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US negotiator in Afghanistan defends deal that ended in Taliban takeover

Afghanistan Peace Deal
U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, left, and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban group’s top political leader sign a peace agreement between Taliban and U.S. officials in Doha, Qatar, Saturday, Feb. 29, 2020. (Hussein Sayed/AP)

US negotiator in Afghanistan defends deal that ended in Taliban takeover

October 26, 04:27 PM October 26, 04:27 PM

The former U.S. representative for Afghanistan reconciliation defended the disastrous “peace deal” with the Taliban, sticking to the notion that the group was interested in a negotiated settlement even after its military takeover.

Zalmay Khalilzad, who stepped down last week, negotiated the February 2020 deal in Doha, Qatar, with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, now the Taliban’s deputy prime minister.

In an interview on Face the Nation, Khalilzad defended the deal, blamed the former Afghan government, insisted the Taliban had been interested in a political settlement with the Afghan government despite evidence to the contrary, argued they promised to fight terrorism, and contended he hadn’t been hoodwinked.

Thomas Joscelyn, senior editor at the Long War Journal, criticized Khalilzad’s claims, telling the Washington Examiner: “Khalilzad’s tenure was a complete failure for everyone except the Taliban … Khalilzad threw the Afghan government under the bus and directly enabled the Taliban’s return to power.”

The agreement signed in February 2020 said the U.S. was “committed to withdraw from Afghanistan all military forces” within 14 months, while the Taliban would prevent al Qaeda and other terrorist groups from using Afghanistan “to threaten the security of the United States and its allies.” A chaotic military withdrawal ended in a rapid Taliban takeover in August.

Brennan pointed out that Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley testified in September that “the enemy is in charge in Kabul,” but Khalilzad twice declined to agree the Taliban was the “enemy” but said, “Well, we fought the Taliban, obviously, for 20 years. They are not our allies, or partners.”

Khalilzad added: “We went to Afghanistan to make sure that those who had participated in the 9/11 attack were brought to justice and that al Qaeda would never be able to use Afghanistan or any other terrorist group to attack the United States again. I think with regard to terrorism, we largely have achieved that.”

He claimed there were still-secret agreements with the Taliban about fighting terrorism, saying: “We have a set of agreements with them, some of which have not been released yet, on what they will do on the terrorism front.”

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Khalilzad argued: “The American people should be pleased — not with the way the final phase happened, we all are unhappy with that — but that the Afghan war is over for the United States.”

He claimed that “we achieved the goal of devastating al Qaeda in Afghanistan.”

Intelligence and military officials both said last month that al Qaeda in Afghanistan could become a threat to the U.S. homeland within a year, but Khalilzad cast doubt on that, saying, “Well, our record of predicting things, unfortunately, we need to be a little humble in this regard.”

Khalilzad insisted it was unlikely the Taliban would allow another 9/11, saying: “The Taliban have also learned their lesson in which they paid a high price for that, allowing al Qaeda to use Afghanistan. They say, ’19 years, 18 years of suffering for one mistake.’ … But now, they’ve committed not to allow that.”

The Taliban gave al Qaeda safe haven in Afghanistan before the 9/11 terrorist attacks and continued to protect al Qaeda after the U.S. invasion. The Taliban and al Qaeda fought alongside each other in the insurgency against the U.S., where more than 2,400 U.S. service members were killed. The Taliban’s top spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, recently falsely claimed there is “no evidence” Osama bin Laden was behind 9/11.

“They have lived up — we are convinced that they are not allowing plotting and planning operations by al Qaeda against the United States,” Khalilzad said.

Joscelyn told the Washington Examiner: “Khalilzad has repeatedly vouched for the Taliban’s worthless counterterrorism assurances. He vouched for them even though the U.S. government has made it clear that the Taliban hasn’t broken with al Qaeda. Indeed, there is no evidence showing a break between the Taliban and al Qaeda. There is overwhelming evidence showing the two remained joined at the hip. It wasn’t necessary to lie on the Taliban’s behalf when withdrawing American troops. And it certainly isn’t necessary to lie on the Taliban’s behalf now.”

Numerous members of the Haqqani network have received top positions in the Taliban’s “caretaker” government, while Hibatullah Akhundzada, the Taliban’s “emir” in Afghanistan, is a strong al Qaeda ally.

Brennan pointed to the 13 U.S. service members who were killed in an ISIS-K terrorist attack outside the gates of Kabul airport, and Khalilzad absolved the Taliban of blame, saying the attack was the “result of a terrorist attack at the airport by Daesh [ISIS-K], which the Talibs are enemy of.”

It is suspected the ISIS-K bomber was released from prison by the Taliban in August. Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie testified in September that the Taliban’s Badri 313, which specializes in suicide bombings, was providing security at the airport.

Brennan asked Khalilzad if the Taliban banning girls age 12 and older from schools and beating female protesters in the streets was proof the Taliban isn’t interested in protecting human rights.

“There’s no question that the Taliban have a different vision for Afghanistan. It’s their vision of a more Islamic government than existed before,” Khalilzad said: “I think there is a disagreement inside the Taliban. That’s why I think that we can’t say all Taliban behave in the same way.”

Brennan said it seemed a “fantasy” to think the Taliban would protect human rights, but Khalilzad said: “My judgment is that the Taliban are not the same Taliban of the 1990s.”

Khalilzad defended the deal with the Taliban, arguing that it “opened the door for a peaceful settlement.” At the time, the Afghan government fiercely protested its exclusion from the negotiations as well as the concessions the Taliban had extracted.

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When asked if the chaos in Kabul was inevitable, Khalilzad said it wasn’t but blamed Afghan President Ashraf Ghani for fleeing, insisting some sort of deal with the Taliban still could’ve occurred: “I think we could have had a negotiated settlement.”

Khalilzad argued he hadn’t been fooled by the Taliban, saying, “Well, I don’t allow people to mislead me. I do my homework. A whole of government. This was not Zal Khalilzad alone doing this.”

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