US Foreign Policy Needs to be ‘Balanced’ Between ‘Great Exertions’ and ‘Retreat’

Interview with Zalmay Khalilzad, former US Ambassador to Iraq, Afghanistan, and the United Nations

Zalmay Khalilzad served as the US Ambassador to Iraq, Afghanistan, and the United Nations in the George W. Bush administration. A member of the Atlantic Council’s Board of Directors, Khalilzad has recently authored an insightful and widely praised memoir—The Envoy. In a wide-ranging interview with the New Atlanticist’s Ashish Kumar Sen, he discussed the lessons learned from the US experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq, prospects for peace with the Taliban, and US diplomacy in a post-Iran nuclear deal Middle East, among other issues. Here are excerpts from our interview.

Q: You write in your book that a reality that weighs deeply on you is that the United States fell far short of its aspirations in Afghanistan and Iraq. What are the main lessons future US Presidents can draw from the US experience in these two countries?

Khalilzad: We are in a period of wanting to avoid great exertions like the ones in Iraq and Afghanistan.  While I think that the right lesson to learn from Iraq and Afghanistan is that big projects such as these two need to be done very selectively and rarely, we also need to recognize that we might have to do them again. We need to ask: what capabilities do we need to retain should it be necessary to undertake such an effort again; what weaknesses were identified in our approaches and our capabilities that need to be addressed; and what are the things that we must avoid and not repeat?

“While I think that the right lesson to learn from Iraq and Afghanistan is that big projects such as these two need to be done very selectively and rarely, we also need to recognize that we might have to do them again.”

Q: What would you have done differently in Afghanistan?

Khalilzad: At the big policy level I would have started the build up of Afghan security institutions faster. It took us a while to come to the judgment that we needed to do state building. I would have made use of the golden hour—the period when you have everyone’s attention because you have done something major with a big use of force—to preclude the establishment of a [terrorist] sanctuary in Pakistan that put at risk what we were trying to achieve. The combination of not dealing with the sanctuary issue and being slow to build Afghan institutions over time worsened the security situation in Afghanistan and raised dramatically the costs of securing Afghanistan and achieving strategic success there.

Q: What would you have done differently in Iraq?

Khalilzad: The shift from liberating Iraq and helping Iraqis form a government to an indefinite occupation of the country was an error in my view. The dissolution of the Iraqi armed forces, rather than recalling and reforming it or at least trying that first, and doing a deep de-Baathification and giving its implementation to a political committee were some of the earlier mistakes that were made. In addition, the combination of dissolving the army—which antagonized a lot of people who knew how to use arms—and also wanting to reduce our own forces invited insecurity. Those were among the problematic mistakes of the early period.

“The shift from liberating Iraq and helping Iraqis form a government to an indefinite occupation of the country was an error in my view.”

Q: Secretary of State John Kerry has been criticized for saying the government of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani should last its full five-year term. Critics say this disregards the agreement that a loya jirga would be convened this fall to decide on the government’s future. Would the Afghan government in effect undermine itself by not following through on this step?

Khalilzad: President Ghani was elected for five years. But the agreement that was the basis for the formation of the unity government did call for convening a constitutional loya jirga within two years [since the formation of the government in 2014].  The agreement did not specify that the life of the unity government is two years. It does appear almost certain that a loya jirga, as defined in the constitution, cannot be held within the two-year timeframe because of the preparatory steps that a constitutional loya jirga requires. So the question is, what must happen to deal with this circumstance in which there is an agreement for a loya jirga to be held and yet it cannot be held? That is the situation that the Afghans and their friends will have to deal with and develop options and make a decision in a timely manner.

Q: What are those options?

Khalilzad: There are several. The key issue is an agreement in the first instance between the two parts of the government—between the factions of President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah—and the broader political community and developing a consensus as to what should happen if a constitutional loya jirga cannot be held.

Q: What is your assessment of President Ghani’s performance and his efforts to reconcile with the Taliban?

Khalilzad: The government inherited a difficult situation. The conflict has intensified in the country amid the withdrawal of a substantial part of foreign forces and a change in the mission of the remaining ones with Afghanistan assuming responsibility for its own security. The adversaries of the government are taking advantage of the shift in the balance of power. The government has been active diplomatically to try reconciliation [with the Taliban], but the circumstances have been such—in part because of the Pakistani military’s policy and the shift in the balance—that the Taliban have come to a view, at least for the immediate future, that time is on their side and therefore fighting, rather than reconciliation, is better for them.

