Zalmay Khalilzad, who stepped down last week as special envoy for the Afghan peace talks, shared few regrets about the deal he brokered between the United States and the Taliban, pushing back against former military brass and other critics who have described it as a "surrender agreement" that set in motion the Taliban takeover this summer.
Stay on top of the latest market trends and economic insights with Axios Markets. Subscribe for free
“Our secretary of state signed a surrender agreement with the Taliban,” Donald Trump’s second national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, said on a podcast in August, referring to Mike Pompeo. “This collapse goes back to the capitulation agreement of 2020. The Taliban didn’t defeat us. We defeated ourselves.”
Khalilzad, in what amounted to an exit interview on CBS' "Face the Nation," said the deal he negotiated came to pass because "we weren't winning the war. How long does General McMaster think we should continue while losing ground each year? Why- why- why was that the case after 20 years? "
He framed the decision as a choice between "either a negotiated settlement or more of the same."
But the terms of the settlement are what continue to generate scrutiny.
U.S. negotiators struggled from the beginning to get leverage as Trump repeatedly undermined the U.S. position by publicly and privately broadcasting his desire to pull all American troops out of the country as soon as possible (ideally ahead of the 2020 election). This made it exceptionally difficult for Khalilzad and his team to set benchmarks for progress that could be tied to what the Taliban valued most, a full drawdown.
At the same time, no preconditions or withdrawal provisions, meant the U.S. was asking very little of the insurgents and declining to put in place any guardrails.
Crucially, the deal made no mention of constitutional or human rights safeguards and excluded altogether the Afghan government, which Khalilzad and others said could reach their own political settlement next.
But as the Afghan-Taliban negotiations got under way last fall, the insurgent group increased its encroachment throughout the country and never let up.
For this, Khalilzad puts significant blame on then-President Ashraf Ghani's government in Kabul, who, he said, "did not believe that we were serious about withdrawal for a long time, and they like the status quo compared to a political settlement in which they might not have the jobs that they had and- and the resources that the U.S. was providing would not be there."
Khalilzad made multiple trips to both Afghanistan and Qatar, while the Afghan-Taliban talks were under way and met with negotiators on both sides, as well as observed the ongoing discussions, during which the Afghan team stressed their concerns about the increasing violence and the legitimacy the Taliban now had as a result of what they also considered to be a victory over the United States.
"Face the Nation" host Margaret Brennan pressed Khalilizad on the United States' promise "essentially to deliver the Afghan government and to make this deal happen," asking: "wasn't it diplomatic malpractice for the secretary of state not to be holding Ghani's hand walking him through this? Shouldn't Mike Pompeo have been doing that? Shouldn't Tony Blinken have been doing that?"
Khalilzad said he regretted that the U.S. didn't press Ghani "hard enough," adding: "We could have pushed harder. I believe in retrospect, my judgment is that we could have pressed President Ghani harder."
One of the enduring failures, according to many critics of the February 2020 deal, was the decision not to include any stipulations to protect the basic human rights of Afghan citizens, particularly women and girls.
On "Face the Nation," he said that the Taliban's policies "toward more inclusiveness, respecting the rights of the Afghan people," should be tied to the future "release of funds," which many have said ought to have been stipulated in the original U.S. deal.
Not everyone is satisfied with the former peace envoy's re-framing of his job performance over the last three years. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-.N.H.), who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has urged Khalilzad from the beginning to prioritize Afghan women in the peace talks.
"Zalmay Khalilzad had an opportunity under two administrations to hold the Taliban to account and make the rights of women and girls a priority and he failed to do so," Shaheen told Axios on Sunday.
"I repeatedly pushed him on this, both in meetings and committee hearings. The U.S. must be forward-looking as we continue to engage with the people of Afghanistan, but we also cannot ignore who and what got us here,” she added.
More from Axios: Sign up to get the latest market trends with Axios Markets. Subscribe for free