(CNSNews.com) – Former U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad, in his first interview since resigning, repeatedly drew a distinction between the “conditions-based” agreement he signed with the Taliban early last year and the “calendar-based” approach that ultimately governed the chaotic end of the U.S. military engagement there.
In a lengthy interview on CBS News’ “Face the Nation,” some of which was aired on Sunday, Khalilzad did not directly blame either the Trump or Biden administrations. But he said decisions by both to shift from the conditions-based agreement signed in Doha in February 2020 to a departure based on the calendar had been made “way above [his] pay grade.”
He said the incoming Biden administration had an opportunity to look at the agreement it inherited and “could have made a variety of decisions with regard to that agreement. They decided to stick with the withdrawal provisions.”
Khalilzad was appointed as special envoy by then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in September 2018. He remained in the post through the Biden administration’s withdrawal, stepping down last week.
Khalilzad sidestepped several opportunities provided by host Margaret Brennan to directly criticize one or both administrations, including one in which she pointed to Pompeo’s projected campaign for the White House in 2024.
“When he runs for president in 2024, as many predict, should he be judged on this?” she asked.
Khalilzad first pointed out, again, that the previous administration had negotiated a conditions-based agreement to end the war, then when asked again about Pompeo, he said that if the former secretary of state does run, “I’m sure this will be one of the issues on which he will be judged, no doubt.”
Brennan noted that Pompeo has said the negotiated deal was “solid” unlike its execution under the Biden administration.
Khalilzad repeated that the agreement negotiated had been “conditions-based,” but that “the decision ultimately was made to put conditions-based aside and – and follow a calendar basis.”
Asked whether he was pinning the blame then on the Biden administration, he said the shift was already underway before it came to office.
Khalilzad also alluded to an argument others have made in response to President Biden’s claim that he was boxed in by his predecessor: Critics have pointed out that Biden was quick to abandon other Trump era-policies that he did not like, but chose not to do so in this particular case.
“You’ll always inherit agreement from the previous group,” Khalilzad said. “You either agree to continue with it or you say, ‘No I would like to renegotiate that.’ So those are the choices that – that happen all the time. We saw in the previous administration, putting the Iran [nuclear] agreement aside.”
Brennan asked if he was saying that Biden could have kept the troops in place for longer, to which Khalilzad echoed Biden’s own response to that contention – that doing so would have prompted the Taliban to resume attack on U.S. forces that had been suspended for many months.
In contrast to his evident reluctance to criticize senior members of either administration under which he served as special envoy, Khalilzad was openly critical of former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.
He characterized Ghani and his circle as individuals who did not believe the U.S. was serious in its intention to withdraw, and who favored retaining the status quo – holding on to their jobs and U.S.-provided resources – over reaching a political settlement.
Khalilzad said he had been in discussions with the Taliban in August over forming a power-sharing government that would have included some officials from the Ghani administration. But Ghani’s abrupt flight from Kabul had stymied that initiative and triggered the chaos in the capital, as Afghans driven by “a combination of fear and opportunity” rushed to the airport.
Khalilzad, an Afghanistan-born Pashtun, served as the first U.S. ambassador stationed in Kabul after the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001. Detractors viewed him as too soft on the Taliban, and he was unpopular with some senior Afghan officials.
‘Failed to fully honor’
The agreement concluded between the Trump administration and the Taliban in February 2020, was signed in Doha by Khalilzad and Taliban negotiator Abdul Ghani Baradar – now deputy prime minister in the Taliban regime – in Pompeo’s presence.
It provided for a withdrawal of U.S. forces by May 1, 2021, but also set clear conditions, including a requirement that the Taliban would “not allow any of its members, other individuals or groups, including al-Qaeda, to use the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies.”
To make good on that pledge, it agreed not to cooperate with such groups or individuals, not to “host” them; to deny them asylum or residence; to prevent them “from recruiting, training, and fundraising”; and not to issue them with visas, passports, travel permits, or other legal documents.
The May 1 deadline for withdrawal was also tied to the Taliban meeting other obligations; it called for a “permanent and comprehensive ceasefire,” to be negotiated and agreed upon in “intra-Afghan” talks.
Despite delays and problems in those “intra-Afghan” talks, the U.S. drawdown moved ahead. By the end of the Trump administration troop numbers had dropped to 2,500 – down from 12,000-13,000 when the agreement was signed.
Biden in April rejected the “conditions-based” approach and announced a full withdrawal deadline of September 11. The Pentagon later adjusted the target date to August 31.
The “intra-Afghan” talks and ceasefire requirements in the deal were never met. Instead, Taliban fighters swept through the country’s provinces through June and July, until Kabul fell in mid-August.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley told lawmakers last month that except for its agreement not to attack U.S. forces, the Taliban had “failed to fully honor any, any other condition under the Doha Agreement.”
“And perhaps most importantly for U.S. national security, the Taliban has never renounced al-Qaeda, or broke its affiliation with them.”