Zalmay Khalilzad, the veteran Afghan-born diplomat who was the point man for negotiations with the Taliban insurgency under both Presidents Trump and Biden, said Tuesday he was stepping down from his post, just weeks after the collapse of the U.S.-backed government in Kabul and the chaotic U.S. and allied military withdrawal from the country.
Mr. Khalilzad was instrumental in negotiating the February 2020 deal with the Taliban that set in motion the U.S. pullout, but he has argued the withdrawal should have been delayed after the radical Islamist movement failed to carry out its part of the bargain.
A lightning-quick Taliban offensive this summer and the quick collapse of the U.S.-backed government in Kabul led to heated criticism of both Mr. Biden and Mr. Khalilzad over the withdrawal decision. The tumultuous final days in Kabul, including a terrorist attack that killed 13 U.S. troops and more than 170 Afghan citizens, marked the biggest foreign policy crisis of Mr. Biden‘s presidency to date.
“I decided that now it is the right time” to step down as special envoy, Mr. Khalilzad wrote in a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken that was first reported by The Washington Post. He said the administration was “at a juncture when we are entering a new phase in our Afghanistan policy.”
The 2020 Doha Agreement signed by the Trump administration called on the Taliban to break ties with jihadist groups such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State, to refrain from direct attacks on U.S. forces and to enter power-sharing talks with the Afghan government of President Ashraf Ghani. But the political talks never got off the ground, and U.S. intelligence agencies say that Taliban leaders retain links to al Qaeda.
“The political arrangement between the Afghan government and the Taliban did not go forward as envisaged,” Mr. Khalilzad said in his resignation letter, saying the reasons were “complex” and that he would have more to say “in the coming days and weeks.”
Mr. Blinken said Mr. Khalilzad‘s deputy, Tom West, would be the new special representative.
In an unexpected move, the new Taliban leadership in Kabul welcomed the appointment and said it wanted to work with the new American envoy. Facing a collapsed economy and a still-uncertain security environment, the Taliban regime has been pressing the U.S. and other foreign governments for recognition and aid.
“We are optimistic about moving forward with the new representative Mr. Tom West & full implementation of Doha Agreement will normalize relations between both governments,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Abdul Qahar Balkhi said on Twitter Tuesday.
Washington and other major capitals so far have balked at establishing ties with the new government, waiting to see if the Taliban leadership will restore the harsh Islamist social policies they implemented when they ran the country in the years before the 9/11 attacks in 2001.
Born and raised in Afghanistan, Mr. Khalilzad has had a long diplomatic and policy career dating back to the Carter administration, serving in the State Department and Pentagon and as U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Afghanistan and the United Nations. He was virtually the only top policy official in the Trump State Department to be kept on when Mr. Biden took office in January.