In this episode of "Intelligence Matters," host Michael Morell speaks with Zalmay Khalilzad, former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. under President George W. Bush and special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation from September 2018 to October 2021. Khalilzad and Morell discuss the history of U.S. engagement in Afghanistan, including in the period during the withdrawal of Soviet forces in 1989, after 9/11, and today. Khalilzad offers new details about the deal his team brokered with the Taliban in 2020 - including the contents of two still-secret annexes - and explains why he believes diplomatic engagement with the Taliban should continue. Khalilzad also reflects on the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan as well as his own role as lead negotiator under Presidents Trump and Biden.
- A "conditions-based" withdrawal: "I thought a condition-based approach...if we wanted a negotiated settlement, would be helpful. And especially with President Biden, we tried hard to describe the various options that he faced as a new president. And although he differed from President Trump in many ways...on linking American troop presence to an agreement among Afghans, he was very similar to his predecessor. He did not want to make a withdrawal conditional, particularly if it meant we might have to go back to fight."
- Maintaining diplomatic engagement: "I think turning our back on Afghanistan, the political cost and the security costs would be higher down the road if Afghanistan collapses and terrorism expands. I think either you pay now, or you pay later. There may be some costs, political costs, for engagement and negotiating seriously, but the cost will be much higher, both politically and otherwise, if we don't and the situation gets a lot worse."
- His role in the U.S. withdrawal: "I always felt that I should try and try harder. I could have left after the agreement with the Talibs. I could have threatened to leave several times or actually left to get the president to change his mind. I didn't do that. I thought that being there, perhaps, I was going to be more helpful. Soldiers don't get the option of resigning – perhaps they do, but they don't. And I felt the same way, that I had to do my very best to serve the interests of the United States and the president that I worked for."
"Intelligence Matters" transcript: Zalmay Khalilzhad
Producer: Olivia Gazis
MICHAEL MORELL: Ambassador, welcome to our show. It's great to chat with you again. It's been a while.
ZALMAY KHALILZAD: Well, it's great to be with you. I'm looking forward to the chat.MICHAEL MORELL: Lots to talk about. Before we get to that, I did want to mention that you're the author of a terrific book called "The Envoy: From Kabul to the White House, My Journey Through a Turbulent World." You're going to have to update it - or even write a new book, given what's happened the last couple of years.
ZALMAY KHALILZAD: Yes, I'm very much thinking about that. Thank you for what you said about my previous book.
MICHAEL MORELL: So, Ambassador, I want to kind of cover the waterfront here and I want to start by going all the way back to the U.S. involvement - or rather lack of U.S. involvement - in Afghanistan in the aftermath of the withdrawal of Soviet forces in 1989.
And I'm wondering if you think there are things the U.S. could have done in that period or not that would have or could have precluded the Taliban's takeover of the country just a few years later - and would have prevented pretty much all of the mess that we've had to deal with.
ZALMAY KHALILZAD: Well, that's a very important question and a question that I have pondered on. And it goes back to the struggle against the Soviet Union in the 1980s. As you know well, we assisted the Afghans, the United States, and their struggle and their resistance against the Soviet Union, which had come into Afghanistan after a total Soviet coup had taken place and had run into difficulties because it was seeking to transform Afghanistan to a Soviet republic in terms of internal reforms.
And the traditional Afghan leaders, tribes and religious leaders resisted that effort and significant conflict took place. Among the forces that fought the Soviets, the hardest were Islamic forces, led by some of the people who are still around, like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar of the Islamic Party. And we, working together with our partners and with Pakistan, supported those forces.
But our assumption at that time was, as we were supporting those groups, that the Soviets would ultimately prevail. And therefore, our objective became to impose as much cost as possible on the Soviets to deter further Soviet expansion. There was some belief that the invasion of Afghanistan may have been part of a broader effort to get to the warm waters, a long-term Russian objective, it was assumed, and towards the Arabian Sea and the Persian Gulf. They had come closer by invading Afghanistan.
But as it turned out, we were more effective than we thought, the Afghans and us an imposing costs, and the Soviets were not the as tough, as determined as we assumed, and the Soviets ultimately agreed to withdraw from Afghanistan.
And if at that time, as the Soviets indicated, they were going to withdraw, we could have worked together, perhaps with the Soviets and with more moderate Afghans to put the government together that would have avoided a continuing war that ultimately led to the Civil War and the Taliban takeover; perhaps the current and subsequent steps could have been avoided.
