America's Viceroy in Afghanistan

In 2006 we wrote Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence (Seven Stories) at a time when most Americans, even on the left, were paying little attention to Afghanistan. In light of the renewed attention on Afghanistan and the recent New York Times article, Ex-U.S. Envoy May Take Key Role in Afghan Government (May 19, 2009) about Zalmay Khalilzad and his proposed future role as "Afghanistan's CEO," we present an edited excerpt from our book focusing Khalilzad's background and his role in post 9/11 Afghanistan. As we show, Khalilzad was instrumental in undermining Afghanistan's chance for democracy and human rights, and helped instead to cement the political power of war criminals and fundamentalists.


The Clinton administration should appoint a high-level envoy for Afghanistan who can coordinate overall U.S. policy. This envoy must have sufficient stature and access to ensure that he or she is taken seriously in foreign capitals and by local militias. Equally important, the special envoy must be able to shape Afghanistan policy within U.S. bureaucracies.

-- Zalmay Khalilzad and Daniel Byman, "Afghanistan: The Consolidation of a Rogue Regime," Washington Quarterly 23:1, 65-78, Winter 2000.

Zalmay Khalilzad is one of the few U.S. policy makers who publicly wrote his own job description and then got the job. No stranger to U.S. foreign policy circles, Khalilzad started off as an adviser to the Reagan administration on U.S. support to the Mujahideen in the 1980s, and ended up as a National Security Council staffer in the George W. Bush administration. After 9/11 he all but became the hypothetical envoy in the passage from his 2000 Washington Quarterly article with Daniel Byman, quoted above. In November 2003 he was promoted to U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan.

Sahar Saba, a member of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) told us in March 2004, "People know very well that Khalilzad is the man behind the scenes. They know that he is really the man [who] decides what president Karzai has to do." Naimatullah Khan, a political commentator on Afghan affairs based in Quetta, Pakistan, told Agence France-Presse, "[Khalilzad] was undoubtedly the most influential person in Afghanistan. He was more than an ambassador." According to the BBC, "No major decisions by the Afghan government have been made without his involvement . . . he has sometimes been dubbed the viceroy, or the real president of Afghanistan." Habiba Sarabi, the first Minister of Women's Affairs and Afghanistan's first female provincial governor, spoke to us in her apartment in Kabul in early 2005, criticizing Khalilzad's "negative" influence on Karzai. "Sometimes he wants to show the people that he is more powerful than president Karzai because he is speaking [sic] strongly. I wish it not to be like this."

"Zal," as his friends call him, was born in Afghanistan and first visited the U.S. as a teenager through an exchange program sponsored by the Quaker organization American Friends Service Committee. He eventually went on to pursue his doctorate at the University of Chicago and became a U.S. citizen in 1984. He urged the U.S. government to support the fundamentalist anti-Soviet Mujahideen as executive director of "Friends of Afghanistan" (a Mujahideen support group). He was also part of a group of policy makers who convinced Reagan to provide shoulder-fired Stinger missiles and other weapons to the Mujahideen.

Formerly a Senior Analyst at the Rand Corporation, Khalilzad also headed the Bush-Cheney transition team for the Department of Defense, and has been a counselor to Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld. He served in the State and Defense Departments of the Reagan and Bush (senior) Administrations.

Khalilzad is a longstanding advocate of U.S. global dominance. A founding member of the neoconservative right-wing think tank Project for a New American Century, Khalilzad wrote (with contributions from officials such as Paul Wolfowitz and Dick Cheney) the Pentagon's 1992 Defense Planning Guidance, the draft of which called for the United States to "preclud[e] the emergence of any future potential global competitor." The draft, leaked to the press, stated that the United States "will retain the pre-eminent responsibility for addressing selectively those wrongs which threaten not only our interests, but those of our allies or friends, or which could seriously unsettle international relations." The document was "conspicuously devoid of references to collective action through the United Nations" and stated that "the United States should be postured to act independently when collective action cannot be orchestrated." Khalilzad would certainly not permit true democracy to interfere with U.S. prerogatives.

