Exclusive: Zalmay Khalilzad had “sympathy” for the Taliban, former senior CIA official says

Robert Grenier, the former Director of the CIA’s Counter-Terrorism Centre and Station Chief in Pakistan, in an interview with the KabulCast podcast has criticised the US’s handling of the Doha talks.

He said that Zalmay Khalilzad was the wrong person to lead the talks with the Taliban, which were designed to hand over Afghanistan to the Taliban from the outset, as the Afghan security forces would have been unable to resist.

Khalilzad, Grenier said, was “very emotionally involved with the country”, which made him the wrong person to negotiate with the Taliban. And members of the US negotiating team felt that he had “a lot of sympathy” for the Taliban.

“He had a lot of sympathy for them [Taliban]. I think he developed a relationship with them over time. He lost a certain amount of objectivity.” Grenier said.

But Khalilzad, he added, was working for a president who wanted to leave Afghanistan, and the Taliban knew it, which gave them no motivations to give concessions. “Khalilzad had a bad hand, which he played badly,” Grenier added.

Grenier, who was tasked by the then Director of the CIA, George Tennet, to formulate the US’s response to the Taliban in the aftermath of the 911 attacks, said that from the outset, he feared “if the US were to invade Afghanistan and deploy large numbers of troops, establish basis… we would end up in the end like the Soviets.”

The US, he said, were “unwise” to carry a large-scale invasion of Afghanistan. Despite initial success, “we were occupiers of the country and there were a great many negative consequences of that.”

“The US basically deformed Afghanistan. We were trying to turn Afghanistan into something that it was not, and was not likely to be. We created an army that was unsustainable.” Grenier said.

Afghanistan is now a “backwater” of the US foreign policy. But he would advocate engagement with the Taliban. ” We should be engaged with the Taliban. We should not try to force the Taliban to do things, which we they are simply not going to do,” he said. Sanctions, he added harmed the people of Afghanistan more.

On supporting anti-Taliban groups, Grenier said that there aren’t any “viable armed elements” to stand against the Taliban now. “If there were some combination of armed elements in Afghanistan that were capable of prevailing, if given a certain level of support, perhaps at a certain point I would advocate supporting them.”

But currently, he said, “I am not at all comfortable with the idea that we should be taking actions whose likely effect is to simply create more deaths and destruction.”

KabulCast podcast is available on all podcast platforms.