The U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, says the United States remains committed to promoting a political settlement between warring Afghans, stressing that neither side to the conflict can win militarily.
In an interview with VOA that comes as the United States works to complete its withdrawal from Afghanistan by the end of August, Khalilzad spoke about what responsibility Washington has for Afghanistan following its troop departure and whether the Taliban are already violating their February agreement with the United States.
The Afghan-born American envoy stressed that if the Taliban take over the country by force, they will not win international recognition and “they will become a pariah state.” Khalilzad spoke via Zoom with VOA reporter Ayaz Gul in Islamabad.
VOA: Do you think the U.S. has a moral and political responsibility to ensure that Afghanistan does not slide into another civil war, after U.S. military departure, as it happened following the Soviet army exit in 1989?
Khalilzad: Well, you raise a very important point, it is a point that we have kept in mind that what happened in the 90s should not be repeated and that working with the Afghans we did something big, a huge sacrifice on the part of the Afghans with our support to get the Soviets out, and then we abandon Afghanistan, and a terrible war took place and it produced challenges particularly in 9/11. So, we do not want to repeat that mistake. That's why although we could have left Afghanistan, we didn't need to, we have an agreement with the Taliban in principle to depart. But we engaged the Taliban as part of a strategy a plan to have safe withdrawal of U.S. forces, but also to start as a key package to start as a peace process in Afghanistan that brings the Afghan war - a long very, very long war - where there has been a lot of suffering, to an end. The agreement with the Taliban provided the opportunity for Afghans to sit across the table from each other, a historic development, to reach an agreement to agree on a formula that would have broad support in Afghanistan and international support as well. And unfortunately, the two sides have not taken advantage of that opportunity as quickly as we would have liked, as the Afghan people would have liked because they are yearning the people are yearning for peace. We are always looking for ways and means to help accelerate the negotiations because we don't see a military solution to the war in Afghanistan. There must be a political solution, a political agreement for a lasting peace, and we will stay with it. We are committed to staying with it until that that goal is achieved.
VOA: Aren’t the Taliban violating the letter and spirit of the Doha Accord by their brazen attempt to militarily conquer Afghanistan and their use of violence and targeted assassinations in their quest for absolute power?
Khalilzad: Well, the agreement necessitated, committed the Taliban to negotiations for a new Islamic government in Afghanistan and a comprehensive cease fire. And there is this agreement that the government also has had challenges or difficulties in terms of agreeing to or embracing the idea of a new Islamic government and the Taliban have used force to see if it could coerce the government into agreeing to a formula for a new Islamic government, a new constitution as they see it as well. And that there has got to be a political formula. The government cannot get rid of the Taliban, it's our assessment. And the Taliban cannot conquer Afghanistan and have a government and that has the support of the overwhelming majority of the Afghans and international support. Maybe some Taliban think there is a military solution to the conflict although they tell us otherwise. When they speak to us the Taliban says there is no military solution. But if some commanders or some military leaders think that they are miscalculating because there will be resistance and even if they take over the country, there will be resistance and there will be international opposition that they won't be recognized that they will not receive international assistance, and they will become a pariah state which they say they don't want. And the wise thing is for both sides to engage seriously and quickly, urgently to respond to the wishes of the people of Afghanistan for a political agreement. The history of Afghanistan over the last almost 45, 50 years indicates that an effort by one side, one party to impose its will, its formula on others leads to war and intervention. I hope that the leaders of Afghanistan have learned that lesson and that they need to agree to a formula that has broad support, accepts that all Afghans have legitimate rights, that those rights have to be respected and the people have to have a say ultimately in how they are governed. I hope that that's the lesson they have learned, although the current situation is discouraging, it's heartbreaking given the level of violence and the suffering, the pictures one sees coming out of places like Lashkar Gah.
VOA: Afghan officials and even some in the U.S. have been critical of you for negotiating what they argue is a bad deal with the Taliban that has surely paved the way for the American military withdrawal but at the same time fueled the violence, and which effectively has stalled progress in the intra-Afghan negotiations?