Khalilzad was also associated with the energy giant, Unocal Corporation. The UK's Independent newspaper reporter Robert Fisk called Khalilzad a "former Unocal Corporation oil industry consultant." More accurately, according to the Washington Post, Khalilzad was actually employed by the Cambridge Energy Research Associates in the 1990s, and "conducted risk analyses for Unocal" at the time that Unocal was engaging the Taliban on the construction of an oil and gas pipeline through Afghanistan. Khalilzad's willingness to sell his skills to a corporation that was working with the Taliban reveals his lack of serious concern for the people of Afghanistan. As New Yorker correspondent Jon Lee Anderson wrote, "in many ways, the pipeline project represented the classic Washington revolving door between the corporate world and the foreign-policy establishment." (It should be noted that during his post-9/11 tenure in Afghanistan until now, there has been no recorded action by Khalilzad that would directly benefit Unocal or any other U.S. energy company.)

From early 2002 to early 2005 Khalilzad held the real reins of power in Kabul. The following passage from the New York Times highlights the true nature of the relationship between Khalilzad and Afghan president Hamid Karzai:

The genial Mr. Karzai may be Afghanistan's president, but the affable, ambitious Mr. Khalilzad often seems more like its chief executive. With his command of both details and American largesse, the Afghan-born envoy has created an alternate seat of power since his arrival [as U.S. ambassador] on Thanksgiving [2003]. As he shuttles between the American Embassy and the presidential palace, where Americans guard Mr. Karzai, one place seems an extension of the other. Working closely with the Karzai government and the American military, Mr. Khalilzad ponders whether to push for the removal of uncooperative governors, where roads should be built to undercut insurgency, and how to ensure that the elements friendly to America gain ascendancy in a democratic Afghanistan. His overarching goal is to accelerate the country's rebuilding and securing, preferably on a timetable attuned to the American political cycle.

In April 2005, Khalilzad was transferred from Afghanistan to the second country that has undergone a post-9/11 U.S. invasion and regime change: Iraq. There were mixed reactions in Afghanistan to his departure. According to the BBC, "there are some here who say Ambassador Khalilzad's departure is a good thing right now. . . . [S]ome analysts argue that it will make it much easier for [Karzai] to exert his authority, free from the shadow of the 'viceroy.'" Among the most sorry to see Khalilzad leave his country was ultraconservative Supreme Court Chief Justice Fazil Hady Shinwari, whom Khalilzad helped to power. Shinwari has helped to return Afghanistan's justice system to a fundamentalist and often misogynist interpretation of Islamic law. In an open letter to President Bush, Shinwari pleaded against Khalilzad's reassignment, saying Afghanistan needed the ambassador "now more than ever," because "no one else can work as he has been doing."

In a December 2005 profile on Khalilzad, New Yorker staff writer Jon Lee Anderson wrote that the ambassador "has a reputation both as a strategic thinker and as an operator, a man with extraordinary political instincts." An Iraqi political consultant told Anderson, "Zal makes it look like his suggestions are in the Iraqi interests. All the major players like him. [And he] knows how to play his Muslim card." Khalilzad was skillful at working with Afghan "major players," mostly fundamentalists and warlords, compromising with them and convincing them that their interests (antiprogressive, for state control of private life) were shared by the United States. Khalilzad has many times ensured that Northern Alliance and other warlords have been legitimized as cabinet ministers, court officials, and regional governors, and their wishes for religion-based government enshrined in the Constitution. By giving them positions of power, Khalilzad has ignored the wishes of the majority of Afghans, who would rather see them on trial. In addition, it was Khalilzad's idea for the Karzai government to offer amnesty to the Taliban. Khalilzad called this practice "co-optation in exchange for cooperation." RAWA called it a "treasonable alliance against our nation."

In Iraq, like in Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad "often seems to be the one holding the government together." According to Newsweek, Khalilzad is "trying to repeat, in furiously accelerated fashion, the strategy he applied in Afghanistan . . . , where he cajoled the warlords-by a mixture of promises, military pressure and cash-to enter the political process." Helping the people of Afghanistan or Iraq has always been incidental to Khalilzad's real goal: the promotion of U.S. power.


The concept of a Loya Jirga, a traditional Afghan assembly consisting of a gathering of regional delegates from all over the country, had been on the table since the early 1980s. Proposed by the ex-king Zahir Shah as a way to end the Soviet occupation through diplomacy, the initiative was not given a chance to flower until the United States needed it to legitimize their post-Taliban order. In his 2000 policy paper on Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad had laid out the idea for the U.S. to "confront the Taliban," and supported the convening of a Loya Jirga for the "selection of a broadly acceptable transitional government." Following the 2001 Bonn Conference where a handful of people designed the transition from an interim to elected government, Khalilzad's prescription was closely observed. The June 2002 Emergency Loya Jirga was to pick a "transitional" president and cabinet for the next two years, in anticipation of future presidential and parliamentary elections. According to two of the delegates, Omar Zakhilwal and Adeena Niazi, the meetings began optimistically:

Delegates from all backgrounds-Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, and Uzbeks; urban and rural, Sunni and Shiite-sat together under one roof as if we belonged to a single village. Men and women mingled openly and comfortably. In tolerant and lively exchanges, we discussed the compatibility of women's rights with our Islamic traditions. Women played a leading role at these meetings. We were living proof against the stereotypes that Afghans are divided by ethnic hatred, that we are a backward people not ready for democracy and equality.

