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New U.S. Envoy To Afghanistan On Strategy


When Zalmay Khalilzad was named ambassador to Afghanistan back in 2003, that country was a much different place. The U.S. had just invaded in 2001 in an effort to root out al-Qaida terrorists by overthrowing the Taliban. Afghanistan's economy? Well, there wasn't really an economy at all. There was little infrastructure, few reliable institutions. Khalilzad's mission at the time was to rebuild the country.

ZALMAY KHALILZAD: Now Afghans are, on average, better off economically, socially than they were then. But in terms of security, the situation is more difficult. The Taliban are stronger, and therefore the mission now for me is to facilitate on behalf of the United States a peace settlement, a reconciliation agreement, between the government and the Taliban.

MARTIN: That could be a challenge. Khalilzad has a new role. He's been appointed U.S. special adviser to Afghanistan. Some 15,000 U.S. troops are still there, and the U.S. has started talking directly with the Taliban for the first time. I asked Khalilzad if the U.S. should have engaged more directly with the Taliban a long time ago. He spoke to us from his hotel in New York.

KHALILZAD: Well, there are complications on both sides. We had some preconditions at that time in terms of engaging the Taliban that they should accept the Afghan constitution, that they should renounce violence, that they should break ties with terrorist groups that would threaten the United States and others. Those preconditions have become more in-conditions that at the end of the talk we would like them to commit themselves in a way that we can be certain...

MARTIN: But doesn't that - excuse me for interrupting. Does that not diminish the leverage that you have over the Taliban?

KHALILZAD: Well, no. I believe that what we are saying signals our seriousness in terms of wanting a negotiated settlement. And I think they also perhaps recognize that militarily they cannot prevail, that they cannot gain legitimacy by violence. They need to make the decisions that must be made for a negotiated settlement to work, and that means they will have to sit with the other Afghans about a roadmap, a political roadmap for the future of their country. And they also have to deal with the legitimate U.S. and international concerns that Afghanistan does not become a base for terrorists again that would threaten the United States.

MARTIN: But let me ask you. You outlined what the Taliban needs to do in order to secure a long-term peace deal. But these are the same conditions that were laid out and have been laid out for a decade. What makes you believe that they are at a position now that they would be ready to accept them?

KHALILZAD: Well, as I said before, Rachel, we had those as preconditions at the beginning. But now we're talking with them without insisting on those preconditions. So that's significant. But America's vital, critical, important interest is the terrorism issue. Yes, we have our values. Everyone knows what we stand for, and we want to see a settlement worthy of the 17 years of blood and treasure that the U.S. and others have sacrificed. Yes. But a lot of those issues are really Afghan-Afghan issues.

MARTIN: So if that means that the priority is to quell the threat of terrorism, does that mean that the U.S. - you could see a future in which the U.S. removes all of its troops because the terrorism threat has been quelled, even if the civil war between the Taliban and the Afghan government persists?

KHALILZAD: Well, as President Trump has said, the American presence militarily in Afghanistan is condition based. Having troops in Afghanistan is not an end in itself for the United States, but not having a terrorist threat is the end, if you like, the most important objective.

MARTIN: But how can you ever be sure that the terrorism threat is over? Can you ever imagine U.S. troops being completely gone from Afghanistan?

KHALILZAD: It is the responsibility of the Taliban and other Afghans to bring about conditions that do not necessitate the U.S. military presence.

MARTIN: You know Pakistan is going to be crucial, though, to any long-term sustainable peace in Afghanistan. Do you trust the Pakistani government at this point and do they trust you?

KHALILZAD: Well, I mean, it's not about trust. I mean, we're talking about international politics. I used to work for Ronald Reagan. I mean, trust is good, but, you know, you have to verify, and that would apply to a lot of states.

MARTIN: Is that a no?

KHALILZAD: But Pakistan says now that it wants to turn a new page, that it wants to help the U.S. with this objective that I outlined. And we'll have to see.

MARTIN: President Trump talks very little about Afghanistan. Peter Singer at the New America Foundation did a count, and according to his tally, President Trump has tweeted six times more about the NFL anthem controversy than he has about Afghanistan, which is remarkable considering there are still thousands of U.S. troops in the line of fire there. And if the president says anything at all, it's that he wants U.S. troops to get out. Do you think there is a risk that this administration, because of its appetite to end this war, could leave too early?

KHALILZAD: I'm very positive about what the president has said with regard to a condition-based presence. I know that the president pays a lot of attention to Afghanistan, and I know that every time there is a report of a U.S. casualty that is very attentive to that and moved by it. So I'm comfortable that what the president has outlined as our policy will be helpful.

MARTIN: Just briefly, have you gotten a chance to be in a room and talk directly with President Trump?

KHALILZAD: Well, of course, I know the president. I introduced him when he gave his major foreign policy address.

MARTIN: But in your new post as the special...

KHALILZAD: In my new post, not yet. But I'm told I will.

MARTIN: Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan. Ambassador, thank you so much for taking the time.

KHALILZAD: Well, thank you, Rachel. It's good to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.