US envoy says Ghani’s escape spoiled the latest deal with the Taliban

Afghanistan Updates

The US diplomat responsible for talks with the Taliban said Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s decision to flee the country last month annulled a last-minute deal with the Taliban aimed at keeping Kabul out of Islamist hands and negotiating a political transition.

In his first interview since the US exit from Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, who was appointed by Donald Trump in 2018 to lead talks with Islamist insurgents, said he was given a two-week grace period hours before the fall of Kabul.

Under the plan, Ghani was to remain in office until a settlement was reached over a future government in Qatar, even with the Taliban standing at the gates of Kabul. But Khalilzad said the security vacuum left by Ghani’s flight on August 15 prompted the Islamists to march into the Afghan capital that day. This in turn led to a chaotic evacuation of civilians and troops, effectively ending the talks in Doha.

“Even in the end, we had an agreement with the Taliban for [them] Khalilzad told the Financial Times. He said he had “absolutely no” idea that Ghani intended to flee.

The US envoy’s remarks shed some light on the collapse of the Afghan government in its final hours and the panic within the US administration when Kabul fell to the Taliban. They echo Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, who told US lawmakers this week that he had received assurances from Ghani on the eve of his escape that the Afghan president was okay with Washington’s plan.

Khalilzad said the security forces in Kabul were disbanded after reports of Ghani’s disappearance. There were issues of law and order in Kabul after Ghani fled. . . Taliban[then]. . . Say: Will you take responsibility for the security of Kabul now? . . . And then you know what happened, we won’t be held responsible,” he said, adding that he attended a prearranged meeting that day with US regional military commander General Frank McKenzie and senior Taliban leaders in Doha.

Khalilzad rejected allegations of an implicit or explicit arrangement allowing Islamists to enter the presidential palace on August 15. “We haven’t given them any kind of green light or anything like that. What we said is what the mission of the American forces was,” referring to the airport evacuation.

Fatah fighters, a “special forces” unit, stand guard along a street in Kabul on August 29, 2021, amid suicide threats during the final stage of the US Army’s airlift from Kabul © Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty Images

The US envoy to Afghanistan first discussed a stalemate deal with the Kabul government on August 12, and reached an agreement with the Islamists two days later to protect the city’s integrity, according to US officials. However, Ghani was not likely to be part of any future government because his resignation was a precondition set by the Taliban. By August 13, the Islamists were then besieging Kabul seize control In most parts of the country.

Ghani could not be reached for comment. In a video posted on Facebook from the United Arab Emirates on August 18, Ghani said he fled because his life was in danger and to “prevent bloodshed” in Kabul as the Taliban descended into the capital. He said he left in his clothes once and described his allegations of escaping with looted money as “baseless lies.” He said on Twitter last week that his palace security had advised him to “remain at risk of the same horrific street-to-street fighting that the city endured during the civil war of the 1990s”.

Khalilzad, a 70-year-old Republican, has been criticized for his handling of the Taliban in the past three years. The deal he brokered in 2020 In light of Trump setting the terms of the US withdrawal. Critics say the agreement squandered Washington’s leverage in negotiations, undermined the elected government in Kabul and helped legitimize the Islamist insurgency.

US President Joe Biden criticized the 2020 deal but kept the Afghan-born diplomat as the top US envoy to Afghanistan – a decision Khalilzad said surprised him “on one level”. Reflecting Kabul’s dissatisfaction with the deal he negotiated and expectations that Biden would appoint someone else, Ghani at one point refused to meet with him.

“Obviously I was ready to leave,” Khalilzad said.

A former US ambassador to Afghanistan who worked in the region for four decades, he blamed his predecessors for the limitations of the 2020 agreement. He noted that successive US administrations gradually reduced their demands as the Taliban made military gains. He said his appointment in 2018 “was the result of something not going well”.

Abdul Ghani Baradar, right, head of the Taliban delegation, signs an agreement with Zalmay Khalilzad in Doha, Qatar, on February 29, 2020.

Abdul Ghani Baradar, right, head of the Taliban delegation, signs an agreement with Zalmay Khalilzad in Doha, Qatar, on February 29, 2020 © Ibrahim Al-Omari/Reuters

“[People] They’re looking for a scapegoat of some kind.” “I’m sure I could have done a better job — people expect me to say that. But when I think about it, I did my best, given the cards dealt in the circumstances, the basics.”

When asked if he was considering quitting, he said he always had a letter ready to keep at home “because he’s here.” [in state department] Someone might take it.”

Khalilzad also denied in the hour-long interview Claims from the former regional counterterrorism chief at the CIA that he was “uppity” and that he made extravagant promises to try to become Trump’s Secretary of State as “complete bullshit”.

The responsibility for the chaotic end of America’s longest war, he said, rests largely with the Afghans. “[T]It is the fact that they did not do that [negotiate peace] Or the disintegration of one of the parties, this is not the responsibility of the United States. This is not my responsibility.”

Khalilzad said he nevertheless mourned the failure to reach a political settlement with the Taliban years ago. “There will be a lot of soul-searching,” he added.

Additional reporting by Amy Kazmin in Delhi

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