Is Zalmay Khalilzad, Trump’s Envoy To Taliban Talks, Angling To Take Over Afghanistan?
The Afghan president’s national security adviser is in Washington warning that Khalilzad is selling out the Kabul government and may have personal ambitions.
A top Afghan official accused the U.S. envoy to the region of trying to weaken the Afghan government by cutting it out of talks with the Taliban, replace it, and possibly even run for president himself.
“The reason he is delegitimizing the Afghan government and weakening it, and at the same time elevating the Taliban can only have one approach. It’s definitely not for peace,” said former Afghan Ambassador to Washington Hamdullah Mohib, speaking of U.S. reconciliation envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, in an extraordinary breakfast with national security reporters in Washington, D.C. “He is not reconciling, he’s alienating.”
Mohib, who is now Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s national security adviser, said he’d come to Washington specifically to complain that rather than using U.S. influence to force the Taliban to negotiate with the Afghan government, Khalilzad had sidelined them, giving the Taliban no reason to talk peace as it prepares “for a full-on spring offensive” against Afghan troops.
“Even if there’s a deal, it’s a bad deal,” he said, because it would undermine his government, whereas Mohib said the Taliban is publicly bragging that the world’s foreign ministers are clamoring to meet with them, the new U.S-backed power in town.
Among Mohib's complaints: that when Khalilzad wrapped up 16 days of talks with the Taliban last week in Qatar last week, he didn’t share much more than his tweets about the talks which said they’d made progress on a “withdrawal timeline and effective counter-terrorism measures.” Khalilzad added that after that was finalized, “the Taliban and other Afghans, including the government, will begin intra-Afghan negotiations on a political settlement and comprehensive ceasefire.”
Mohib said the information void is leading the Afghan government to some conspiratorial conclusions, including the suspicion that Khalilzad, an Afghan-American, is intentionally weakening the current administration of and lining up his old allies like former Afghan President Hamid Karzai to make a future bid to run the country himself.
“We think either the ambassador doesn’t know what he is doing, or he has something else in mind,” Mohib said, adding that Khalilzad had considered running for president of Afghanistan twice before.
“People in government think perhaps all this talk is to create a caretaker government of which he will then become the viceroy.”
“Mr. Mohib’s comments are inaccurate and unhelpful, and we will be responding to them privately,” a State Department official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the now-public disagreement. By day’s end, the State Department’s deputy spokesperson, Robert Palladino, said Mohib had been dressed down by Under Secretary for Political Affairs David Hale, who told him “attacks on Ambassador Khalilzad are attacks on the Department.”
A senior administration official also emailed a rebuke of Mohib’s complaints, saying Khalilzad is “working to bring together various stakeholders, including the Afghan government…and the Taliban, so they can reach a political settlement.” The official was not authorized to speak publicly.
Khalilzad was born in Afghanistan and grew up in Kabul before attending high school in the United States and eventually getting a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. He was an assistant professor at Columbia University in New York before joining the State Department to work on the Afghan war against Soviet occupation in the 1980s.
Khalilzad served as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, as well as to Iraq, and as U.N. ambassador under the George W. Bush administration, before being appointed as Trump’s Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation last fall. He has been rumored to consider running for president of Afghanistan in the past.
The State Department and NSC pushback aren’t likely to satisfy Mohib or his government. He said he’d taken his complaints to U.S. officials before, but that had done nothing to get U.S. envoy Khalilzad to let them into the process, and that on this trip, he was being snubbed by his counterpart, National Security Adviser John Bolton, who was “too busy” to meet him, but would instead be “dropping by” while the Afghan was shuffled off to meet a lower-level National Security Council official. It wasn’t clear by Thursday’s end if even that meeting would be taking place.
Mohib had listed a number of other humiliations large and small, including his claim that Khalilzad has dictated to the Afghan government who they could include in future delegations to talk with the Taliban, once the U.S. allows them in. He said his own Taliban contacts told him they’d made no such demands.
He also carefully tried to split his attacks on Khalilzad from any attack on the U.S. president.
“The United States is not a colonial power,” said Mohib. “President [Donald] Trump said in his inauguration speech that … countries will not be told how to live their lives,” he said. “Those who he has hired are in fact doing the opposite.”
Editor's Note: This story was updated with comment from the State Department and NSC.