The delegates had put together a "wish list focused on national unity, peace, and security." The list "emphasized access to food, education, and health services in neglected rural areas" but above all the delegates were united in "the urgency of reducing the power of warlords and establishing a truly representative government." Zakhilwal and Niazi wrote, "The sentiment quickly grew into a grassroots movement supporting the former king . . . as head of state. The vast majority of us "viewed him as the only leader with enough popular support and independence to stand up to the warlords."

In June 2001, when asked in a poll "who can most successfully address the problems facing Afghanistan today?" a plurality of Afghan people named their former king Mohammed Zahir Shah. Sahar Saba of RAWA explained to us why the former king was the first choice:

[It is] because of the lack of a real political democratic alternative in Afghanistan. Everyone knows that the king is not really the best choice. It's not "he was the best and we would not have any other." But in this situation, the fundamentalists oppose him. We have a saying in Persian: "the djinn are afraid of the name of God." So the fundamentalists were afraid of the king- if he comes then he would destroy them. That is the reason why the majority of the people supported him. If you ask the people in Afghanistan they will say it's simply a comparison between bad and worse. The king was bad, but these fundamentalists are worse. But this doesn't mean if the Afghan people are in favor of the king then they want a kingdom and a monarchy and all. It's just the first step towards having a united Afghanistan. That's why RAWA [and Afghans] supported him and preferred him to the Northern Alliance and the Taliban.

Unlike Hamid Karzai, Zahir Shah was well known, with a 40-year history as king of Afghanistan, including a record of animosity towards fundamentalists and warlords. Thus, Zahir Shah would have presented a minor challenge to U.S. control and a major challenge to some of the warlords, who were afraid of him. This immediately put him out of the running for interim president.

According to United Press International, "democracy nearly broke out in Afghanistan on Monday [June 10, 2002], but was blocked by backroom dealing to prevent former King Mohammed Zahir Shah from emerging as a challenger to Hamid Karzai." Instead of beginning at 8 a.m. on June 10, as scheduled, the Loya Jirga was postponed until 10 a.m., but at 3 p.m. it was announced that the meeting would not convene at all until the following day. Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan, told the press that the organizing commission decided to postpone the opening of the Loya Jirga "to ascertain the true intentions of the former King." Before Zahir Shah could make his own announcement, Khalilzad gave the answer: "The former king is not a candidate for a position in the Transitional Authority. . . . [H]e endorses the candidacy of Chairman Karzai." At a 6 p.m. press conference, the former king, "looking grim," was flanked by Khalilzad and Karzai. He said nothing, but his chief of political affairs read a statement: "As I have always mentioned, I have no intention of restoring the monarchy and am not a candidate for any position in the Emergency Loya Jirga."

Khalilzad explained, "Statements that were issued yesterday [June 9] that the former King might be, or is, a candidate for the post of President of the Transitional Authority . . . were inconsistent with earlier statements by the former King," which had caused "consternation and confusion" among the Loya Jirga delegates. The "statements issued" were actually the former king's response to a BBC interviewer's questions. When asked if he would accept the job of head of state, he answered, "I will accept the decision of the Loya Jirga. . . . What the majority decides about the future of Afghanistan, and my role, I'll accept that." Contrary to Khalilzad's assertion, this was consistent with at least one earlier statement, in which he said, "I will accept the responsibility of head of state if that is what the Loya Jirga demands of me." Clearly, many delegates took these remarks to mean that the former king would stand for office if nominated. But Khalilzad was only interested in using Shah's popularity to legitimize Karzai. In a 1996 opinion piece in the Washington Post, Khalilzad said he saw the former king as "a symbol of national unity because of the support he enjoys along ethnic lines."

