If one individual could bring peace to Afghanistan, US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad touted himself as the man for the job.
In the end, however, the seasoned diplomat seems to have overseen nothing more than the demise of the republic he helped assemble.
The 70-year-old envoy spent years as Washington’s point man for talks with the Taliban that paved the way for the deal to end the US’s longest war and exit Afghanistan.
That milestone came after more than a year of intense shuttle diplomacy during which Khalilzad visited foreign capitals, attended summits at glitzy hotels, and gave speeches at prestigious think-tanks.
The Taliban were ready to discuss a compromise, he assured his audiences.
Once a prolific social media voice, Khalilzad has gone silent since the Taliban returned to power following the collapse of the US-backed government in the face of an overwhelming blitzkrieg.
The Department of State said last week the envoy remained in Qatar, working the phones in hopes of encouraging a diplomatic settlement.
But the deal he had hoped could end the war had actually unleashed disaster.
Husain Haqqani, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, said Khalilzad told successive US presidents eager to withdraw their troops that he had a peace deal, but it was in fact a surrender.
“He negotiated poorly, emboldened the Taliban, and pretended that talks would yield a power-sharing agreement even though the Taliban had no intention to share power,” Haqqani told AFP.
Khalilzad took control of the US-Afghan portfolio in 2018 after the Trump administration named him a special envoy overseeing negotiations with the Taliban.
The new assignment followed a storied career. Khalilzad had shaped embryonic governments in Afghanistan and Iraq following successive US invasions, gaining a reputation for bringing disparate groups to the table.
Washington’s decision to pursue talks followed years of rising violence in Kabul where the Taliban unleashed chaos by sending waves of suicide bombers into the Afghan capital.
Khalilzad secured the release of the Taliban’s co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar from Pakistan’s custody to kick-start the initiative, with the two sides cobbling together an agreement charting US withdrawal after nearly 20 years of conflict.
During months of negotiations in Qatar, Khalilzad was said to have developed a close rapport with the Taliban delegation.
Pictures published online showed the gregarious envoy sharing laughs and smiles with Taliban negotiators, stirring resentment in Afghanistan where war raged.
But when the US withdrawal deal was finally signed in February 2020 at a lavish ceremony in Doha, Khalilzad had secured nothing more than mostly nebulous assurances from the Taliban about any future peace.
“Khalilzad prised… just one strong commitment – that they would not attack the US and ‘its allies’,” wrote Kate Clark of the Afghanistan Analysts Network in a new report.
More vague were promised from the Taliban to abandon al-Qaeda and other international armed groups, and to begin talking to the Afghan government.