The US negotiator on Afghanistan has said that President Ashraf Ghani’s abrupt exit scuttled a deal for the Taliban to hold off entering Kabul and negotiate a political transition.
In his first interview since the collapse of the 20-year western-backed government, Zalmay Khalilzad, who brokered a 2020 deal with the Taliban to withdraw US troops, told the Financial Times that the insurgents had agreed to stay outside the capital for two weeks and shape a future government.
“Even at the end we had an agreement with the Talibs for [them] not to enter Kabul,” he said.
But Ghani fled on 15 August and the Taliban, in a previously arranged meeting that day with US Gen Frank McKenzie, chief of central command, asked if US troops would ensure security for Kabul as government authority crumbled.
“And then you know what happened, we weren’t going to take responsibility,” Khalilzad said.
President Joe Biden had insisted that US troops would only work to evacuate Americans and Afghan allies, and not extend America’s longest war.
Asked about Khalilzad’s remarks, state department spokesman Ned Price said it was not an option to stay “a moment longer” in Kabul.
“There was never a realistic, there was never a viable, there was never a practical option for the United States to stay. We were left with a very clear and stark impression that if the United States sought to prolong our presence on the ground, our service members … would again be targets of Taliban violence not to mention terrorist attacks by groups like Isis.”
Ghani, who sought safety in the United Arab Emirates, has apologised for how the government ended but said he left on the advice of palace security to avoid bloody street fighting.
The Taliban had been demanding the resignation of Ghani as part of any transitional government. Ultimately the Islamists named a caretaker government with no non-Taliban nor women and that includes US-designated terrorists.
The US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, testifying before Congress this week, also said he spoke to Ghani on 14 August and that the Afghan leader agreed both to work on a transitional government and, if the Taliban reneged, to “fight to the death”.
Blinken said Ghani gave no warning he would leave the next day.
The Afghan-born Khalilzad, a senior figure in George Bush’s administration who was tapped by Donald Trump to negotiate the withdrawal, has come under fierce criticism in Washington after the Taliban takeover.
Khalilzad, who said he was surprised Biden kept him, did not take responsibility for how the war ended, saying it had been up to Afghans to reach a peace deal.