The announced US policy that it would reduce its forces by the end of this year to around 5,000 could further shift the balance. That prospect must be encouraging the Taliban to persist in fighting. On the other hand, the capabilities of the Afghan military, its air capabilities, for example, are increasing. It has been a difficult fight since this government has come to power.

Similarly, the economic situation has been very difficult because of the reduction, in part, of the level of effort made by the international community in Afghanistan from when they had a lot more forces and people there. Also, the perception of uncertainty about the future has had a negative effect on the economy discouraging investment and encouraging people to reduce their exposure in Afghanistan. So you have a security situation, which has been more difficult, and an economic situation, which has been more difficult.

The nature of the unity government is such that you need agreement between two rivals on appointments and policies. Mostly it has been about appointments. That has slowed things down. A lot of positions remain vacant or occupied by acting officials. That has been an additional burden on Afghanistan in the current circumstances.

The combination of these factors has narrowed the base of support for the government and encouraged hedging behavior on the part of some of the political forces that should be cooperating with each other against the Taliban. But the government has a very good vision for the future of Afghanistan. It has good long-term strategies for how to address the problems.

Q: As the US Ambassador to Afghanistan you shared a close working relationship with then President Hamid Karzai. President Ghani and you are childhood friends. What advice would you give to him as his government faces these challenges?

Khalilzad: I’d encourage a process between [Ghani and Abdullah] that can expedite appointments. Even if you have a good vision, you cannot implement what you want without a team that you have confidence in and that shares your vision. Having acting people on your team is a challenge. They tend to worry more about their own future and this encourages hedging behavior because they don’t know if they will be there in a few days or not. This adds to the problem of corruption because uncertainty about one’s own future tends to encourage the belief in people that they better take care of themselves today because they don’t know what will happen tomorrow. Expediting and facilitating quicker decision-making on these issues should be considered, perhaps even with help from friends.

On the policy side, my advice would be that while reconciliation is being pursued, the government needs to organize itself with help from friends, particularly the United States, to respond to, take advantage of, and shape internal developments in the Taliban. The announcement [last summer] of the death of Mullah Omar [the Taliban’s leader who died two years ago] has resulted in the establishment of several factions within the Taliban including Mullah [Akhtar] Mansour’s dominant group; Mullah [Muhammad] Rasool’s faction that has been fighting Mullah Mansour’s group; and [Abdul] Jalil, the former Deputy Minister, who has his own faction. There is potential for even more fragmentation inside the Taliban.

The government and its friends need to establish a joint cell to harness this opportunity and strategize both in terms of war in the coming season and in terms of reconciliation in the near future. While the emphasis on reconciliation and the pressure on Pakistan to facilitate reconciliation should remain, a lot more attention and resources need to be devoted to this other development, which I think is of potentially strategic importance.

“The [Afghan] the government needs to organize itself with help from friends, particularly the United States, to respond to, take advantage of, and shape internal developments in the Taliban.”

Q: The Taliban this week announced the start of their spring offensive. Are the Taliban reconcilable?

Khalilzad: It is contingent. Groups of people who may not be reconcilable under one set of circumstances when they think time is on their side and that the government is facing internal difficulties, may be reconcilable under different circumstances. I do not think the dominant groups are currently willing to reconcile with the new Afghanistan, which has a constitution that emphasizes human rights and women’s rights, good relations with the international community, foreign forces stationed in the country, and a commitment to preventing terrorist and extremist sanctuaries. But in different circumstances, when they feel that they are losing the war, where they are fragmenting, where their international support declines, where Afghanistan’s economic situation improves and its security forces do better and better, they are likely to be more willing to reconcile. The facts on the ground are key in terms of propensity or prospects for reconciliation. I think the government understands that the more favorable the balance toward the government the better the prospects for reconciliation. The more uncertainty there is about the government, the less likely the prospects are for reconciliation.

Q: As Ambassador to Afghanistan, you sought more US pressure on Pakistan on the issue of terrorist sanctuaries. Pakistan is now working with China, the United States, and Afghanistan to help start the peace process with the Taliban. Is Pakistan serious about peace?

