Initial steps toward agreement with Taliban began during Obama administration: Khalilzad

Zalmay Khalilzad, former US special envoy for Afghanistan. File photo.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the former U.S. special representative for Afghanistan, told the U.S. Congress Foreign Affairs Committee that the initial steps toward an agreement with the Taliban were taken under President Barack Obama’s administration.

“There had been, earlier, maybe a year earlier perhaps, under President Obama’s period, that I had received a letter that I wasn’t sure was authentic, saying — from Mullah Yaqoob, allegedly — that, you know, there was no military solution to what was going on and they are interested for a way out,” Khalilzad said.

Khalilzad explained that the Trump administration had set three priorities for negotiations with the Taliban: to negotiate a safe and orderly withdrawal, ensure Afghanistan would not become a haven for terrorist organizations, and to initiate intra-Afghan negotiations.

In the summer of 2020, Khalilzad urged the Afghan government to release thousands of Taliban prisoners because the Taliban would not negotiate without this condition.

“I did. And the Secretary of State did, and others. Because, as part of the agreement, there was — after the signing, before beginning intra-Afghan negotiations, the Talibs wanted some confidence building measures. They argued for release of prisoners…The Afghan Government was not opposed to the principle; they were opposed to the number, that the number was too high. It should be equal numbers. . . . So, yes, they were a part of my agreement, and the reason for it was that we wanted to get to intra-Afghan negotiations, which was a big concession — the achievement that the Talibs would sit with the government that they had refused to sit, to get into that process — while we were still there,” Khalilzad said.

In December 2020, Khalilzad briefed President Joe Biden’s State Department transition team. The senior representative at that meeting was Counselor Derek Chollet, who was interviewed by the Committee in December 2023. Khalilzad noted that while he officially reported to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, many of his early communications went through Chollet, who largely failed to recall his role in Afghanistan policy during his December 2023 interview. Khalilzad also communicated with Deputy Secretary Brian McKeon, Under Secretary Victoria Nuland, and others.

Khalilzad continued his role under the Biden administration without initial new instructions. It was only months later that he received new directives as the administration extended the withdrawal timeline from 14 to 18 months, tasked him with extending the ceasefire, and accelerated political negotiations involving the international community.

In the first months of the Biden administration, Khalilzad participated in senior-level interagency meetings that reviewed the Doha agreement. He advised that fighting would continue without an agreement between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

Regarding the Doha Agreement, Khalilzad said the Biden administration considered three options: not insisting on conditionality but focusing on withdrawal and counterterrorism; tearing up the agreement as Trump did with the Iran nuclear deal; or enforcing conditionality. “President Biden opted not for a conditions-based withdrawal,” Khalilzad stated. He added that both he and Blinken recommended a conditions-based approach, but faced opposition on the basis that the Taliban would resume targeting U.S. forces.

Throughout 2021, the White House and the National Security Council led the entire withdrawal process, with key decisions made during the deadly evacuation in August 2021.

Khalilzad also testified that there were times he believed the Taliban were using negotiations as a stalling tactic. He acknowledged that the U.S. withdrawal had a psychological impact on the Afghan government forces, significantly affecting the balance of power. “That is the shocking part,” he said, referring to the rapid disintegration of Afghan forces.

He confirmed that no comprehensive assessment was made in 2021 on whether the Taliban adhered to the Doha agreement, though intelligence reports on their commitment to counterterrorism were “mixed to positive.”

When questioned about the State Department’s contingency planning, Khalilzad criticized its inadequacy. He viewed Biden as ultimately responsible for the evacuation operations. “The President spent a lot of time on this during the most intense period of focus,” Khalilzad remarked.

Khalilzad stated he recommended a conditions-based approach to the Doha Agreement; he believes Secretary Blinken recommended the same, but others in the administration refuted their recommendations on the basis that the Taliban would go back to targeting U.S. forces. Both Khalilzad and Secretary Blinken ultimately supported President Biden’s unconditional withdrawal.

“Well, Secretary Blinken and I, I believe, did recommend that conditionality. That’s my judgment, that conditionality would be the prudent thing to do. But then the response was, can you get the other side to — the Talibs not to go back to fighting?”

Khalilzad contested claims that al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent no longer exists and admitted that Ayman al-Zawahiri’s presence in a Taliban-Haqqani safehouse in Kabul in 2022 was a “full and complete” violation of the Doha Agreement.

The interview was part of a series of transcribed interviews with State Department officials involved in the U.S. civilian evacuation from Afghanistan, released by the committee over recent weeks.