Afghan policy experts are tacitly urging the Biden transition team to consider asking President Donald Trump’s Afghan ambassador for peace, Zalmay Khalilzad, to remain in office as transition negotiator after President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration on Jan. 20.
The effort reflects a belief that the endgame sought by Trump and Biden – the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan – is largely the same, and that an attempt to immediately replace Khalilzad at a sensitive stage in US peace negotiations with the Taliban is could complicate exertion.
Khalilzad, a veteran George W. Bush administration diplomat who grew up in Kabul, has close ties with Afghan leaders, such as President Ashraf Ghani, who go back decades and speak the main languages of the region. But his contacts with the Taliban, with whom he negotiated decades ago on behalf of a California oil company planning to build a pipeline through Afghanistan, have severely affected his popularity in Kabul. Afghan government officials refused to be largely cut out of Washington’s secret dealings with the group that once hosted Osama bin Laden.
While Biden shares Trump’s goal of ultimately withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, Trump drastically accelerated the withdrawal schedule last week, announcing a further reduction in the country’s troops to around 2,500. The move has NATO allies and shaken upset Trump’s allies on Capitol Hill, warning of sudden decline, could destabilize the country and undermine US leverage in peace talks with the Taliban – leaving a Biden administration in an even more precarious position in Afghanistan.
Biden’s senior foreign policy advisors, including Antony Blinken, Jake Sullivan and Michèle Flournoy, are said to be open to a possible extension for Khalilzad, but are by no means committed.
“I think there are scenarios where the new administration could try to build on what Zal did, and there are scenarios where they might choose to do something else,” said a former US official. “If there is progress in the next few months and Zal is in a good position to continue that progress, I can certainly see a scenario where he will be asked to stay for some time. But I don’t think anyone should expect them to be indispensable in such circumstances. “
Officials close to the campaign say they do not expect the Biden government to make any important political or personnel decisions regarding Afghanistan during the transition and that a final decision will be made through a cold hearted assessment of which approach suits interests serves the US best – and like Trump’s hasty troop withdrawal will change the prospects for peace talks with the Taliban once Biden inherits the matter in January.
Currently, the campaign’s key foreign policy advisors are essentially seeking recommendations from a wide variety of foreign policy experts, including some who have urged Khalilzad to stay and others who say it is time for a fresh approach.
For those in favor of an extension, Khalilzad’s contacts and institutional knowledge of the peace negotiations are invaluable as Washington moves from one president to the next, even if progress on the talks has stalled amid a surge in Taliban terrorist attacks.
“Zal is uniquely positioned to advance the peace process in Afghanistan,” said Christopher Kolenda, former senior adviser to Afghanistan and Pakistan in the Barack Obama-era Department of Defense. “The dynamic circumstances require some agile approaches and a willingness to make new mistakes.”
But even if it doesn’t succeed, it can be logical to let it continue.
“The people I spoke to feel that there is no rush to replace Zal,” said another US analyst who is familiar with the internal considerations. “Let him finish the job he started.”
“He is arguably the most qualified person to negotiate with all parties,” added the analyst. “He knows them all, he knows the language, he knows the cultural context. There are a lot of Biden people who agree with what he does. “
But others are not so sure.
“Zal is clearly trying to position himself as acceptable to the Biden team,” said another former US official. “But this decision is made partly politically, partly politically. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was held for a short transition period. My personal commitment is ‘not long’. “
“I see stronger logic to replace it than to keep it,” added the official. “It’s not that he’s wildly successful.”
The Biden transition team declined to comment on the story, and the president-elect has not publicly indicated whether or not Khalilzad or other Trump diplomatic agents would keep their posts in the new administration.
Khalilzad’s relations with some House Democrats, who are still dampening their threat of subpoena to brief them on his peace talks in Afghanistan, remain strained – despite the decision to reject Congress’s motion According to reports taken by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
In the non-partisan atmosphere in Washington, Biden’s transition team is under pressure, especially under the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, to expel all Trump-era representatives from government for a fresh start, according to several experts who advised and consulted the Biden campaign . In addition, Khalilzad himself is the source of controversy in Afghanistan, where he reportedly weighed once To run for the presidency itself.
Khalilzad’s controversial reputation in many corners of the Afghan government was brought into the spotlight last year when Afghanistan’s top national security adviser Hamdullah Mohib accused Khalilzad of attempting to overthrow Ghani and take over colonial power. His comments were drawn sharp game from the State Department, but underlined the tension between the US government and the Afghan government during the Khalilzad negotiations with the Taliban.
Trump used the lame duck time to get the Pentagon on its way to withdrawing 2,500 US troops in the country by January 15 – five days before Biden becomes president. National security adviser Robert O’Brien told reporters on Tuesday that the government plans to expel all US troops from Afghanistan and Iraq by spring 2021.
“By May, President Trump is hoping they will all get home safely and in their entirety,” said O’Brien. “I want to repeat that this policy is not new. This has been the president’s policy since he took office. “
But the hasty and partial departure has many critics. “There is no reason here to really reduce the armed forces now. It’s no use, ”said James Cunningham, who was US ambassador to Afghanistan from 2012 to 2014, who said the decision would desert foreign allies who have fought with US forces for years. “It will only make life more difficult until the new government comes in.”
Biden has pledged to leave any remaining anti-terrorist force in the war-torn nation and to set the table for any possible turmoil at the handover. With the unsteady peace talks in October, the Taliban launched a military offensive in the strategic Afghan province of Helmand, in which up to 35,000 people were displaced.
The argument for extending Khalilzad’s mandate as Afghan envoy has emerged in discussions among members of the Afghanistan Study Group co-chaired by Kelly Ayotte, a former Republican Senator from New Hampshire. Joseph Dunford, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and Nancy Lindborg, the former President and CEO of the US Institute of Peace. The study group includes key policy makers such as Flournoy, named a potential Secretary of Defense under Biden, and Stephen Hadley, a former US National Security Advisor under George W. Bush. Some of the participants gave informal advice to Khalilzad.
Hadley suggested that there might be an argument for keeping Khalilzad at least during the transition. “I do not understand [the Biden team] closure [the talks] Low. I could see them resetting the United States’ position in the negotiations and trying to correct some shortcomings and problems that were encountered, ”he said.
If so, he added, “You can argue that you don’t want to release him on day one, but you want Khalilzad to transition for a period of time. You want to keep the conversations alive until reset. After resetting, you can decide if you want a new negotiator. “
Hadley said the Trump administration’s recent plan to reduce the U.S. military presence to 2,500 soldiers could have been worse.
“I think it is basically a compromise to allow the president to say that he has dramatically reduced our troop strength and that we are on the way to ending these so-called endless wars without going to zero, which everyone agrees with that this would be steep and disruptive, and undermine the talks, and would not be in America’s interest. “