Will all of the hub bub in Washington around Kanye West in the West Wing and Melania Trump’s visit to Africa and Jared Kushner’s lack of tax paying…this little story about an American diplomat meeting with the Taliban was buried in the main news section of the Sunday New York Times.
The diplomat is Zalmay Khalilzad who was born in Afghanistan. Mr. Khalilzad met with representatives of the Taliban in Doha Qatar and then flew to Kabul Afghanistan to consult with that nation’s president, Ashraf Ghani. So on the face of it, it could be some shuttle diplomacy here. And it sounds like the United States would like to see talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government…but the Taliban wants no part of that. In fact they want no part of actual peace talks until the United States ends their ‘occupation’ of the nation. And according to the NYT’s article they want no part of the upcoming elections either…elections that have already been delayed for years.
No, I’d like to see the US out of Afghanistan ASAP but it doesn’t sound like we can leave and expect any type of non-Taliban government to survive our exit. That’s not good. And I really don’t think the current hardline Taliban stance is a negotiating ploy. They can smell a victory in the current civil war if US involvement ends.
But I am really nervous about the current American diplomat entrusted with this decidedly delicate negotiation. Mr. Khalilzad was just appointed as special representative for Afghan reconciliation a month ago. And this was his first visit to the region and with the Taliban in this role. But he has a rather checkered past with the Taliban, the State Department, and Afghanistan.
During the Clinton Administration, Mr. Khalilzad was one of the leading Afghan specialists at State. And after the fall of Kabul to the Taliban he was quoted as saying : “The Taliban does not practice the anti-US style of fundamentalism practiced by Iran. It is closer to the Saudi model.”
That thinking prevailed in Washington for years and prevented the US from snatching Osama bin Laden from Taliban held areas of Afghanistan for fear of angering the Taliban rulers. That trend allowed bin Laden the safe haven to build al Qaeda and launch the 9/11 attacks in the United States.
Shortly after making those pronouncements, Mr. Khalilzad moved on to Unocal as an advisor. While at Unocal, Mr. Khalilzad met with Taliban representatives in 1997 at the Watergate Hotel to help negotiate a pipeline deal through Afghanistan. At that time he was referred to as a leading Republican expert on Afghanistan.
Somewhere along the line, Mr. Khalilzad joined the RAND Corporation and reversed his position on the Taliban. He served on the George W Bush transition team and was appointed to run Condoleezza Rice’s Middle East directorate. And now he was concerned that the Taliban would corrupt Pakistan. I think that prediction came true to a certain degree.
It makes sense that the Trump regime would reach out to someone like Zalmay Khalilzad. They have no one in their inner circle with any kind of experience in the Middle East much less Afghanistan or Pakistan. And apparently he has great Republican cred. But with his history around the Taliban, I don’t know how far to trust him. He’s a retread. The State Department must have other more reliable Afghan experts by now! It’s been 17 plus years since 9/11 and nearly as long that we’ve been engaged in a war there.
Like the war, this has gone on too long. Do we trust Khalilzad? Do we trust Donald Trump on Afghanistan? The president has complained about lack of progress there…but is he just willing to cut and run and leave the current Afghan government to hang? Will we end up seeing another helicopter flotilla from the roof of the US embassy in Kabul in 2019? The selection of Mr. Khalilzad stinks to high heaven. The quiet maneuvering stinks as well.