But we didn't. In part because we didn't trust the Soviets. We didn't even believe that they were serious about withdrawal. There was also the idea that, how could one adjust against forces that given us this great victory -which it was - the victory against the Soviets in Afghanistan? It may have helped the collapse of the Soviets. To what extent, we don't know. But initially we continued our support of the anti-Soviet mujahedeen, as they were called. But ultimately we we sort of abandoned Afghanistan. And as I said before the Civil War happened then and that al-Qaida was part of the mix in that Civil War. Missed opportunity.
MICHAEL MORELL: So let me then jump, Mr. Ambassador, all the way to the immediate aftermath of 9/11. As you know, President Bush gave the Taliban an opportunity to avoid war, essentially, bring bin Laden to justice in some way. The Taliban chose not to do that.
But once they were driven from power, once the Taliban was driven from power, I'm wondering whether you believed there might have been missed opportunities in the early years after 9/11 regarding how we and the new Afghan government dealt with the Taliban, that could have ended the war much earlier and more on our terms than where we ended up. Were there missed opportunities there, too?
ZALMAY KHALILZAD: I believe so, although at that time I was personally not aware of it. But I have learned since that after the agreement in Bonn, when the Taliban government was overthrown to form a new government that the U.N. and the lead on. The Taliban, apparently - this had been confirmed to me by President Karzai - they did give a letter essentially accepting the Karzai-led government as the legitimate government, but demanding in exchange for that that they be allowed to live in dignity and honor in their homes and not to be pursued.
And President Karzai asked them, Karzai is reported to go and read that letter on the radio and local radio in Kandahar, and he says they did. But why that agreement was not accepted? Why that offer was not acted on? On the one hand, it's understandable that there was a great deal of anger in the U.S., given what had happened. President Bush several times that told me directly, first as his envoy and then when he nominated me to be ambassador to Kabul, that we should bring the Taliban to justice.
And whether there could have been a different balance between the requirements of justice and the requirements of reconciliation and ending the war in Afghanistan, I think there was a missed opportunity then. And Karzai reports that he was told by one of our senior leaders that that was not an opportunity or an option that we could support, that Taliban offer, and that we wanted.
Still, there was a lot of accountability that had to take place. So that was, in my judgment, a missed opportunity.
MICHAEL MORELL: So during this period just after 9/11, you were on President Bush's National Security Council staff. You and I used to see each other in the mornings often. I'm wondering if you can explain to folks how we went from a narrow CT mission in Afghanistan just 9/11 to a broader, nation-building mission.
ZALMAY KHALILZAD: There were two factors that I think led to it; one kind of directly and one sort of, almost kind of a direct confrontation and debate of the issue. And the one that was more direct was the issue that, in order to preclude Afghanistan ever again becoming a platform for terrorists such as al Qaeda - who was going to ensure that? Were we going to be occupying Afghanistan and ensuring that preclusion or what are we going to build the Afghan security forces and institutions of Afghanistan so that the Afghans would do it?
And I think over time, incrementally, with a variety of steps, such as starting the building-up of Afghan national security forces, a decision was that it's better, cheaper, if the Afghans will do it and we would be in support mode. And so that was one, that we needed to build Afghan institutions, helped build Afghan institutions to control the Afghan territory; that uncontrolled territory would attract the terrorists.
Second, was this a kind of a vision that the president acquired over time and especially in his second term, which was that the Middle East, broader Middle East, Islamic parts from Pakistan to Morocco, was the kind of dysfunctional region that produced security problems for the world the way a dysfunctional Europe before World War II and until the end of World War II had been a security problem of the world, and producing two world wars and many other wars and conflicts in their own region and beyond.
And so the president embraced this vision of transforming the Middle East into a zone of peace, prosperity and democracy the way Europe has become, and that democratization was a key requirement. And therefore, Iraq and Afghanistan were the two pillars of this new Middle East, transformed Middle East. And so I think those two forces, beliefs, and particularly with President Bush, I think, were contributors to this broader vision for transformation of Afghanistan as well.
MICHAEL MORELL: Yeah. At the time, were you confident that that mission in Afghanistan was achievable? And, looking back on what happened over the last 20 years, do you still think that it was achievable?
