KABUL (Dispatches) – Top United States envoy to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad is stepping down, the State Department has announced, less than two months after the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Taliban takeover of the country.
Khalilzad will be replaced by his deputy, Tom West, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement on Monday, noting that West will work closely with the U.S. embassy, which is now based in Doha, on U.S. interests in Afghanistan.
“As Special Representative for Afghan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad steps down from his role, I extend my gratitude for his decades of service to the American people,” Blinken’s statement said.
“I thank Ambassador Khalilzad for his service and welcome Special Representative West to the role.”
His departure follows his exclusion from the Biden administration’s first formal talks with the Taliban after the U.S. pullout, which were held in Doha earlier in October.
In a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Khalilzad defended his record but acknowledged that he came up short and said he wanted to make way during the “new phase of our Afghanistan policy”.
“The political arrangement between the Afghan government and the Taliban did not go forward as envisaged,” he was quoted by the AFP news agency as saying.
“The reasons for this are too complex and I will share my thoughts in the coming day and weeks.”
Khalilzad told Blinken that it was “the right time” to leave, “at a juncture when we are entering a new phase in our Afghanistan policy.”
Khalilzad served under both former Republican president Donald Trump and current Democratic President Joe Biden as the special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation.
He led several rounds of talks with the Taliban in Qatar that resulted in the Trump administration’s agreement to leave Afghanistan by May 2021. Biden pulled out U.S. troops from the country by August 31.
The U.S. invaded Afghanistan in October 2001 following the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States. American forces occupied the country for about two decades on the pretext of fighting against the Taliban. But as the U.S. troops left Afghanistan, the Taliban stormed into Kabul, weakened by continued foreign occupation.
In his first congressional testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee members on September 28, Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called the war in Afghanistan a “strategic failure”. He added, “There’s no way else to describe that.”
Then on September 29, Miley doubled down on his assessment. He said, “It is clear. It is obvious to all of us, that the war in Afghanistan did not end on the terms we wanted, with the Taliban in power in Kabul. The war was a strategic failure.”