Top United States envoy to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad is stepping down, the State Department has announced, less than two months after the chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Taliban takeover of the country.
Khalilzad will be replaced by his deputy, Tom West, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement on Monday, noting that West will work closely with the US embassy, which is now based in Doha, on US interests in Afghanistan.
“As Special Representative for Afghan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad steps down from his role, I extend my gratitude for his decades of service to the American people,” Blinken’s statement said.
“I thank Ambassador Khalilzad for his service and welcome Special Representative West to the role.”
A person familiar with the matter told the Reuters news agency on condition of anonymity that Khalilzad submitted his resignation on Friday.
His departure follows his exclusion from the Biden administration’s first formal talks with the Taliban after the US pullout, which were held in Doha earlier in October.
In a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Khalilzad defended his record but acknowledged that he came up short and said he wanted to make way during the “new phase of our Afghanistan policy”.
“The political arrangement between the Afghan government and the Taliban did not go forward as envisaged,” he was quoted by the AFP news agency as saying.
“The reasons for this are too complex and I will share my thoughts in the coming day and weeks.”
‘Face of diplomatic failure’
Born in Afghanistan, Khalilzad had held the post since 2018 and spearheaded the negotiations with the Taliban that led to the February 2020 agreement for the withdrawal of US forces this year.
Despite his Republican affiliation, Khalilzad was kept in place when Biden defeated Donald Trump and decided to go ahead with the withdrawal.
He then pressed the hardline armed group and the Western-backed government of former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to negotiate a political settlement to decades of strife.
In mid-August, the government collapsed as the Taliban swept through the country and marched unopposed into the capital, Kabul.
Khalilzad was left seeking the armed group’s assistance in the US evacuation of American citizens and at-risk Afghans who worked for the US government.
Current and former US officials told Reuters earlier that in the three years Khalilzad had been in the role, he became the face of one of the most significant US diplomatic failures in recent memory.
US officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the veteran American diplomat relinquished leverage to the armed group, continuously undermined the Afghan government, and had little interest in hearing different viewpoints within the US government.
Speaking to Foreign Policy magazine recently, Khalilzad defended his record, saying that the Taliban fulfilled key parts of the February 2020 agreement, including not attacking the departing US troops.
“I respect those who say we shouldn’t have negotiated with the Talibs without the government being there. But we don’t know how much more fighting would have taken for the Talibs to agree to that,” he said.
But with no appetite in the US for another surge of troops in its longest war, “each year we were losing ground to the Talibs,” he said.
“Time was not on our side.”