ZALMAY KHALILZAD: I think that at one level, of course, it's hard to reject that vision, the second vision. It's sort of very appealing. There's a certain appeal that all peoples, everywhere, are essentially the same and that there were times that people thought that democracy and Germany couldn't go together, or democracy and Japan or people arguing about India, given its various communities and belief systems.
But I think there is always a question of ends and means and stages. I thought that what would have required to succeed in that mission, which was that it would have been multi-generational and it would have also required difficult decisions, for example, what do you do about the sanctuaries for opposition, and Pakistan would produce its own challenges because we, on the one hand, we were very dependent on Pakistan for the things we did in Afghanistan, including on the military front and we also needed Pakistan's help on al Qaeda.
But on the other hand, Pakistan also was providing a safe haven for Taliban leaders. And that obviously impacted what we did or didn't do, what we achieved or didn't achieve. So in retrospect, it was, given all the limitations and the requirements, some people were saying in order to pacify Afghanistan, for example, that some colleagues at RAND thought you would de facto occupy with 450,000 or so troops, and the will to do that was not there. So it was an appealing vision, kind of a daring vision. But it was unrealistic, obviously, given the constraints and the circumstances both there and here.
MICHAEL MORELL: So, ambassador, let's turn to the negotiations that you led with the Taliban. I want to understand them and I want my listeners to understand them. And let me start by asking you what your instructions were from President Trump. What were his objectives in beginning these negotiations?
ZALMAY KHALILZAD: President Trump changed his mind in Afghanistan initially under the influence of General McMaster and embraced a new South Asia strategy. And then by the time the administration had reached out to me, he had gone sour on his own strategy that he had annunciated, and had come to a view, to a belief, that we were not prevailing in Afghanistan. And that Afghanistan was going south, and at the same time as we were not prevailing, it was too expensive; that Afghanistan did not rank in terms of importance to the United States in his judgment, that we should be spending perhaps as high as $40 billion dollars a year. So he wanted to get out of Afghanistan. And that he wanted that as a safe withdrawal of forces and some commitment, a credible commitment on terrorism from the Afghans.
And the mission that I was given was to sit with the Talibs and engage the government to see if an agreement could be achieved where the U.S. could withdraw from Afghanistan, its forces, relatively soon, but get some commitments on counterterrorism. And at the same time Secretary Pompeo and myself thought that it would be desirable in achieving or trying to achieve the president's objective of departing Afghanistan to get a political agreement, to try to get a political agreement between the government of Afghanistan that we supported and recognized, and the Taliban also. And that a peace agreement, a political agreement would serve our interest, leave a good legacy behind.
I have to say that President Trump and even Secretary Pompeo, like the rest of us, were skeptical of how easy that it would be to get the Afghans to agree to a political agreement. I thought myself that it was very important nevertheless to try. That although the chances may not be high, it's important enough, that it's worth trying. It would be the right thing to do, it would serve U.S. interests not only in Afghanistan but beyond to have tried and maybe we could, with help from others with influence on both sides, we could achieve a political agreement. So the instructions were to, along the lines I just described, I was launched to go and talk to the Taliban and the government.
MICHAEL MORELL: So given the situation on the ground in Afghanistan and given that President Trump was publicly signaling that we were going to leave, did you feel yourself negotiating from a position of weakness or not?
ZALMAY KHALILZAD: Well, I think that with the Talibs it was making it difficult, especially after the agreement was signed with the Talibs - I'm talking about more in 2020 - because the agreement was a conditions-based agreement. The president's statement earlier that he was willing to leave Afghanistan was helpful in dealing with the Talibs because they were very suspicious that the U.S. would ever leave Afghanistan.
Many Afghans, as you know, saw that their country was the most important piece of real estate in the world. I mean, Afghanistan's close to China, close to Russia, next to Pakistan and Iran, who would want to leave that piece of geopolitical real estate? And so the president, I think his statements at the beginning were helpful and gave more credibility to that, that being in Afghanistan is not an end in itself for us. And I made that point that only we would want to be there if we felt that terrorism could could take our place and threaten the security of the United States again.
