KABUL: Almost every morning, the front page of Afghanistan Times features a long excerpt from Zalmay Khalilzad’s memoir, The Envoy, accompanied by a prominent photo of the Afghan-born former US ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq and the United Nations.
Many passages are dramatic accounts of his role in Afghan policy as a US official after the fall of the Taliban in 2001. One describes him challenging then-Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who advised him to “take your hand off the bicycle seat” and let Afghans figure things out on their own. In exasperation, Khalilzad says he replied, “Mr Secretary, there is no bicycle!”
No one in the Afghan capital needs to be reminded of the ambitious swath that the Afghan native, now 65, cut through the nation’s politics when he arrived here as Washington’s envoy in 2003. Khalilzad had strong ideas about how to build a new civilian government after the fall of the Taliban regime — and the forceful personality to help push them through.
His two-year tenure was controversial, in part because he became openly enmeshed in the manoeuvring that led to Hamid Karzai becoming president, and also because he urged Karzai to welcome a rogue’s gallery of anti-Taliban warlords into the fold — a legacy that challenges Afghanistan’s political stability to this day. In the process, he became known as the American “viceroy”.
Today, though, Khalilzad — who has been mentioned as a possible candidate for secretary of state, or more likely a lower-profile adviser on foreign policy in the Trump administration — seems to many Afghans like a potential lifeline to an unpredictable new government in Washington, following years of reliable US economic and military aid to his impoverished and war-wracked country.
“He has a deep attachment to the US and Afghanistan, and he is someone who can bring balance and success to US policy in this part of the world,” said Abdul Hamid Mobarez, a writer and former information official under Karzai.
He said Khalilzad had “played a major role in the new post-war order in Afghanistan,” a difficult process that he said included “some faults” in the empowerment of former strongmen.
But like several other Afghan experts and former officials, Mobarez said he hoped Khalilzad could help tilt US policy away from Pakistan, a US antiterrorism partner next door that many Afghans view as the source of their country’s insurgent problem. Such an approach, he said, would “lead to stability in Afghanistan and be beneficial for America”.
Mohammed Daud Kalakani, a legislator from Kabul, said Afghans “would generally hail” Khalilzad’s appointment to a foreign policy role in Washington, calling him “a person with initiative, knowledge and vast understanding of the region’s issues” as well as having a close familiarity with all Afghan factions. He, too, suggested approvingly that Khalilzad would be a strong critic of Pakistan.
Some experts here suggested that this might be wishful thinking, given that US policymakers have to balance complex regional relationships and that Pakistan is an important if not always reliable ally in US antiterrorism efforts. They also noted that Afghanistan played almost no part in the US election campaign and is unlikely to be high on the new administration’s agenda.
But Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani expert on Afghanistan and the Taliban, said he expected that Trump would be attuned to international concerns about Pakistan because of its support for the Taliban. In a recent interview, he said Trump “will be quite tough on Pakistan, perhaps tougher than the Obama administration”.
The United States still has about 10,000 troops here, and many Afghans are worried that the Trump administration will pull them out, robbing the country’s defence forces of valuable support and training as they take over the fight against the Taliban. If Khalilzad were in a position to do so, they assume he would argue in favour of keeping a military presence here.
During his campaign, however, Trump did say he would probably keep the troops here, calling Afghanistan “the one place we should have gone in the Middle East”, because it is “right next to Pakistan, which has nuclear weapons”. In an interview with Fox News last spring, he added: “I think you have to stay and do the best you can. Not that it’s ever going to be great, but I don’t think we have much of a choice.”
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, whose administration has been close to the Obama administration, warmly congratulated Trump on his victory, saying that the US government is an “essential and important strategic partner” and that he hoped for “close cooperation with the new president”.
While Khalilzad’s views might fit in with the new administration’s, he is considered a long shot at best to become the top US diplomat. Although he was one of the few senior figures in the foreign policy establishment to endorse Donald Trump and has held numerous positions in past Republican administrations, he also has been criticised as a lone operator who “freelanced” or skirted official limits as a diplomat. He also reportedly considered running for president of Afghanistan in 2009 and 2014.
Khalilzad is also a Sunni Muslim immigrant, a category of people that Trump has said he would consider barring from the United States or subjecting to special vetting. In addition, some foreign policy aides to Trump have warned that the executive branch is riddled with Muslim extremist sympathisers.
Some of Khalilzad’s fiercest critics have been fellow Republicans, including Dana Rohrabacher, who accused him of meddling in Afghan politics, shaping the new constitution and promoting Karzai. In a 2012 open letter to Khalilzad, Rohrabacher charged that he and UN officials had “aggressively interfered” in Afghan affairs to ensure that Karzai came to power.
But some Afghans recall that time differently, saying Khalilzad’s activism made a positive contribution to a tense and unsettled situation.
One is Mirza Yarmand, a former deputy minister who worked with Khalilzad in Kabul. He described the former envoy as “an intellectual, sage person” who would be an “ideal” top US diplomat.
“His involvement was not interference,” Yarmand said. “It was a kind of cooperation and contribution to the new Afghanistan.”
—By arrangement with The Washington Post
Published in Dawn, November 21st, 2016