain an informal liaison with the Taliban indefinitely.
On its face, the departure will likely not alter U.S. policy toward Afghanistan, which has been set by the White House. Along with an imminent humanitarian crisis, the administration is focused on holding the Taliban to account on three distinct areas: human rights, including girls education; safe passage of Afghans and Americans who want to leave the country; and securing the movement of humanitarian aid and aid workers.
READ MORE: Taliban face growing problems running Afghanistan as talks begin with the U.S.
The senior State Department official said West’s priorities would be to engage with the Taliban and U.S. allies to ensure the Taliban live up to those commitments, as well as its promise in the 2020 peace talks to prevent al Qaeda from using Afghanistan to launch international attacks. But West brings a significantly less public profile than Khalilzad, externally and within the Biden administration, and his arrival could signify the intelligence community and counterterrorism becoming the focal point of the administration’s Afghanistan policy going forward. Last week, the U.S. met with the Taliban in Doha, and the U.S. delegation was led by David Cohen, deputy director of the CIA. Up until that meeting, Khalilzad would typically lead interagency meetings.
While the U.S. wants to focus on counter-terrorism, the most pressing need is the imminent economic collapse of the country. Before the Taliban takeover, foreign donors provided 75 percent of government expenditures. But, there is currently no banking system and the Taliban have no way to pay government salaries. And some ordinary Afghans are already in crisis, with some selling furniture and other belongings in order to survive. The first senior State Department official admitted that “delivery of aid is not enough to prevent the massive cratering of the economy.”
Khalilzad, who was born in Afghanistan, had cultivated relationships with every leading figure in the country. But he became a reviled figure among the most senior members of the Afghan government during the time he negotiated with the Taliban. At the behest of the Trump administration, he cut out the Afghan government in those talks, and made a deal directly with Taliban leaders.
A former senior member of the Afghan government told the PBS NewsHour that in their view, Khalilzad “lied throughout the process… He held the Taliban by the hand and brought them to Kabul.”
The Biden administration named West as Khalilzad’s deputy, and starting this year, West accompanied Khalilzad in many of his meetings. Senior Afghan officials praised his presence, in part because they said they considered him a check on Khalilzad.
But Khalilzad was still the main representative for Afghanistan policy, which over two administrations set the stage for withdrawal–and then executed it.
“He did what he was asked to do by both the Trump administration and the Biden administration,” said Laurel Miller, the director of International Crisis Group’s South Asia Program and the former Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. “Some may quibble with his specific tactics, but even one of the fundamental criticisms of him by Afghans and others — that the Afghan government was excluded — he did what he was asked to do: make a deal with the Taliban.”
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.
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