But later, as the agreement - you might ask about that, we will talk about it. It was a conditions-based agreement, but he made it more and more clear as of the summer of 2020, that he wanted to get out regardless of conditions. And that made the job harder because the Talibs committed to things in the agreement that they were dragging their feet in implementing. And they got away with it because the agreement said that we will go from Phase One, come down to 8,600 to the next phase after assessing whether the Talibs met the conditions of the agreement. And I briefed the Congress on that several times, but we didn't actually in reality do that; he was just the announcing that we should go down to this number or the other, 4,500 from 8,600 and then to leave altogether before his term was over.
So that was not helpful in terms of the negotiations. But his interest was to get the troops out without the troops being threatened by the Talibs and that happened.
MICHAEL MORELL: That's exactly where I was going. Can you walk us through the outcome of the negotiations? What did the United States get? What did the Taliban get, et cetera?
ZALMAY KHALILZAD: The agreement, the result of almost a year of negotiations, had four elements. One was the Taliban commitment not to allow any terrorist group, including al Qaeda, which was specifically mentioned, and that was one of the hardest things to get out of them, to use the soil of Afghanistan - initially, the areas that they controlled, but ultimately, if they became part of a future government, the whole of Afghanistan, against the United States and our allies to plot and plan against the United States and our allies.
Second was a timetable for withdrawal of U.S. forces. Third was the beginning of inter-Afghan negotiations for the establishment of a new government. And fourth, was a comprehensive and permanent ceasefire.
The conditionality of the U.S. withdrawal with regard to terrorism was very tight. The conditionality of U.S. withdrawal with regard to the inter-Afghan negotiations and agreement and comprehensive ceasefire was not as tight. The four were described as a package, but people were nervous in Washington, including the president, that if we made the conditions tight, then we would get stuck there as the Afghans might never come to an agreement with each other.
But the government of Afghanistan was unhappy about that. They wanted a tight connection between withdrawal and the formation of a new government and that we wouldn't withdraw, in other words, until there was an agreement. But those were the four key elements of the agreement.
MICHAEL MORELL: And can you give us, Ambassador, any insight into what was in the so-called secret annexes, and why did there need to be secret annexes?
ZALMAY KHALILZAD: Well, thank you for asking that. That's an important question. The secret annexes, classified annexes, were two. One, was the sort of dealing with the issues of sequences in terms of bases that we withdrew from and that was an operational issue: which five bases we were going to leave in the first phase, which they were, and what are the subsequent phases, the sequencing and what it would take.
[The] second annex had to do with terrorism, the commitments of the Talibs, what they could do with regard to Daesh and what they would do with regard to other groups and how we would interact with each other on the issue of terrorism and the operational details of it.
So it wasn't anything about the future of Afghanistan or Iraq military presence that there has been a lot written, speculated on, as to what those annexes dealt with. They really dealt with the operational details of those two issues.
MICHAEL MORELL: Gotcha. So with the signing of the agreement, what did you expect to happen? And then when did that picture start to diverge from your expectations? And as part of this, I just wonder if a big part of this is the failure of the talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government.
ZALMAY KHALILZAD: Well, on the U.S.-Taliban part of it, the agreement was largely implemented, meaning that the Taliban had agreed that as soon as the agreement was signed, there will be no attacks by the Talis against U.S. and coalition forces. So for 18 months since, there was not a single fatality, U.S. or coalition from the Talib attacks after the signing.
Second was that the Taliban agreed that we could defend the Afghan forces; if they attacked the Afghan forces, since there was no ceasefire yet between the government and the Talibs, and there were no negotiations, their conflict will continue. There will be some things that won't happen and some things that would happen, including if they attacked government forces the U.S. coalition could come to the defense of the Afghan forces by attacking the Talibs. And we delivered on that and the Talibs were very unhappy, sometimes the way they wanted the attack to take place, where the fight was, we interpreted that more broadly, but nevertheless, they didn't escalate by attacking and killing Americans.
And terrorism, in terms of not allowing plotting and planning, we were satisfied that they did that. There was a question of whether they should break ties and expel those terrorists who were there, like al Qaeda. And frankly, the discussions were interesting. I can't go into all the details except that, did we want to have them expelled from Afghanistan, where these people would go? Or is it better given that we were in Afghanistan if they were there but not allowed to plot and plan so we can keep an eye on them and even help them if we decide to do so?
