I blame Zalmay Khalilzad

If we are going to point fingers, there are plenty to take the blame, but the real villain in Afghanistan is a guy no one ever talks about, yet who really set the stage for our failure: Zalmay Khalilzad, George W.'s man in Afghanistan.

Khalilzad is typical of the high-level Afghan "émigré" community.  Brought up outside the country, impeccably educated, connected to everybody in both parties in the foreign affairs establishment, veteran of think-tanks and the Reagan Pentagon, in 2001, he was the Bush-world golden boy.  Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell, Rice, etc. — none of these Beltway hustlers knew or even pretended to know anything about Afghanistan.  But right here in their midst was their friend Mr. Afghanistan, good old Zalmay.

So hot on the heels of American troops freeing the country in 2002, we sent him in as our ambassador in Kabul to effectively run the country.  And boy, did he ever.

If you remember back then, there were breathless reports throughout the spring of Afghan tribes convening their famous loya jirga to finally fix the country.  But it turned out that the tribal leaders had very different ideas from the émigré community and their NGO allies.  They wanted to bring back the king, who was more than willing to return in a ceremonial role, and they wanted a federal system where each region was mostly left alone by Kabul.  That was essentially the successful system the Brits had established in the 1840s, and which had held up into the late Cold War, era when the Soviets wrecked it.

But for the international crowd, this plan was no good because it meant very little aid money was needed to flood the country, and it assumed a small role for the émigré elite who had returned to Kabul.  Khalilzad then pressured the king to drop out as a candidate and forced his old friend, another émigré and opportunist, Hamid Karzai, into the presidency of the country.  With unlimited American money and military support, it was golden days for the émigré bunch, many of whom became rich.  But they never got around to building an honest civil service or effective military.  Lots of ordinary Afghans died fighting in the ranks of the army and police.  But their slippery ruling class of westernized émigrés utterly failed them while the Taliban, created by Pakistan's ISI, returned yet again with more ISI support.  Not to mention Russian help and Red Chinese help.  And of course, lots of Iranian help.

After so badly setting the stage for failure in Afghanistan, Khalilzad was sent by George W. to be ambassador to succeed an even bigger failure, Paul Bremer, in Iraq.  We had made the same mistake there, refusing to return the monarchy or set up a federal state.  Instead, trillions of dollars were invested in an international effort run out of Baghdad that nobody in that country actually wanted.  Compared to Bremer, Khalilzad was slightly less a failure, and so he has been a respected Washington fixture ever since.  Donald Trump even considered him for secretary of state.

Khalilzad is emblematic of the Washington "expert class," just like Tony Fauci.  Once they get put in charge of something, no one may ever go back and look at all the bad decisions or change course.

The saddest part of all this, given the ongoing mess that will be Afghanistan, we will probably have to go back in at some time, and the guy we put in charge is likely to again be Khalilzad.

Frank Friday is an attorney in Louisville, Ky.

Image: Gage Skidmore.

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