Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. chief interlocutor for Afghanistan, steps down

Thomas West, who has been Deputy Special Representative for Afghan Reconciliation since January this year, will replace Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement

Some two months after the U.S.’s chaotic troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, America’s chief negotiator in what was meant to be an Afghan peace settlement, has resigned. Mr. Khalilzad, an Afghan-American, was appointed in 2018 by former U.S. President Donald Trump and continued to hold the position in the Biden administration.

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Thomas West, who has been Deputy Special Representative for Afghan Reconciliation since January this year, will replace Mr. Khalilzad, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement. In his role as Deputy, Mr. West had already met Taliban representatives in Doha after the American departure. He also made a trip to Kabul with CIA Director William Burns, as per a CNN report.

“Thank you to Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad for decades of tireless service to the United States,” Mr. Blnken said on Twitter, shortly after the official announcement went out. Mr. Khalilzad, a former diplomat, was Ambassador to Afghanistan during the Bush administration. He had also served as Ambassador to Iraq and the U.S. Permanent Representative to the U.N.

Mr. Khalilzad has been criticised for orchestrating a February 2020 deal with the Taliban, details of which were mostly hammered out in Doha, cutting out the former Afghan government. The U.S. agreed to withdraw its troops by May 2021 (originally) with the Taliban refraining from attacking the troops in return. Mr. Biden extended the withdrawal deadline to August 31.

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After the U.S. departure, Mr. Khalilzad had helped get Americans and vulnerable Afghans out of the country, the New York Times reported. As the U.S. was entering a new phase” in its Afghanistan policy, this was the right time to resign, Mr. Khalilzad says in his resignation letter, a copy of which The Hindu was able to access.

“The political arrangement between the Afghan government and the Taliban did not go forward as envisaged. The reasons for this are too complex and I will share my thoughts in the coming day and weeks,” Mr. Khalilzad writes. Earlier he had dismissed the notion that the Afghan forces would surrender to the Taliban.

“I personally believe that the statements that their forces will disintegrate and the Talibs will take over in short order are mistaken,” Mr. Khalilzad had told the House of Representatives in May this year.

Mr. Khalilzad had said in May last year, in an interview to The Hindu in May 2020, that the U.S. could not see a “better alternative” to the deal it had struck with the Taliban and that India should directly engage with the outfit.

In his resignation letter he says, “We also engaged our allies and other major players, including China, Russia, India and Pakistan.” However, India was left out of the ‘extended troika’ talks (Russia, China, the U.S. and Pakistan) on Afghanistan and was not privy , as per recent remarks by External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, to the details of what was negotiated between the U.S. and the Taliban in Doha.

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The U.S., along with the international community, is now faced with challenges of negotiating with the Taliban on human rights, especially the rights of women, while getting assistance to Afghanistan, which is fast descending into a humanitarian crisis. These issues are likely to occupy Mr. West’s agenda.

“At the top of the list of the challenges he will face include how to support the humanitarian and development needs of the Afghan people while the Taliban government is in power; what the future of human rights in Afghanistan will be; and whether and how the international community can make a difference to regional security,” Alyssa Ayres, Dean of the Elliot School of International Affairs at George Washington University and a former high ranking diplomat, told The Hindu.

(With inputs from Suhasini Haidar in New Delhi)


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