But when it came to inter-Afghan negotiation, which for Afghanistan was the most important, there were challenges. One was the Talibs not wanting to meet with the Afghan government and in order to do so, they proposed that all prisoners held by both sides be released. Ultimately the agreement stated that up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners - the government had some 15,000-plus prisoners, and all the prisoners that the government had with the Talibs, meaning 1,000 government prisoners the Taliban were holding should be free.
Ultimately, that took a while to do, although the agreement said within 10 days negotiation should begin. But ultimately it did start, five or six months later, and the government was dragging its feet also and the negotiations didn't go as smoothly as we would have liked.
Our elections was a factor for the government. The government was hoping that the new administration would perhaps be less anxious to withdraw forces, be more supportive in the negotiation. They thought the Trump administration was not that supportive of the government as it should have been or should be. And we tried to accelerate the negotiations because the 14 months of timetable was, we were running out of that, we would have liked to see that agreement before the withdrawal was completed. And if there was an agreed, negotiated government, we wanted to negotiate the security and political relationship with that government that we proposed and then a plan of our own to bring the two sides together.
But if you ask, I will tell you what that plan included. But nevertheless, the inter-Afghan negotiations did not make progress as the fighting went on and the government was losing ground even with our support of them by attacking the Talibs, obviously providing support for the Afghan military forces.
MICHAEL MORELL: Was the Afghan government in any way, Ambassador, reluctant to engage in these negotiations because they weren't at the table for your negotiations? Was there any linkage there or not?
ZALMAY KHALILZAD: No, our negotiations with the Talibs was also a negotiation with the government, except that they were not at the table. I shuttled with my team, that was an interagency team between the two sides, and the government was entirely in the picture as to what we were doing.
Sometimes these other statements that they were not in the picture, no, they were in the picture and the same day that we signed the agreement with the Talibs, we had a joint statement with the government that had all the key elements in it as well.
But the government obviously would have preferred, and understandably so, that it negotiate with the Talibs with us supporting it, just sitting behind it. But we have tried that for the previous 16, 17 years and over time, incrementally, the policy objectives changed. Initially, we wanted the Taliban to accept the Constitution and renounce terrorist acts and the new government and abandon violence to talk to them.
But as the situation militarily became more difficult, our position evolved until under President Obama, we started to talk to the Talibs and they opened their office in Doha. And the Trump administration, after trying the new South Asia strategy, embraced that. And I took over from colleagues who had discussed or negotiated with the Taliban before.
But the government would have preferred that - President Ghani in particular, his preference was for him and the leader of the Taliban to sit together and negotiate an agreement that was adopted. Jerusalem was often a metaphor to me; and the Taliban were never prepared to do that.
So the choice would have been either we go the route that we decided, do we negotiate, and then that opens the door to Afghan-Afghan negotiations or to continue the fight - and in the fight we were losing ground each year for the previous six or seven years each year, the Talibs had gained more ground than the year before. So the military trends were not positive. There was no desire to kind of escalate, send many more forces. So either you kind of had a worsening stalemate and you negotiate or just that you keep doing more of the same.
MICHAEL MORELL: So with regard to the Taliban, they said they were willing to do these negotiations. There are some people who say that they were just telling us what we wanted to hear, and they weren't serious about coming to an agreement. What's your view on that?
ZALMAY KHALILZAD: I think that there were differences inside the Taliban about that, and especially as it became more and more clear that the president, President Trump, wanted to leave and withdraw the forces that those who thought we can have the whole thing rather than what I put ultimately on the table of a 50-50 power sharing, I gave them essentially, both sides, a plan because they were dragging their feet on both sides on procedural issues for a very long time. And yet the timetable of 14 months meant we were running out of time. And besides 50-50, that the leader would be someone that will be mutually acceptable.
I think there were differences, but with I think people like Mullah Baradar, the leader of the delegation, and others thought that a political settlement - although the terms shifted, the balance shifted from being power-sharing to an inclusive government, to a government then to be dominated by the Talibs with the security ministries. As the ground realities were changing, they adjusted that that would be better for them than an outright military takeover because of the questions of acceptance by the international community, sanctions, there were a list of things they wanted and which would have only happened if there was a negotiated settlement.
So I think I would say, broadly, they wanted a political settlement, but that the terms kept changing and became more demanding as our desire to leave became ever more apparent to withdraw. We reduced to 2,500 without doing an honest-to-goodness assessment of whether the Talibs had met the conditions by the end of the Trump administration. That was one driving factor that empowered or emboldened the Talibs to make more demands than they did when the negotiation started.
