WASHINGTON – Then-Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s decision to flee his country on Aug. 15 torpedoed an 11th-hour deal the U.S. had brokered to keep the Taliban out of Kabul for at least two weeks, according to the State Department’s special envoy to Afghanistan.
The envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, told the Financial Times that the U.S. had secured an agreement under which Ghani would remain in Kabul and Taliban fighters would not enter Afghanistan’s capital while diplomats negotiated a political transition of power in Qatar.
After Ghani fled, he said, the Taliban asked American officials if they planned to take over the security of Kabul, a proposition the U.S. rejected.
“Even at the end, we had an agreement with the Talibs for [them] not to enter Kabul,” Khalilzad told the Financial Times in his first interview since the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Khalilzad said he had no inkling “at all” that Ghani was intending to flee. He said the Afghan leader’s decision prompted the city’s security forces to disband – creating a security vacuum and unleashing the chaotic bid to evacuate.
“There were questions of law and order in Kabul after Ghani fled . . . The Talibs [then] . . . say: ‘Are you going to take responsibility for security of Kabul now? . . . And then you know what happened, we weren’t going to take responsibility,” he said.
When the Taliban entered the city, many Afghans became panicked at the prospect of a return to the Taliban’s ruthless rule and rushed to the airport, creating chaos as the U.S. tried to evacuate Americans and at-risk Afghans.
Ghani has said he left the country to avoid “bloodshed” of civilians in Kabul. After Ghani left the country, Nikita Ishchenko, a spokesman for the Russian embassy in Kabul, told reporters that Ghani left his country with “cars full of money.” Afghanistan’s ambassador to Tajikistan also accused Ghani of stealing millions of dollars as he left the country. Ghani, now in the United Arab Emirates, has denied those accusations and said he left with just his clothes.
The State Department’s chief spokesman, Ned Price, said before Ghani fled, Khalilzad “was engaged in discussions with the Taliban on what we hoped would be a political transfer, a negotiated agreement from one Afghan government to the next.”
He said Khalilzad’s statement that the Taliban asked if the U.S. planned to secure Kabul did not mean its leaders would have countenanced an extension of America’s military presence in the country, and the Biden administration never considered sending American forces to secure the streets of Kabul.
“Policing the city of Kabul, that is not something that was ever contemplated,” Price said. “The Taliban felt they had no option but to enter the city.”
Khalilzad, a holdover from the Trump administration, negotiated the 2020 deal with the Taliban, under which the U.S. agreed to withdrawal all its forces this year. Lawmakers in both parties have blasted that agreement, saying the U.S. gave up its leverage for meager concessions from the Taliban.
In the wake of the chaotic U.S. exit from Afghanistan, at least one lawmaker, Rep. Michael Waltz, R-Fla., has called for Khalilzad’s resignation.
Khalilzad told the Financial Times that he always had a resignation letter at-the-ready because “somebody might take it”.