According to UPI, the U.S. special envoy had "apparently brokered" a deal with the former king to withdraw his candidacy. So it was only natural that "some delegates . . . were angered by what they perceived to be a U.S. effort to front load the Loya Jirga to ensure that Karzai was reappointed." Omar Zakhilwal wrote in the Washington Post, "Rather than address the issue democratically, almost two days of the six-day loya jirga were wasted while a parade of high-level officials from the interim government, the United Nations, and the United States visited Zahir Shah and eventually 'persuaded' him to publicly renounce his political ambitions." It is well known that, if given the chance, Shah probably would have won a significant number of votes. UPI said that, "many delegates felt the highly popular ex-king would probably have had the votes to be chosen for a role in the transitional government, but had been prevented from declaring his candidacy." According to the New York Times, Amanullah Zadran, the tribal affairs minister, "promised that he would take 700 delegates from the loya jirga to the former king's house on Tuesday to show the strength of support for his candidacy." Shah was eventually relegated to the symbolic role of "father of the country." He died in July 2007.

When over 1,200 of the 1,500 delegates voted for Karzai on June 13, it came as no surprise. As the New York Times had reported in late May, "[Karzai] is expected to win an easy victory and lead the new government, Afghan officials and Western diplomats said." The predictions of "Western diplomats" have a strange way of being fulfilled, especially after the careful intervention of the U.S. special envoy and other "highlevel officials" to ensure that there was no real choice in the matter. After the vote, the Times noted that "the grand council did what had been expected of it today" by electing Karzai. Sima Samar, the interim Minister for Women's Affairs, commented wryly to the BBC: "This is not a democracy, it is a rubber stamp. Everything has already been decided by the powerful ones." The "powerful ones," namely the U.S. government and its allies, have made sure that the leader of Afghanistan was not someone who could challenge their power.


In the months leading up to the 2002 Emergency Loya Jirga, there was a marked increase in violence by various warlords and their armies. When UN election observers entered the city of Gardez, the local commander fired rockets at them. Eight delegates to the Loya Jirga were murdered there in May. In February in Mazar-e Sharif, the city ruled by the Northern Alliance's Abdul Rashid Dostum, "armed men broke into the home of an Afghan aid worker and raped the women and looted all the household assets." In the same city in April, a UN employee was dragged from his bed and killed by gunmen.

The delegate selection process leading up to the Loya Jirga was wracked with problems caused by the warlords. Afghan provinces had expected to elect their own delegates to represent them. But in many cases "independent candidates [were] . . . detained or beaten by local commanders intent on sending their own delegates to the loya jirga. More often, warlords simply drew up their own lists of delegates and insisted that the local populace approve them." As a result many powerful commanders strong-armed their way into the political process. According to a UN election observer, "We have found some illegal methods in the elections and interference by the Northern Alliance, such as sending money and mobile phones to their supporters" to garner votes. One observer for the International Crisis Group claimed, "Just before the Loya Jirga . . . up to one hundred extra 'political delegates' were summarily added to the rolls." They were "mostly provincial governors and other political-military figures unwilling or unable to stand for election," whose presence on the ballot "constituted a blanket of intimidation upon the delegates."

After the postponed opening of the council, followed by the announcement that Zahir Shah would have no place in the new government, the warlords were ecstatic. "[T]he atmosphere of the Loya Jirga changed radically. The gathering was now teeming with intelligence agents, who openly threatened reform-minded delegates, especially women. Access to the microphone was controlled by supporters of the interim government." One woman delegate told Human Rights Watch, "We are hostages of the people who destroyed Afghanistan. They are trying to hold us hostage to their power. There are petitions being circulated and we are pressed to just sign them without reading them." When she complained publicly, the delegate was later threatened with the words, "You either mend your ways or we will mend them for you." A Human Rights Watch press release attributed the problem to the inclusion of major U.S.-backed Northern Alliance figures in the meetings, people "widely held responsible for Afghanistan's devastating decade of civil war and ensuing atrocities" during the 1990s. According to the rules of the Loya Jirga, war criminals were to be excluded, but Human Rights Watch "is not aware of a single case in which this exclusion clause was used, despite the presence of some of Afghanistan's most abusive warlords among the delegates."