And second, was that change also on the ground that the Afghan forces were not performing as well as they, some of them, at least, anticipated they would do. Those two factors, I think, made them more demanding.
But they nevertheless, even two weeks before the takeover of Kabul, we made an agreement that they announced then, which is that they and they would not enter Kabul and that the delegation would come, including former President Karzai and Dr. Abdullah and others that by then President Ghani had empowered them that he would accept whatever they negotiated, and that there will be a ceremony for transfer of power to a Talib-dominated but inclusive government, that up to 13 Republican officials will be members of the cabinet; that was kind of the goal that was being discussed.
MICHAEL MORELL: And did you get, particularly in those early months of the Taliban interacting with the Afghan government, did you get the support that you needed from Washington, the support you needed from the White House and the State Department? You know, as somebody looking at this from the outside it, it didn't seem like there was a lot of engagement. So I'm just wondering what your thoughts are on that. Could you have used more help?
ZALMAY KHALILZAD: I think that I could have used more help, definitely, always - then especially, and we were divided, you can imagine, from your own vast experience, on what will be the right tactic to do.
Of course, I thought a condition-based approach would be, if we wanted a negotiated settlement, would be helpful. And especially with President Biden, we tried hard to describe the various options that he faced as a new president. And although he differed from President Trump in many ways, but on linking American troop presence to an agreement among Afghans, he was very similar to his predecessor. He did not want to make a withdrawal conditional, particularly if it meant we might have to go back to fight. In other words, the Taliban commitment not to attack us would expire, and we would have to defend ourselves. That was the supposition.
So I thought that if we didn't want to do a condition-based, then the thing to do was to press President Ghani to be more realistic in terms of terms of a settlement. Because President Ghani had many friends in Washington. He was well-known here. And people were pressing me not to press him too hard at the same time as we were saying, 'We're going to get out' based on the calendar.
And I think that was very much wrong-headed in my judgment. With all due respect, because President Ghani, until it was relatively late, was making demands as if he had won the war rather than he was losing the war. And Washington's approach to him that we shouldn't be press him as hard as we needed to do for him to make a deal that was realistic, - meaning that he wouldn't lead the peace government, that somebody that both sides would accept would have to lead it.
And he insisted until the very end that he would leave post the agreement government until there is an election and then his successor will be decided in an election. And that was not, given the realities on the ground and the speed with which they were moving, it was unrealistic and we didn't press him hard enough, in my view, and in a timely manner on this issue to be helpful to him and to his country and its political future.
MICHAEL MORELL: So, Ambassador, I want to switch to a couple of questions about our last months in Afghanistan, and I guess I want to start by by asking you if you agreed with President Biden's decision to follow through on President Trump's commitment to withdraw all U.S. forces.
Well, I preferred - and Tony Blinken and others, we would have preferred that the president follow a condition-based approach to have a political settlement before full withdrawal. But then the president decided that if the Talibs were going to go back to war, if that was the judgment, if we didn't withdraw in a timely manner, then won out the pessimism, long-standing, about Afghanistan and the willingness of Afghan leaders to come together.
Then we did all that we could, myself included, to implement the president's decision and to gain more time, the president decided that since the process, the review process has taken a long time and that we needed four more months for withdrawal to be completed, in effect to make the timetable 18 months-plus rather than 14 months, which it was. And that was the single most important focus of my effort to make sure that the Talibs do not attack us after the 14-month date. And then to push nevertheless with the president's decision in mind to see what if we could accelerate a political settlement.
And we succeeded with regard to the Taliban not attacking us, we did not succeed in terms of getting a political settlement between the Taliban and the government. And even what was agreed to on the 15th of August by the government and the Talibs - finally we got an agreement on August 15 between the two sides. But then, with President Ghani's departure, a surprise to everyone on August 15, and the disintegration of whatever forces that remained, the Talibs asked us whether we would take responsibility for Kabul's security or they would go in, and ultimately they went then. And so there was no political agreement.
MICHAEL MORELL: At what point, ambassador, did it become clear to you that the Afghan government would collapse?
