- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 21, 2018

In an unlikely career renaissance, onetime neoconservative darling and Iraq War supporter Zalmay Khalilzad has re-emerged as President Trump’s top envoy in Afghanistan.

The Afghan-born Mr. Khalilzad, who made his mark in the George W. Bush White House navigating Washington’s Iraq war policy in the wake of 2003 invasion, is not wasting any time as he seeks to forge an elusive peace deal in America’s longest war, holding three days of talks with top members of the Taliban in Qatar last week.

The direct talks with the Afghan Islamist insurgency group, whom the U.S. and its NATO allies have been waging war against for nearly two decades, is a key pillar in the Trump administration’s plan to roll back Taliban gains on the battlefield and force the group to the negotiating table.

Making a diplomatic reconciliation with the Taliban for the first time a main goal in the American war plan in Afghanistan — known as the South Asia strategy — is a distinct break from previous administrations’ efforts to end the war, several former U.S. defense and national security officials said this week. With the meeting, Mr. Khalilzad appeared to break with previous U.S. demands that the Taliban negotiate only with the U.S.-backed government of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in Kabul.

It’s a reconciliation fraught with risks, being pursued in an environment where violence has been on the upswing in recent years and one violent terrorist strike or insurgent attack has the ability to undermine diplomatic momentum. On Tuesday, a suicide bomber targeted a gathering of Shiite Islamic clerics, killing more than 50 and wounding nearly 100 more, although, significantly, Taliban leaders were quick to deny any role in the attack.

Some regional specialists said the selection of Mr. Khalilzad, an at-times controversial figure and skilled backroom operator who has always favored activist diplomacy, is a signal the Trump White House is seeking a new way forward in the grinding Afghan stalemate.

The administration’s desire to set the stage for peace talks and to have Mr. Khalilzad as the face of that effort “is something [that] the U.S. is doing right,” said Vikram Singh, former State Department deputy special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

‘Authoritative’ figure

Despite his reputation among critics of George W. Bush’s team of neoconservative policymakers that Mr. Trump has repeatedly criticized, Mr. Khalilzad represents “someone authoritative … to bring the various parties to the table,” should Afghan peace talks become a reality, Mr. Singh said during a roundtable discussion at the Washington-based U.S. Institute for Peace.

His comments came a day after a U.S. delegation led by Mr. Khalilzad wrapped up three days of talks with Taliban officials at the group’s political offices in Doha, Qatar. Khairullah Khairkhwa, former Taliban shadow governor of western Afghanistan’s Herat province and former Taliban commander Mohammad Fazl, reportedly attended the talks, The Associated Press reported.

Mr. Khalilzad on Sunday was cagey on the substance and the makeup of the talks, but said he was “cautiously optimistic” a peace plan is achievable.

“I am talking to all interested parties, all Afghan groups … and I think there is an opportunity for reconciliation and peace,” the U.S. envoy told reporters in the Qatari capital.

Mr. Khalilzad’s diplomatic push is the clearest sign of a “sense of urgency” from the White House that the time for a peace pact with the Taliban is now, said Laurel Miller, a former top State Department envoy dealing with the region.

However, Ms. Miller warned Mr. Khalilzad and the Trump administration face falling into the same trap that engulfed the U.S. during the Iraq war. A rushed approach and an evident desire for a deal from Washington may mean any peace deal with the Taliban will not have “a realistic prospect of being implemented,” she said.

Mr. Khalilzad’s reported proposal to delay next April’s Afghan presidential elections and extend President Ghani’s term in order to facilitate talks would be a mistake, Ms. Miller said, leaving Afghanistan’s elected government “stuck in a transitional phase” and in a weak bargaining position with the militants.

In the end, there could be “too much burden placed on transitional mechanisms” to shepherd a peace deal through, Ms. Miller said. A transitional deal “does not resolve the real, hard issues that need to be resolved” in the country.

Difficult talks

Mr. Khalilzad’s opening gambit towards peace talks with the Taliban in Doha is a major shift in U.S. diplomacy, but also just a first step in what will be an arduous journey toward reconciliation.

Reports surfaced in June that an American delegation met with Taliban officials in Doha, for the first known bilateral talks with the terror group.

The U.S. government has repeatedly rejected direct talks with the Taliban for the duration of the 17-year war, citing in part the terror group’s standing demand that any peace plan be accompanied by a full withdrawal of American forces from the country. Washington has always balked at direct talks, since such negotiations could be seen as undermining the central government in Kabul.

But with Mr. Khalilzad installed as Mr. Trump’s new envoy, the new South Asia strategy has created “a lot of [diplomatic] space to put into the long slog to get to a peace process” in place, or at least to implement one, Mr. Singh said.

Mr. Khalilzad, who first came to the United States as a high school exchange student in the 1960s, is used to high-maintenance diplomatic missions in hostile environments, having served as President George W. Bush’s ambassador to Iraq, Afghanistan and then the United Nations between 2003 and 2009. He headed his own international consulting firm during the Obama years before being called back by President Trump.

Complicating the talks is the presence of an offshoot of Islamic State battling Afghan and allied forces inside the country, and the rivalries between various elements of the insurgency. No one now foresees Islamic State being part of any peace deal.

Analysts agree that a diplomatic breakthrough acceptable to all factions in the Afghan conflict will be less straightforward than a military win, Mr. Campbell said, though after 17 years, it’s not clear either side can impose a military solution on the crisis.

“It is going to be incremental. It is not a linear process” he said, but did note last June’s first-ever cease-fire between Kabul and the Taliban was “a ray of sunlight” in that process, exposing a deep well of popular sentiment on both sides for an end to war.

But you are going to have setbacks,” he added.

While the Taliban did adhere to the week-long cease fire, timed for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, the group refused offers by Kabul to extend the tenuous peace.

“That had a political impact,” Mr. Singh said. The end of the cease-fire was driven by a “nervousness about how much [the Taliban‘s] own cadres want peace” and the desire by Taliban leadership to get their own house in order.

“The hope is it gets us collectively toward some kind of substantial talks,” Mr. Campbell added.

For his part, Mr. Khalilzad implied this week the two sides may be ready for peace having exhausted all the alternatives.

“The Afghan government wants peace,” he said in Doha. “The Taliban are saying they do not believe they can succeed militarily, that they would like to see the problems that remain, resolved by peaceful means, by political negotiations.”

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