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Hamdullah Mohib, national security adviser to Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani, broke diplomatic china on Thursday when he told a Washington audience:
“Knowing Ambassador Khalilzad’s own history, personal history, he has ambitions in Afghanistan. He has wanted to run for president twice, in 2009 and 2014… The perception in Afghanistan [was that] perhaps all of this talk is to create a caretaker government, of which he will then become the viceroy. We’re only saying this because this is the perception.”>
For his comments, Mohib was summoned to the State Department to be chewed out by David Hale, the under secretary of State for policy. He may no longer be able to get a US visa, despite having an American wife. American diplomats defended the State Department action saying that Mohib’s “ad hominem” attack had no place in diplomacy.
Perhaps Mohib’s language was not saccharine enough for diplomatic snowflakes, but he was right.
Zalmay Khalilzad, who was born in Afghanistan, has a long and often regrettable history in Afghanistan affairs. Prior to the Sept. 11 terror attacks, for example, Khalilzad worked as a consultant for a group in Boston which was in turned hired by UNOCAL which at the time was trying to build a pipeline across Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. At the time, Khalilzad worked to normalize US relations with the Taliban and arranged for a senior Taliban official to come to the United States to meet with Clinton administration officials and business leaders.
Khalilzad joined the Bush administration as a senior National Security Council official. After Sept. 11, the White House sought out his expertise. Not only did Khalilzad have intimate knowledge of Afghanistan, but the Bush White House also found it useful to point to Khalilzad, a senior Muslim American, as proof against adversaries’ propaganda that Bush was neither waging “a war on Islam” nor was he “Islamophobic.”
The problem was that Khalilzad may also have had a personal agenda.
As Afghans began discussing their future government, most assumed that Zahir Shah, the Afghan king ousted in a 1973 coup d’etat, would play a role: He was an elder statesman, represented Afghanistan’s golden age, and was a unifying figure.
The BBC reported:
‘Yes, we’ll welcome him,’ said one man, ‘when he was our ruler, our king, we had hunger, but we had peace.’ … ‘All the ethnic groups in Afghanistan support Zahir Shah – Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras,’ said another man. ‘All the other leaders and the armed factions couldn’t bring peace and stability, but he will.’ It is actually quite difficult to find an Afghan who does not want the former king back. Most people here still call him the king or his majesty or even among some of the Pashtuns, Baba – grandfather.’
That is not to say that Afghans universally envisaged a return to monarchy (though many did), but most assumed that the king could preside over a reconciliation council or constitutional convention. Khalilzad quickly intervened to privilege Karzai, over whom Khalilzad thought he had leverage, over Zahir Shah, whom he saw as a competitor. In the end, Karzai exposed himself as a venal conspiracy theorist. Karzai’s brother, whom the president protected, allegedly became one of Afghanistan’s greatest drug kingpins. Zahir Shah, on the other hand, died as a widely respected, seasoned statesman. Many Afghans still ask what might have been, and blame Khalilzad for ceasing any possibility to answer that question.
The cynicism with which Afghans view Khalilzad has deep roots. In Washington, memory is four years long, but in Kabul it runs far deeper. Was Mohib exaggerating when he suggested that Khalilzad wanted to run for Afghanistan’s presidency after former President Barack Obama’s election ended Khalilzad’s career as UN ambassador? Consider this New York Times articlefrom the time:
“Zalmay Khalilzad, who was President George W. Bush’s ambassador to Afghanistan, could assume a powerful, unelected position inside the Afghan government under a plan he is discussing with Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, according to senior American and Afghan officials. Mr. Khalilzad, an American citizen who was born in Afghanistan, had considered challenging Mr. Karzai for the presidency in elections scheduled for this summer. But Mr. Khalilzad missed the May 8 filing deadline, and the American and Afghan officials say that he has been talking with Mr. Karzai for several weeks about taking on a job that the two have described as the chief executive officer of Afghanistan. Such an alliance would benefit Mr. Karzai by co-opting a potential rival. For its part, the White House has made no secret of its growing disenchantment with Mr. Karzai, and some Afghanistan experts said that enlisting Mr. Khalilzad would have the virtue of bringing a strong, competent leader into an increasingly dysfunctional Afghan government. The position would allow Mr. Khalilzad to serve as ‘a prime minister, except not prime minister because he wouldn’t be responsible to a parliamentary system,’ a senior Obama administration official said. Taking the unelected position would also allow Mr. Khalilzad to keep his American citizenship.”