ZALMAY KHALILZAD: Well, it actually was rather late. I thought, frankly, that the government, it would take some time for it to collapse. I was surprised myself by the decision of the Afghan forces, with the speed with which they turned over the areas to the Taliban without the fight. And I was very surprised also by President Ghani's decision. Three hours before his departure, he agreed with me and with his own channels with the Taliban on these two weeks of ceasefire, essentially, in Kabul and the negotiations.
So I was surprised by the idea that he'd departed without letting very many people around them know.
MICHAEL MORELL: Why do you think he fled?
ZALMAY KHALILZAD: I just don't really know for sure. I think he was perhaps persuaded that the Taliban might not honor the agreement and that he might get caught in Kabul and terrible things could happen to him. President Najibullah of the post-Soviet government was hanged by the forces similar to the Talibs. So whether that was what persuaded him.
But he told Secretary of State Tony Blinken the night before that he was not going to leave, that he was going to stay in Afghanistan and he had announced many times that he wasn't going to leave due some of what some Afghan leaders in the past have done to leave the country. So we were surprised by that.
If his personal security was at the risk, he could have asked for help. I'm sure we would have considered that. You might remember that we sent people to protect President Karzai for many months at the beginning when you felt there was a security problem. But he didn't. And we were very much surprised by what happened.
MICHAEL MORELL: And then what's your view of the U.S. government's execution of our departure? Did it need to be as messy as it was?
ZALMAY KHALILZAD: It was terrible. Of course it was a debacle. Embarrassing. No one was happy about it, I'm sure, including President Biden. Logistically we did amazing things, obviously. But something happened, the combination that was quite powerful and negative, which is that there was an impression created that the Talibs were coming into the city, although many leaders asked for the Talibs to come in once the forces disintegrated in Kabul. But the public impression was that there would be street-to-street fighting and many people will get killed, there will be widespread destruction. That was the Afghan experience of the last fight after the Soviet departure, which destroyed Kabul.
And we departed ourselves. We closed the embassy and moved to to the airport, which was not the plan. The plan had been that we will keep the embassy, and I had talked to the Talibs about numbers of forces we will have to protect the embassy and the airport.
But nevertheless, given the scenario of the Ghani departure, then the second thing combined with the first, the second was opportunity, which is anyone who can make it to the airport would be taken to the U.S. or Europe, whether you have documents or not, created this disastrous situation.
And the scenario, as I said before, was that we would stay in a the embassy and we'll keep the airport and that the Turks would either run it and then we thought we would run it in combination with others and we would maintain some forces, which we had informed the Talibs. And that's why the sequencing of the withdrawal was Bagram before Kabul airport, before full withdrawal, because we didn't plan to withdraw or abandon Kabul airport or the embassy. But the scenario changed and yes, lots of questions about the execution there. Yes.
MICHAEL MORELL: So, Ambassador, the future: where to now in Afghanistan? And maybe the place to start is with politics. Mullah Baradar, who you dealt with in the negotiations, is not in the top job. He seems to have been sidelined a bit. The Haqqani family is playing a big role. And since the Taliban took power, we've seen them carry out public executions, torture, violence against women. They've forbidden women from attending secondary schools, playing sports, etc. Are the hardliners in charge here? How would you describe the the governing regime at the moment?
ZALMAY KHALILZAD: First, I think the hardliners are more powerful. But I think your description is not - I don't agree with exactly. This is not the Taliban of the 1990s. I believe that with regard to women, they are saying all women will go to high school. They announced yesterday that, March 21st, Afghan New Year, all high schools for girls would be open. In nine provinces already, girls go to high school and in private universities, men and women go to school or university. Public universities have not been open yet.
The level of violence in terms of killings is obviously unacceptable. It's far less than feared, given the magnitude of the change that has happened. But nevertheless, yes, I watch Afghan media very closely and they're very active, very critical of the Talibs, men and women, both presenters on evening news.
There are problems, obviously, the women in many ministries, there have been limitations on. I think the way that change happened undermined the Doha group because change didn't come through negotiations and Haqqanis are in power, particularly in Kabul, and there are tensions inside with also some religious figures playing an important role. There is therefore three sort of groupings.
I think that the story of Afghanistan is not finished of course, although our role has changed obviously, dramatically. But Talibs want things from the international community: normalcy, unfreezing of the money of Afghanistan, getting off lists, economic assistance. And and we want things from the Talibs on terrorism, as well as on rights of Afghans.