Sam Zia-Zarifi of Human Rights Watch explained, "Warlords are making a power grab by brazenly manipulating the Loya Jirga selection process. If they succeed, Afghans will again be denied the ability to choose their own leaders and build civil society." The CIA agreed. In a leaked report the agency warned, "Afghanistan could once again fall into violent chaos if steps are not taken to restrain the competition for power among rival warlords and to control ethnic tensions." After Karzai was picked as "transitional" leader and the Loya Jirga had nearly ended, on June 19 the new president unveiled his interim cabinet for the next two years, before the country's first elections. Predictably, most of the posts were awarded to warlord members of the Northern Alliance. The Christian Science Monitor called the new government "a rogue's gallery." Human Rights Watch's Salman Zia-Zarifi said, "Afghanistan's warlords are stronger today than they were ten days ago before the Loya Jirga started." Loya Jirga delegates Zakhilwal and Niazi described their reactions:

Our hearts sank when we heard President Hamid Karzai pronounce one name after another. A woman activist turned to us in disbelief: "This is worse than our worst expectations. The warlords have been promoted and the professionals kicked out. Who calls this democracy?" . . . The key ministries of defense and foreign affairs remain in the hands of Muhammad Qasim Fahim and Abdullah, both from the dominant Northern Alliance faction based in the Panjshir Valley. . . . Three powerful Northern Alliance commanders-Mr. Fahim, Haji Abdul Qadir and Kharim Khalili-have been made vice presidents. . . . These are the very forces responsible for countless brutalities under the Mujahideen government. . . . As the loya jirga folded its tent, we met with frustration and anger in the streets. "Why did you legitimize an illegitimate government?" one Kabul resident asked us. The truth is we didn't. . . . delegates were denied anything more than a symbolic role in the selection process.

It is significant that the New York Times and the Washington Post published separate accounts by Omar Zakhilwal criticizing the outcome of the Loya Jirga (the piece excerpted above was cowritten by Adeena Niazi), but both articles were published as "opinion" pieces, not as "news." So-called "news" articles instead focused on the chaos of the meetings, trivializing the controversies, yet praising the "balanced" outcome. The New York Times said that Karzai's cabinet "showed a careful balance of factions and ethnic groups. . . . Despite Mr. Karzai's declared intention of promoting professionals in his cabinet, his appointments clearly reflected the need to please the various regional and ethnic groups." In this context, "various regional and ethnic groups" means "warlords." For example, the son of Ismail Khan, called "the strongman of Herat," was given the ministry of aviation and tourism. The newspaper rather nonchalantly noted that women's rights might get eliminated from Karzai's agenda: "The ministry of women's affairs was not mentioned for the new cabinet and may have been cut along with one of only two women ministers in the last government, Dr. Sima Samar." In the end, the ministry was not cut, but Samar was removed from her post because of "blasphemy" charges after making remarks on women's rights. Habiba Sarabi would replace Samar later that month.

J. Alexander Thier, a representative of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, called the Loya Jirga an "enormous missed opportunity" to weaken the power of the warlords. Referring to the Loya Jirga, Salman Zia-Zarifi from Human Rights Watch said, "Short term political expediency has clearly triumphed over human rights." The Guardian of London complained that "The West Is Walking Away from Afghanistan-Again." But these criticisms miss the point. By actively shaping events so that the politically weak Hamid Karzai was unchallenged by Zahir Shah, whom the "vast majority . . . viewed . . . as the only leader with enough popular support and independence to stand up to the warlords," the U.S. envoy was taking an opportunity. Far from "walking away," the West was deliberately manipulating the politics of Afghanistan so that a weak leader who depended on foreign backing and who needed to appease the warlords was installed. Following elimination of Zahir Shah from the running, it was impossible simply to allow the delegates, many of whom had a strong human rights agenda and were intent on weakening the warlords, either to vote or speak their minds freely and fairly.

First Khalilzad, and then Karzai, justified the inclusion of warlords in the new government as a choice between "peace" (warlords in government) and "justice" (warlords on trial). On June 10, 2002, Khalilzad commented: "The question really is how to balance the requirements of peace, which sometimes necessitates difficult compromises, and the requirements of justice, which require accountability." Two days later, Karzai echoed Khalilzad in an interview with the BBC: "I said first peace, stabilize peace, make it certain, make it stand on its own feet, and then go for justice. But if we can have justice while we are seeking peace, we will go for that too. So justice becomes a luxury for now. We must not lose peace for that." Just as the Taliban were once considered capable of "ending the anarchy" (bringing peace), the warlords were somehow expected to do the same.

A glance at Afghanistan's government today reveals how Khalilzad's actions in 2001-2002 set into motion a chain of events that predictably plunged Afghanistan once more into the hands of criminal and fundamentalist warlords. Evidenced by the recent passage of the notorious "rape" law targeting married Shia women, and the on-going intimidation of democratic forces, Khalilzad succeeded in bringing neither peace nor justice to the war-torn nation of Afghanistan.

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