Zalmay Khalilzad

Biden will keep Khalilzad to run Afghan peace desk

Some source familiar with the matter told CNN last week that the Biden administration will keep Zalmay Khalilzad, former President Trump’s top envoy for Afghanistan peace talks, to run the desk of Afghan peace.

Born in Afghanistan, Mr. Khalilzad is career American diplomat who has served as the US envoy in Iraq, Afghanistan and the United Nations. In February 2020, he helped the Trump administration sign a peace deal with the Taliban. Mr. Khalilzad, who has served as US Especial Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation for more than two years, has had contentious relations with Afghan leaders, including President Ashraf Ghani.

The move to keep Khalilzad as US especial envoy is not typical. Every new US administration replaces US diplomats, particularly in key foreign policy posts.

On January 22, the White House issued a statement, saying that the new US administration will review US-Taliban peace agreement and will support the Afghan peace process with a “robust and regional diplomatic efforts”.

Independent observers, who talked to Kabul Now, say that the Afghan peace process will remain a top agenda in US Afghan policy.

Jaffar Mahdavi, an ex-MP who represented Kabul, says the Biden administration will keep Khalilzad as Biden was in line with Trump’s peace policy. Under the Biden administration, Khalilzad, he says, will push Afghan peace process more determinedly with proposing an interim political setup to replace President Ghani’s government.

Some reports, however, suggest that Khalilzad is lobbying hard to persuade Afghan leaders in Kabul to form an interim government which shares power with the Taliban. Sources say that President Ghani has denied Khalilzad’s request for a meeting. Biden Administration Afghanistan policy will support the Afghan peace process with a regional diplomatic effort, in which Pakistan will be given a prominent role, says Mahdavi.

Last week, Afghanistan’s National Security Advisor, Hamdullah Mohib, having a conversation with the US National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan, said in a tweet that Afghanistan will remain committed to Kabul-Washington partnership. “I reaffirmed that Afghanistan remains committed to our foundational partnership with the United States and we will work closely together on security, peace, counter-terrorism and regional engagement,” Mr. Mohib said.

Omar Samad, a former Afghan ambassador to Belgium, who is a research associate at Atlantic Council think tank, told Kabul Now that the Biden administration needs to keep the Afghan-born Khalilzad, who has been on the job for two and a half year. Khalilzad, he believes, is an American diplomat who has influence on Afghan politics.

The slow-moving Afghan peace process has raised skepticism whether the process can put an end to conflict in the country. Observers believe that in the February deal, the Trump administration gave more concession to the Taliban group, something, as they say, has made the group over-confident. As was agreed between the US and Taliban in the February agreement, the United States has agreed to pull out American and NATO troops from Afghanistan by May 2021 in return for counter-terrorism guarantees by the Taliban, who have agreed to engage in a power-sharing talks with the Afghan government and reduce violence.

The Biden administration will support diplomatic efforts to build a regional consensus on Afghan peace process, aiming at bringing a political settlement in the country, Mahdavi said.

A surge in violence intensified after the US and the Taliban signed a peace deal late in February 2020. On January 17, unknown gunmen shot dead two female judges in Kabul. Though the Taliban deny involvement in latest wave of targeted killings, Afghan security and intelligence agencies blame the Taliban for surge of violence in urban centers including Kabul. Over last couple of months at least 12 people, including journalists, women rights activists, government employees and NGO workers, have been shot dead in targeted killings which went unclaimed.

Orzala Nemat, the director of the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU), says it is a good sign to see the Biden administration announce reviewing the US-Taliban peace agreement. She underlines that as the Democrats are seen to be patronizing human rights in foreign policy we can expect the Biden administration pay more attention on democratic standards in Afghanistan.

Khalilzad, who understands Afghan war and peace, knows situation in Afghanistan better than any other American diplomat, says Karim Pakzad, who is a research associate at the French Institute for International and Strategic Studies. It is unclear how Khalilzad cope with Biden’s idea of a decentralized Afghanistan, he noted.

Mr. Samad says that it is up to Afghan political parties whether to support the idea of interim government or reject it. He says the two sides have not yet discussed the nature of future government and Khalilzad has also not made any comment on formation of interim government.