Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, Donald Trump’s former national security adviser, is laying some of the blame for the current chaos in Afghanistan squarely at the feet of Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, the Afghan-American diplomat who has been the point man for talks with the Taliban in both Republican and Democratic administrations.
Following a year’s worth of shuttle diplomacy, Ambassador Khalilzad assured the White House that the Taliban of today were not the fanatic Islamists who ruled Afghanistan with an almost medieval iron fist in the days prior to the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, D.C.
Today’s forward-looking, media-savvy Taliban were ready to compromise, he said.
“Why is this same person still representing the United States with Taliban leadership. I think it’s way past time to put somebody new in that effort,” an incredulous Lt. Gen. McMaster said Monday during a discussion at the Hudson Institute think tank in Washington.
A past U.S. envoy to the United Nations, Iraq and Afghanistan, Ambassador Khalilzad was named by former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as the State Department’s special representative for Afghan reconciliation. He was retained in that position by Anthony Blinken, Mr. Biden’s secretary of State.
The Afghan government was bullied into releasing 5,000 Taliban prisoners because U.S. negotiators led by Ambassador Khalilzad said it was a sticking point before the militant fighters would agree to negotiate with former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who fled the country after the collapse of his government and army.
“We forced the Afghan government to release them and that basically left the government with no leverage,” said Hussain Haqqani, director for South and Central Asia at the Hudson Institute and Pakistan’s ambassador to the U.S. from 2008 to 2011.
Ambassador Khalilzad later told the BBC that he wasn’t happy with the idea that 5,000 hardcore militant fighters had to be released from custody before the Taliban would continue to negotiate. But, “you have to make hard decisions,” he said.
Following the Taliban’s rout of the U.S.-trained and equipped Afghan army, Ambassador Haqqani said the people of Afghanistan are panicking because “they know who the Taliban really are.”
“The return of the Taliban is being portrayed by them as a great victory for their narrative: ‘We drove out the Soviet Union in 1989 and now we’re driving out the Americans,’” he said. “Why does (Khalilzad) not have the dignity to just resign and step down after such a debacle?”
Ambassador Khalilzad delivered a “psychological blow” to the Afghan government and the country’s security forces that helped contribute to their later collapse, Lt. Gen. McMaster said.
“How could it be in our interest to have that same envoy?” he asked.