- - Monday, May 2, 2016


By Zalmay Khalilzad

St. Martin’s Press, $27.99, 332 pages

In 2003 President Bush asked Zalmay Khalilzad, a high-ranking National Security Council official, to see him. To Mr. Khalilzad’s surprise, he asked him if he would be willing to go to Afghanistan as the next ambassador. Caught off-guard, Mr. Khalilzad responded, “Well, Mr. President, I actually left Afghanistan to live here. Why do you want to send me back?”

In “The Envoy,” Mr. Khalilzad recounts his extraordinary odyssey from growing up in Afghanistan to becoming the highest-ranking Muslim ever to serve in an American administration. Mr. Khalilzad was ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq and the United Nations. There have been a number of memoirs by Bush administration officials, but Mr. Khalilzad’s is far and away the most reflective, honest and compelling. His new memoir not only offers a riveting tale about the formation of Bush administration foreign policy, but also a deeply personal story of coming to America.

Mr. Khalilzad, who was born in 1951, recounts that his mother estimates she was between nine and 12 years old when she married his 22-year-old father. The young Zalmay rode to primary school on horseback before moving with his family to cosmopolitan Kabul in the eighth grade. Two years later, he applied for the American Field Service exchange program to attend high school in California for a year. It proved to be a transformative experience. According to Mr. Khalilzad, “from the time I left California, I came to see myself as a person with two homes and two affiliations. And in an odd, rather unusual twist of history, I would become an advocate for each to the other.”

In 1974, Mr. Khalilzad returned to the United States on a scholarship to pursue a doctorate at the University of Chicago, where he studied with the legendary defense strategist Albert Wohlstetter. Mr. Wolhlstetter introduced him to Paul Wolfowitz, then a young official in Washington, and had him brief Defense Secretary James Schlesinger. After the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, Mr. Schlesinger told him, “I’m sorry, Zal. Afghanistan is never going to be free again. Once the Soviets are in, they will not go out.” “You don’t know the Afghans,” Mr. Khalilzad responded.

In 1986, as a member of the State Department’s policy planning staff, Mr. Khalilzad had a front-row seat for the debate in the Reagan administration about how to oust the Soviet Union from Afghanistan and to deal with the reform-minded new Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev. Mr. Khalilzad recounts that he pushed for a tough negotiating position against the Soviets that President Reagan backed. But he also voices his consternation at subsequent American failures after the Soviets departed. Mr. Khalilzad remains convinced that Washington could have established a broad-based transitional government that would have averted a civil war that emboldened fundamentalist Islamic radicals. The opposite occurred. “Instead of working to stabilize the situation,” he writes, “the Bush and Clinton administrations watched passively as Afghanistan descended into civil war. It was from this civil war that the Taliban regime and its alliance with al Qaeda emerged.”

But Mr. Khalizad’s own foray into trying to adjust defense doctrine to a new world blew up in his face. As head of the Pentagon’s policy planning staff in 1992, he set about formulating a document called Defense Policy Guidance that had the explicit goal of preserving American dominance around the globe. It called for expanding a democratic “zone of peace” and barring any other challenger from taking control of key regions around the world. Defense Secretary Dick Cheney loved it. But when it was leaked to The New York Times, which depicted the document as a blueprint for a one-superpower world, an uproar ensued. National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft called it “nutty.” Mr. Khalilzad argues that it “created a conceptual foundation for future strategy, one that subsequent administrations carried out in large part.” Perhaps Mr. Khalilzad’s true error was to make explicit what was implicit all along.

After Sept. 11 and the American campaign to oust the Taliban and al Qaeda from Afghanistan, Mr. Khalilzad’s stock quickly rose in the George W. Bush administration. Mr. Khalilzad’s message to Mr. Bush was that Afghanistan was not condemned to live in anarchy, and that it had previously enjoyed stability and a strong sense of national identity. His assessment of Afghanistan was that the United States has no choice but to engage in nation-building, a stance that was anathema to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

When it comes to Iraq, Mr. Khalizad voices his distress over the Bush administration’s failure to restore sovereignty quickly to a transitional government. In foisting L. Paul Bremer on the Iraqis to run the Coalition Provisional Authority in 2003, he argues, the principals in the Bush administration “failed in their responsibilities for oversight.”

Despite the manifest illusions that suffused the Bush administration’s approach toward the Middle East, Mr. Khalilzad remains optimistic that America can “pave the way for liberalism, tolerance, and democracy to take root around the world.” At a moment when a very different outlook is taking hold in the Republican Party, Mr. Khalilzad remains a distinct voice of optimism about America and its role abroad.

Jacob Heilbrunn is the editor of the National Interest.

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