And I believe that we have unfinished business in the sense that the Doha agreement in its entirety hadn't been implemented. I've been an advocate of of sitting together with the Talibs, reaching another agreement in writing, the details of what it is that we will do in exchange for what.
And that would also positively affect, in my view, the balance of power inside with the Taliban. I think politics here is hindering steps that I think our national interest demands, which is to engage in and make progress on the terrorism account in the new environment and on kind of our own values with regard to women, in exchange for which there are things that the Taliban want that we would do. But that's to be negotiated in details and in writing so that all the factions of the Taliban understand what the agreement is.
I think turning our back on Afghanistan, the political cost and the security costs would be higher down the road if Afghanistan collapses and terrorism expands. I think either you pay now or you pay later. There may be some costs, political costs for engagement and negotiating seriously, but the cost will be much higher, both politically and otherwise if we don't and the situation gets a lot worse.
MICHAEL MORELL: With the Haqqanis in charge in Kabul with, the leader of the Haqqanis as the interior minister, I'm wondering if you're concerned about the Taliban commitment with regard to al Qaeda.
ZALMAY KHALILZAD: I am concerned about that. Haqqanis want badly to get off the list. They are a terrorist group. They want to know, they say, how they can get off of that list. And there are people who are offering themselves as the intermediaries to deal with this situation. There should be a path for people to earn their way back. But that can't be just based on promises, there will have to be performance and performance for for a substantial period of time before steps are taken that they are asking for.
I think there is room for diplomacy. We have unfinished business, the business of the nation there. But yes, I think Haqqanis are a particular group of concern because of al Qaeda.
MICHAEL MORELL: Ambassador, I want to just end here with a couple of final questions to, in fact. The first is there's been a lot of blame thrown your way. Your critics have said that you've become the face of one of the largest U.S. diplomatic failures in history. And the first question I wanted to ask you is, what do you believe are the biggest misconceptions about the end of our involvement in Afghanistan and your role in it?
ZALMAY KHALILZAD: Well, the obvious one is that people think I decided everything as if I was the commander in chief and the president. I wasn't. I was a member of a team, a significant player, but that's one, and two, people are unrealistic about what our options were.
The situation in Afghanistan was not a good one and we were losing ground, as I said before. And the president wanted to get out. And in those circumstances, I think there were some achievements getting out safely of the forces and commitments on terrorism.
But on the Afghan-Afghan negotiations. I mean, the pessimists turned out to be right. And I, personally, because of my own background, gave it all that I could to bring the Afghans to the negotiating table. They did, but to agree to something, and they didn't. And I am unhappy about that.
But I think for Afghanistan to work, that's the unfinished part and diplomacy must continue. And we should use our leverage - and it's considerable - and the Talibs want to talk to us, the other Afghans want to talk to us, to help them achieve that lasting political agreement that they did not during the timetable that we agreed to with the Taliban of 14 months. I am not happy that that happened, but it was not for lack of trying.
MICHAEL MORELL: And I wanted to ask you the misconception question, but I also want to ask you the other obvious question, which is, with 2020 hindsight now, are there are there things that you wish you would have done differently?
ZALMAY KHALILZAD: Well, I always think about that. I mean, I think about it every day when I do something. Yes, people say maybe we should have gotten the U.N. more involved. We tried that.
Maybe we could have done more, or I could have made a better case to convince the leaders of the United States to press President Ghani more. For example, I feel that we did not do well by him, by not pressing him hard enough, although the public perception was we pressed him too hard.
Yes. I mean, I think about it all the time and I thought about it during that period as well, the 'what ifs' - but you know, I did what I could at the time when I confronted the issue, and I tried to convince the leaders of the U.S. sometimes to do things differently, like condition-based, which was an essential thing.
But I always felt that I should try and try harder. I could have left after the agreement with the Talibs. I could have threatened to leave several times or actually left to get the president to change his mind. I didn't do that. I thought that being there, perhaps, I was going to be more helpful.
Soldiers don't get the option of resigning - perhaps they do, but they don't. And I felt the same way, that I had to do my very best to serve the interests of the United States and the president that I worked for.
MICHAEL MORELL: Mr. Ambassador, thank you so much for joining us. We really look forward to your next book.
ZALMAY KHALILZAD: Well, thank you. It's great to be with you. Thank you for the conversation and the very informed questions that you asked.
MICHAEL MORELL: Thank you, Ambassador.
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