Khalilzad: 'A Moment For The Afghan Leaders Not To Repeat The Mistakes Of The Past'

Oct 2, 2020
Originally published on October 4, 2020 11:45 pm

"The fact that the Afghans are sitting across the table for the first time in 42 years is a moment of hope and opportunity," U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad tells NPR. "But this moment is not without its own challenges."

Peace talks began in Doha, Qatar, last month between the Afghan government and the Taliban, even as deadly violence in Afghanistan continues.

Khalilzad brokered an agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban, signed in February. The U.S. has "tested" the Taliban, he says. "No, we don't take them at their word," he says. "We have asked them to do things with regard to terrorism, and they have taken some of the steps that we have recommended. This is an ongoing process... they are not where we would like them to be. But we will not leave unless we are satisfied that what they have committed to, with regard to terrorism and other things, they're actually implementing."

Both Afghanistan and the U.S. must avoid mistakes of the 1990s, Khalilzad warns, when Afghanistan descended into a civil war from which the Taliban emerged and gave shelter to al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden. As for the U.S., "we will not make the mistake that was made after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, which was to abandon Afghanistan," he says.

Excerpts from the interview follow.


Interview Highlights

On the Taliban's incentives to talk peace

I think there are several incentives that they have. One is that they would like us to withdraw. ... But at the same time, they would like to be accepted as a legitimate partner in governing Afghanistan. That means they have to agree with other Afghans that they recognize that what happened in the '90s did not work. It was a failure and that their relationship with al-Qaida resulted in the attacks by the United States in Afghanistan and the Taliban losing power. They don't want to repeat that.

I have to say, we have tested them. They have demonstrated so far that they are meeting those tests. There have been no attacks on U.S. forces... And they said they will sit with other Afghans, and they are sitting with other Afghans. Now, we will see whether they do the remaining things that are required of them.

On Pakistan's role in the region

Well, I still stick with the idea of trust but verify. But I want to add, though, that Pakistan has been helpful to the effort that we have made in the last two years, and they have encouraged the Talibs to enter negotiations with the government and they have encouraged the Talibs to reduce violence. They have also been helpful in terms of interaction with the Afghan leaders. ... now they see peace in Afghanistan as vital for peace in Pakistan...

Part of the concern that the Pakistanis have had ...is that the Afghan Taliban is now accompanied, if you like, parallel now [is] a Pakistani-based Taliban or a Pakistani Taliban, and they don't want those Taliban to be able to operate from Afghanistan... And we are encouraging Afghanistan and Pakistan to sign an agreement that neither side's territory can be used by terrorist groups or extremist groups against the other. And I hope that we will achieve results in that regard as well.

On the rights and aspirations of Afghan women

Well, it may be for the first time that Afghans sitting across the table to negotiate peace have women as a part of the delegation... [Female members of the government negotiating team] say they are being respected in the negotiating room and that they engage the Taliban directly and protect or defend their rights. I think that's positive. ...

And we have told the Talibs that since they want to be treated as a normal player and have good relations with the United States as part of a future Afghan government, what happens with regard to the rights of women will be a key factor in shaping U.S. policy with regard to that government. ...Discrimination against women — going back to the situation that existed under the Taliban and closing schools for girls and young women, in other words — could be a red line that would have the most negative effect on U.S. policy towards Afghanistan.

On what may happen if negotiations fail

The United States will not walk away from protecting its national security interests. We will not make the mistake that was made after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, which was to abandon Afghanistan. And the consequences were grave for Afghanistan because of the mistakes the Afghan leaders made. Rather than coming together, forming a government, they fought each other while the rest of the world benefited from the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan and the Soviet disintegration, which was partially helped by their conquest or attempted conquest of Afghanistan.

This is an opportunity for Afghans to seize the opportunity that is provided to them to negotiate a roadmap where groups of different ideas or ideologies, values, can coexist in the same country. And at the same time, there is a lesson for the United States that we cannot abandon Afghanistan. We cannot turn our back.

It doesn't mean we must maintain a military presence or continue a war just to have a military presence — but that if the conditions are right, [if] we don't feel threatened, that we can withdraw our military forces or adjust them accordingly, but maintain focus, relations, economic assistance, political relations, diplomatic relations, to encourage the consolidation of a peace agreement, should it be arrived at by the Afghans. But this is a moment for the Afghan leaders not to repeat the mistakes of the past, to build a consensus-based system where all key players can participate... and perhaps peace in Afghanistan can change the dynamics even regionally.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Something extraordinary is happening thousands of miles away that will have consequences for the United States for a very long time. Talks are underway in Doha, Qatar, to end the U.S.-led war against the Taliban and other insurgent groups in Afghanistan. The numbers are staggering.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

They really are. The U.S. government has spent at least $822 billion on the war effort. U.S. troops have been fighting there for 19 years. At least 1,300 of them have died. And after reducing its troop size, at least 4,500 of them are still there. But President Trump has said he wants them all out by spring.

