Foreign Policy

In conversation: Ruger and Khalilzad discuss America’s future interests in Afghanistan

November 18, 2021
In conversation: Ruger and Khalilzad discuss America’s future interests in Afghanistan

At the recent Advancing Security: Realism, Restraint, and the Future of Foreign Policy conference, Dr. Will Ruger and Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, the former U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, discussed how America’s war in Afghanistan came to an end and what American interests are in Afghanistan going forward. Khalilzad emphasized in his comments that when he became Special Representative in 2018, the American war in Afghanistan was not going well and was taking resources from other national security priorities.

In response to a question from Ruger, Khalilzad talked about how Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani, who served from September 2014 until August 2021, lived and worked in Washington and had relationships in the foreign policy establishment that caused him to misread political will in the United States to leave Afghanistan. Ruger is vice president of foreign policy at Stand Together Trust and was nominated by President Donald Trump to serve as the U.S. Ambassador to the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.

Responsible Statecraft, the online publication of the Quincy Institute, described the exchange between Ruger and Khalilzad in an article by Kelley Beaucar Vlahos. “One might find it a bit odd to find Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad squeezed in between panels that mostly excoriated the U.S. foreign policy of the last 40 years — especially the last two decades — talking about the failed U.S. war in Afghanistan,” she writes.

More from Vlahos:

Khalilzad was kept on by the Biden administration but resigned two weeks ago. He promises a tell-all book to set the record straight. He sprinkled a few breadcrumbs out there as a sneak preview, however. To hear him tell it, Afghanistan president Ashraf Ghani was deluded into thinking that America would be there forever, affecting his interest and/or ability to prepare for the swift Taliban takeover and embarrassing collapse of his government (from which he fled the first chance he got). 

Ghani was a Washington creature, Khalilzad charged, having been educated and bred in the Washington-New York establishment. He had many friends in the court of the Imperial City, “encouraging him to believe we would be always be there. One of the mistakes we made was that we were not tough enough on him.”

“Ghani was delusional in my judgement because he thought Biden was not serious about wanting to withdraw,” he added. “Maybe he was listening to voices in Washington that wanted to stay forever.”

Khalilizad said he was worried that the Biden administration is “dragging its feet on the inevitable” — working with the Taliban.

“There is a risk that for political reasons we will do the wrong thing. I think the administration feels that anything that looks like engaging the Taliban would be too costly politically,” he said, hinting that this was one of the reasons he left the government. “I think that is wrong-headed in my view. I believe if the disintegration of Afghanistan as I have described it happens, you will get civil war. The underpinnings are there.”

Watch the 49 minute video of the Nov. 3 discussion between Ruger and Khalilzad at the Washington conference, sponsored by Stand Together  and Stand Together Trust. Highlights point to specific times in the video:


12:30 to 20:00: Ambassador Khalilzad responds to those (particularly H.R. McMaster – at around 16:00) who called the Doha agreement a surrender agreement.

19:00 to 21:00: Ambassador Khalilzad discusses the secret annexes in the Doha agreement with the Taliban around counter-terrorism and why Taliban didn’t want them public.

24:30 to 32:00: Ambassador Khalilzad talks about how Ghani’s relationships in Washington led him to miscalculate and misunderstand the American will to withdraw from Afghanistan. The Ambassador also talked about how there was a “head and body” problem on Afghanistan within which led to certain government officials and members of foreign policy establishment overselling possibility of the United States staying in Afghanistan to Ghani.

39:00 to 41:00: Ambassador Khalilzad talks about his views about what drove the chaos at the Kabul airport in the final days of the American withdrawal.

41:00 to 47:00: Ambassador Khalilzad expresses concerns that “for political reasons” we will do the wrong thing around the emerging humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. He says Biden administration views unfreezing Afghan assets as too politically costly, but he believe continued engagement with Taliban is important.