Khalilzad’s behavior in Iraq has also heightened cynicism not only in Iraq but also in Afghanistan. Put aside Khalilzad’s tendency to position himself front-and-center in front of the cameras when his instructions were to keep the focus on Iraqis, a sensitive point given the US desire for its intervention in Iraq to be seen as liberation rather than occupation. That Iraqis have long seen Khalilzad more as a businessman than a diplomat is a major reason why Afghans question whether business ambition more than Afghan security motivates Khalilzad’s actions now.
In Iraq, he left his post as ambassador only to invest in Kurdish oil (at the expense of Iraqi cohesion). In addition, he set up a consulting firm that does not appear to have produced many, if any, consultancy reports. Rather, when business would stall in Iraqi Kurdistan, businessmen would pay Khalilzad’s consultancy which would then make phone calls to shake paperwork loose with major political leaders. The set-up may have been legal but most Iraqis perceived it as corrupt. Within Washington, many assumed Khalilzad was using contacts gathered throughout his political career to cash out as his diplomatic career had likely ended.
President Trump’s election changed that. Khalilzad’s appointment by Trump to lead the Afghanistan negotiations passed with little comment both because of press focus elsewhere given the controversies surrounding Trump and also, frankly, because few in Washington cared deeply about Afghanistan after nearly 17 years of war. Khalilzad may have had instructions, but the Trump administration’s hands-off approach allowed Khalilzad to monopolize process and decision-making in ways few other envoys could imagine.
Khalilzad used that position to maximum effect. He not only promoted a framework agreement empowering the Taliban that was almost exactly the same that the Clinton administration accepted prior to Sept. 11, but he sought to marginalize, if not cut-out entirely, Afghanistan’s elected government. As Khalilzad purported to negotiate Afghanistan’s future, he cut out the Mohib and Afghanistan’s security apparatus entirely: no seat at the table, no back-briefings, no role in talks.
Meanwhile, Afghan forces continued to fight for their freedom as Taliban attacks accelerated. Khalilzad’s desire to control the narrative and to defend himself from any criticism has grown so great that he (or the US Embassy in Kabul which coordinates its actions with the envoy) refused a visa to Amrullah Saleh, Afghanistan’s former intelligence chief and interior minister who has long worked in close coordination with the CIA and Washington, and has put his life on the line repeatedly in defense of US forces. Indeed, even as Hale chastised Mohib, it appears that the most senior levels of the State Department had no idea of Khalilzad’s actions, and the animosity they were engendering among American allies inside Afghanistan, including with President Ashraf Ghani.
There are other parallels to Mohib’s whistleblowing about Khalilzad’s actions and the Trump administration’s anger.
In 1994, as the Clinton administration pursued an Agreed Framework with North Korea, the White House ignored South Korean President Kim Young-sam. The South Korean president granted an interview with the New York Times in which he criticized the deal and its many loopholes. President Bill Clinton and the State Department blew a gasket. They said Kim was ungrateful and unhelpful to diplomacy. Of course, Kim was right. More recently, the anger which Hale expressed toward Mohib parallels that of Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu repeatedly raised concerns over the wisdom of and loopholes within the Iranian nuclear deal.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo should want more than to replicate the worst of Clinton and Obama.
US national security and Afghanistan’s freedom should both be worth more than Khalilzad’s ego. The simple truth is that Mohib spoke bluntly for a reason. The path Khalilzad is taking Afghanistan down, whether with instruction or without, will lead to disaster. At the same time, Khalilzad’s decades-long history of conflating personal political ambition, business interests, and diplomacy gives Afghans profound unease. The State Department may say Mohib’s comments are unfair, but it is also likely that if Khalilzad were envoy to Madagascar, he would likely somehow become involved in the coffee and vanilla trade.
Deep down, almost everyone who has worked in Afghanistan or Iraq can attest that there is a reason why perceptions of impropriety surround Khalilzad in contrast to many other envoys and diplomats before him.
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