MARTIN: Earlier this year, the U.S. negotiated a preliminary deal with the Taliban, and now the U.S. is facilitating negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government. Zalmay Khalilzad is the former ambassador to Afghanistan, and he currently serves as the U.S. special envoy leading the U.S. delegation. When I spoke to him yesterday, I asked if the U.S. had given away its leverage by announcing a timeline to get U.S. troops out.

ZALMAY KHALILZAD: Well, we have agreed to leave and that being in Afghanistan militarily is not an end in itself for the United States, that it depends on the conditions and the agreement that we arrived at with the Talibs (ph) that had that timetable that you referred to had four elements to it - a commitment that there will be no terrorist threat to the United States from Afghanistan, that there would be these peace negotiations and an agreement on a road map and a comprehensive settlement. We are in the middle of that. And if conditions are right, we are committed to withdrawing. But if the conditions are not right, we don't have to withdraw. That is a decision that will be made as we go forward.

MARTIN: What's the incentive for the Taliban?

KHALILZAD: They would like us to withdraw, but at the same time, they would like to be accepted as a legitimate partner in governing Afghanistan. That means they have to agree with other Afghans, that they recognize that what happened in the '90s did not work. It was a failure and that their relationship with al-Qaida resulted in the attacks by the United States in Afghanistan and the Talib (ph) losing power. They don't want to repeat that. I have to say we have tested them. They have demonstrated so far that they are meeting those tests. Now we will see whether they do the remaining things that are required of them.

MARTIN: You said that you have put tests to the Taliban to make sure, presumably, that they will actually or have cut ties with al-Qaida in particular. What tests? I mean, how can you ever be sure? Do you just take them at their word?

KHALILZAD: No, we don't take them at their word. We have asked them to do things with regard to terrorism, and they have taken some of the steps that we have recommended. This is an ongoing process. They are not where we would like them to be, but we would not leave unless we are satisfied that what they have committed to they are actually implementing.

MARTIN: In conversations that I have had with Afghans recently, there is a concern that too much faith is being put in the country and the government of Pakistan, which, as you know, is crucial to any sustainable peace deal between the Taliban and Afghanistan. And the last time you and I spoke, 2018, this was when you took the job as the U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan. And we talked about this, and I asked you if you trusted Pakistan. And I want to play your response. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

KHALILZAD: Well, I mean, this is not about trust. I mean, we're talking about international politics. I used to work for Ronald Reagan. I mean, the trust is good, but, you know, we have to verify it. And that would apply to a lot of states.

MARTIN: Is that a no?

KHALILZAD: But Pakistan says now that it wants to turn a new page, that it wants to help the U.S. with this objective that I outlined. And we will have to see.

MARTIN: What have you seen, Ambassador? Can you give me a yes or no answer now? Do you trust Pakistan?

KHALILZAD: Well, I still stick with the idea of trust but verify. But I want to add, though, that Pakistan has been helpful to the effort that we have made in the last two years, and they have encouraged the Talibs to enter negotiations with the government. And they have encouraged the Talibs to reduce violence. They have also been helpful in terms of interaction with the Afghan leaders. You just recently saw Dr. Abdullah visiting Pakistan and Dr. Abdullah said that they see a new page being turned by Pakistan, that maybe they made some mistakes in the past in their policy towards Afghanistan. But now they see peace in Afghanistan as vital for peace in Pakistan.

MARTIN: There are over 30 negotiators on the Afghan government's side in these talks; only four of them are women. Does that number suggest to you that the rights and aspirations of Afghan women are being taken seriously in these negotiations?

KHALILZAD: Well, it may be for the first time that Afghans sitting across the table to negotiate peace have women as part of the delegation. And I just met with the four women delegates, and they are very articulate. They say they are being respected in the negotiating room and that they engage the Taliban directly. I think that's positive. We had committed the United States. That is, committed to having women at the table, and we are happy that they are there. What happened with regard to the rights of women will be a key factor in shaping U.S. policy with regard to that government.

MARTIN: Lastly, you acknowledged in remarks at a talk here in Washington last week that the Afghan civil war, this is a problem that has to be resolved by Afghans and that also these peace talks could fail. But the consequences of that failure could create the kind of civil war that allowed al-Qaida protection to develop their plans for 9/11 in the first place, which was the entire reason for the near 20-year U.S. military presence there. Can the United States really walk away if these peace negotiations fail?

KHALILZAD: The United States will not walk away from protecting its national security interests. We will not make the mistake that was made after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, which was to abandon Afghanistan.

KHALILZAD: But this is a moment for the Afghan leaders not to repeat the mistakes of the past, to build a consensus-based system where all key players can participate in. Perhaps peace in Afghanistan can change the dynamics, even regionally.

MARTIN: Zalmay Khalilzad, former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, now the U.S. special envoy. Ambassador, thank you as always for your time.

KHALILZAD: Well, thank you. It's good to speak with you, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOULAR ORDER'S "LUCIDA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.