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Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s decision to flee the country last month thwarted a last-minute deal with the Taliban to keep Kabul out of Islamist hands and negotiate a political transition, the US talks diplomat said with the Taliban.
In his first interview since the United States left Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, who was appointed by Donald Trump in 2018 to lead talks with Islamist insurgents, said he was granted a two-week grace period a few hours before the fall of Kabul.
According to the plan, Ghani was to remain in his post until an agreement on a future government was reached in Qatar, even as the Taliban stood at the gates of Kabul. But the security vacuum left by Ghani’s escape on August 15 prompted Islamists to enter the Afghan capital that day, Khalilzad said. This in turn precipitated a chaotic evacuation of civilians and troops and effectively ended the talks in Doha.
“Even at the end, we had an agreement with the Taliban to [them] not to enter Kabul, ”Khalilzad told the Financial Times. He had no idea “at all” that Ghani was planning to flee, he said.
The US envoy’s comments highlighted the collapse of the Afghan government in its final hours and the dismay within the US administration when Kabul fell to the Taliban. They echo Secretary of State Antony Blinken who told U.S. lawmakers this week he had received assurances from Ghani on the eve of his escape that the Afghan president was on board with Washington’s plan.
Kabul’s security forces dissolved upon news of Ghani’s disappearance, Khalilzad said. “There were questions of public order in Kabul after Ghani fled. . . The Talibs[then]. . . say, “Are you going to take responsibility for the security of Kabul now?” . . . And then you know what happened, we weren’t going to take responsibility, ”he said, adding that he attended a pre-arranged meeting that day with the US regional military commander. , General Frank McKenzie and senior Taliban leaders in Doha.
Khalilzad rejected claims of a tacit or explicit arrangement allowing Islamists to enter the presidential palace on August 15. “We haven’t given them any kind of green light or anything like that. What we said was what the mission of the American forces was, ”he said, referring to the evacuation of the airport.
The US envoy to Afghanistan first discussed the standstill agreement with the government in Kabul on August 12 and struck a deal with the Islamists two days later to safeguard the integrity of the city, officials say Americans. Ghani, however, was not likely to be part of a future government as his resignation was a prerequisite set by the Taliban. On August 13, the Islamists surrounded Kabul after taking control of most of the country.
Ghani could not be reached for comment. In a video posted to Facebook from the United Arab Emirates on August 18, Ghani said he fled because his life was in danger and to “prevent bloodshed” in Kabul as the Taliban invaded the capital. . He said he left with a change of clothes and described the allegations that he had fled with looted money as “baseless lies”. On Twitter last week, he said his palace security had advised him that “staying risked unleashing the same horrific street-to-street fighting the city suffered during the civil war of the 1990s.”
Khalilzad, a 70-year-old Republican, has been criticized for his handling of the Taliban over the past three years and the deal he negotiated in 2020 under Trump setting the terms for the US withdrawal. Critics say the deal squandered Washington’s influence in negotiations, undermined the elected government in Kabul, and helped legitimize the Islamist insurgency.
US President Joe Biden has criticized the 2020 pact but has retained the Afghan-born diplomat as the main US envoy to Afghanistan – a move that Khalilzad says surprised him “on one level.” Reflecting Kabul’s resentment over the deal he negotiated and expectations that Biden would name someone else, Ghani at one point refused to meet with him.
“I was obviously ready to go,” Khalilzad said.
A former US ambassador to Afghanistan who worked in the region for four decades, he blamed those who came before him for the limits of his 2020 deal. He suggested that successive US administrations had gradually reduced their demands to as the Taliban made military gains. His appointment in 2018 “was the result of what had not gone well,” he said.
“[People] are looking for some sort of scapegoat, ”he added. “I’m sure I could have done better – people would expect me to say that. But when I think about it, I did my best, given the cards I was dealt with in the circumstances, the fundamentals. “
When asked if he was considering resigning, he replied that he always had a letter ready that he kept at home “because here [in state department] someone could take it ”.
In the hour-long interview, Khalilzad also denied claims by the former CIA regional counterterrorism chief that he was a “dabbler” and had promised too much in order to become secretary of the CIA. Trump’s state as “total nonsense.”
The responsibility for the disorderly end of America’s longest war lies largely with the Afghans, he said. “[T]it makes that they do not have [negotiate peace] or one side has disintegrated, it is not the responsibility of the United States. It is not my responsibility.
Khalilzad said he nevertheless lamented the failure of a political deal with the Taliban years earlier. “There will be a lot of soul-searching,” he said.
Additional reporting by Amy Kazmin in Delhi