Khalilzad: I can see that there are differences of view but the U.S. president, starting with (former) President (Barack) Obama, decided that there was no military solution to the problem of Afghanistan and that there has to be a political solution. And also the U.S. wanted to adjust to the circumstances in which they world is in now and the issue of terrorism and that given that there was no military solution and that new challenges have arisen, such as a great power competition, that the terrorism problem has changed, that Afghanistan is not the center of the al-Qaida terrorism threatening the world, and that it has diffused that the U.S. needed to adjust And the adjustment was in order to get the Taliban to negotiate with the government which it wasn't willing to do until there was an agreement on U.S. withdrawal. And that agreement as you know was signed over a year ago, 15, 16 months ago, and the Afghan government knew that, of course, and the withdrawal timeline was clear, and the Biden administration added some time because we were supposed to be out of there by May but now the president has decided it should be by the end of August. The agreement was to give peace a chance and to make adjustments on behalf of the United States in terms of the security situation worldwide. So, it is now the obligation of the Afghan leaders, Taliban government has to also recognize that there is no military solution and their engagement with each other - that one side will not be able to conquer Afghanistan, have a stable Afghanistan that is at peace with itself and the world, without a political agreement and not to lose this opportunity and not to repeat the mistakes of the past.
VOA: How much blame does the Afghan government share for bringing the situation to where it is today and what is your response to the way Afghan security forces behaved on the battlefield, enabling Taliban to make rapid territorial gains?
Khalilzad: As you know the Afghan security forces are numerically far superior than the Taliban. They have over three hundred thousand troops, it has an Air Force and it has special forces, It has heavy equipment and both proper leadership, political and military and proper military strategy and plan and execution, that the government forces should have done a lot better than they are doing. We continue to support Afghan security forces and we are committed to supporting those forces well into the future. The president is asking his budget for next year, three point three billion dollars for the support of the Afghan security forces. So, it is a question of leadership, political and military, uniting the Afghan leaders and motivating the forces that they are fighting for a just cause, then having the right plan the right tactics and the right execution. I know that the Afghan leadership has been taking a look at how to adjust their approach in the light of the experience and that you alluded to.
VOA: Do you feel let down by both the Afghan warring sides?
Khalilzad: Well, I am concerned very much by the lack of progress. I know that the gap has been large, continues to be a big gap between the two sides, but they need to put the leader or the interests of the Country first, rather than their own interest or their factional interest. There cannot be peace without a compromise, without give and take, without respect for the fundamental rights of all Afghans men and women and the Afghans having a say, ultimately the people and in terms of what happens to them. But for the short term although those are things that in the long term will really be determinative. It is the responsibility of the leaders because the people are there, in a sense, at their mercy and they both argue that they are they are people of God and they and that they are fighting for a righteous cause. Well, there is nothing worse, morally and otherwise than innocent people getting killed and killing innocent people. And innocent people are getting killed every day unfortunately, and it is the responsibility of leaders to accommodate each other accept each other as Afghans as fellow Afghans or citizens of the same country that has suffered for so long and the eyes of the Afghan people are really focused on their leaders on both sides and the eyes of the international community is also focused. And the question really is, ‘will these leaders rise to the occasion and put country first or will they go down in history as people who put their own interests or the interests of their faction first’ and to be judged and evaluated harshly therefore, for what the people are striving for it.
VOA: Pakistani leaders say that short of military action, they have done all they could and that they are still determined to keep trying to diplomatically encourage the Taliban to seek a negotiated settlement with Afghan rivals. Do you support and agree with what Pakistanis are saying? Does Islamabad still have sway over the Taliban?
Khalilzad: Well, I think Pakistan as the Pakistani leaders say and we agree with them that what happens in Afghanistan, that continuing war there will have negative implications for Pakistan because a neighbor at war can only produce problems, refugees, for example, violence, lost economic opportunities for trade, lost opportunity from connectivity of linking Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia together. There are vast opportunities for regional cooperation that the war puts at risk. So, Pakistan has a special role and responsibility, given also that many Taliban leaders are in Pakistan located there to do what it can to encourage peace and a political settlement as soon as possible, for it will be judged internationally also as to whether it has done all that it can or it could to promote a political settlement. But I believe that a political settlement and that's broadly accepted that ends the war and make sure Afghanistan is not a threat to any country in the region and the world that it doesn't return to being a sanctuary for terrorists and that that's Afghanistan that type of Afghanistan is very much in Pakistan's interest and many Pakistani leaders do tell me that that's exactly right and that that's what they want and that's what they are working for. But Pakistan has a special role and responsibility with regard to the conflict in Afghanistan.