US official who negotiated Taliban deal refuses to be ‘a scapegoat’ for Afghanistan debacle
Ousted Afghan President Ashraf Ghani bears responsibility for the Taliban’s swift seizure of Kabul last month, according to a key State Department official who panned the search for “a scapegoat of some kind” in Washington.
“I’m sure I could have done better — people would expect me to say that,” State Department special representative Zalmay Khalilzad told the Financial Times . “But when I reflect I did my very best that I could, given the cards I was dealt with in the circumstances, the fundamentals.”
Khalilzad, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, was tapped last year by then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to broker the peace deal with the Taliban that scheduled the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan this year. Secretary of State Antony Blinken retained Khalilzad but has denounced the agreement as a flawed pact that empowered the Taliban and contributed to the conditions necessitating last month’s chaotic evacuation operation at Kabul airport — a crisis that Khalilzad pinned on Ghani’s decision to flee the capital.
“There were questions of law and order in Kabul after Ghani fled ... The Talibs [then] ... say: ‘Are you going to take responsibility for security of Kabul now?” Khalilzad said. “And then you know what happened, we weren’t going to take responsibility.”
That claim, that President Joe Biden’s administration refused an offer to take control of Kabul, led to questions during the State Department press briefing about whether U.S. officials declined an opportunity that would have allowed them to conduct a lengthier, more methodical evacuation operation.
“If there is a perception that the Taliban was hoping that we would deploy our forces or stay longer, that does not reflect, that does not track with reality,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters.
Price declined to say whether such a proposal was discussed between U.S. and Taliban officials, but he dismissed as impractical the idea that American troops could have filled the void left by the collapse of Afghan security forces.
Ghani's departure and the disintegration of forces following the departure did not leave us in a position to defend Kabul,” Price said. “Policing the city of Kabul — that is not something that was ever contemplated as part of that mission, and I do not think anyone here is confident that that would have been viable in any way.”
As it stands, U.S. officials led a major evacuation operation of more than 124,000 people from Afghanistan, while the Taliban controlled the city, “provid[ed] the outer security cordon” around the airport, and received instructions from U.S. officials on “what we expect them to do to protect us,” as Marine Corps Gen. Kenneth McKenzie explained last month. McKenzie, the commander of U.S. Central Command, said that “some attacks [had] been thwarted by” the Taliban, but one suicide bombing carried out by the Islamic State’s affiliate in Afghanistan killed 13 U.S. service members.
Blinken, making a two-day defense before Congress of Biden’s management of the withdrawal, underscored that the Taliban emerged from the peace talks in an enviable position.
“When President Biden took office in January, he inherited an agreement that his predecessor had reached with the Taliban to remove all remaining U.S. forces from Afghanistan by May 1st of this year,” Blinken said. “By January of 2021, the Taliban was in its strongest military position since 9/11 and we had the smallest number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan since 2001.”
Khalilzad, whose tenure as point-man for the peace process has spanned Trump's and Biden’s presidencies, insisted that the Taliban’s victory was Ghani’s fault.
“[T]he fact that they didn’t [negotiate peace] or one side disintegrated, that’s not the responsibility of the United States,” he told the Financial Times . “It’s not my responsibility.”
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