Khalilzad: I give credit to President Ghani for trying to engage Pakistan to see if it might change its policy and become more favorable to reconciliation. I also give him credit for reaching out to China as well as the United States, both to give Pakistan confidence that Afghanistan seeks good relations with its strategic friend, the Chinese, and also so that the Chinese might put pressure on Pakistan to facilitate reconciliation and help with the problem of security in Afghanistan. That effort must continue, but so far it hasn’t produced the kind of results that I am sure President Ghani wanted and expected, and perhaps was led to believe by the Pakistanis.

The internal balance issues are critical and the prospects for reconciliation would improve if Afghanistan hardened itself against this threat. When you are perceived to be weak or weakening, your enemies do not come to rescue you from your circumstances. But when you’re strong and making progress, reconciliation becomes more probable.

I don’t believe that Pakistan has done what it should do. The military has got very much the upper hand in Pakistan.  It would have to tell the Taliban that they cannot use Pakistan as a sanctuary for war and enforce the decision with the ISI [Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency]. This [the Taliban’s] announcement of the spring offensive should trigger a response because as the Pakistani National Security Advisor has admitted, [the Taliban] are in Pakistan. If Pakistan is serious about reconciliation, it must close down those facilities and not allow them to use Pakistani territory. You cannot facilitate peace if you are facilitating war. If they close down the facilities of war, prospects for peace would improve because in that circumstance the balance would begin to shift in favor of the [Afghan] government. That should be the objective of the United States and China: to get Pakistan to shut down the facilities for war.

“That should be the objective of the United States and China: to get Pakistan to shut down the facilities for war.”

Q: Let’s shift to Iraq. The Bush administration’s experience in Iraq in many ways colored President Obama’s Middle East policies. What is your assessment of President Obama’s approach to the region? What should he have done differently?

Khalilzad: I believe that the President’s policies reflected the preferences of the American people after seven or eight years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. As Stephen Sestanovich has argued, periods of great exertion in US foreign policy history are followed by periods of withdrawal or retreat. Unfortunately, this zigzag has its own dynamics and challenges because periods of retreat create vacuums, which are filled by people who do not wish the United States well, and this creates problems that then require great exertion to deal with.

I would maintain a balanced approach, both in terms of responding to threats and shaping the circumstances, so the need for great exertion is precluded by maintaining a balance of power in each of the critical regions of the world, including the Middle East, and pursuing reconciliation and conflict resolution among the regional players so circumstances that create terror and conflict are contained.

I believe that such a policy was not followed by the Obama administration; it was largely a policy of retreat that created a vacuum in Iraq. That vacuum led rival regional powers to tear Iraq apart and to undo the progress that was made in the 2005-2008 period. Added to that, the handling of Syria has been very problematic. That is now having global repercussions, not only because of the emergence of [the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS)], which has global reach, but also because of the refugee crisis.

I would have preferred that we find a way to sustain some level of forces in Iraq and act as a catalyst to help reconcile different communities, as we were doing, and follow a policy in Syria that not only included support for moderates, but also created safe zones and a no-fly zone, and an effort at a political settlement that involved regional and global powers. We have a lot of experience in this regard in Iraq after the Gulf War. Imagine if we hadn’t created a safe zone for the Kurds and a no-fly zone. Millions of Kurds would have gone to Turkey and Europe. The way Syria has been handled will, unfortunately, affect the situation not only in Syria, but more broadly for some time to come.  

On Iran, I would have preferred a comprehensive approach focusing not only on the nuclear agreement, but also on Iranian regional actions that are intensifying conflicts and precluding reasonable settlements, such as in Syria. The internal human rights issues and rule of law—not as defined by the regime in Iran, but based on international standards—were not the focus of attention. They should be. We saw that in the Green Revolution [in 2009] the [Obama] administration was flatfooted in its response.

We need to have a three-pronged approach that addresses the strategic nuclear and missile issues, and, at the same time, does not hold back because of the [nuclear] agreement in dealing with the issue of hostile regional policies and human rights.

The longer-term US goal must be for the three major powers of the region—Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia—to come to some sort of understanding about their competition. President Obama has been right that there is a proxy war aspect to the conflict in the region. There is a need to regulate that, which means the powers involved in the proxy war must come to an understanding on rules of the game similar to the Westphalia agreement in Europe. That should be the long-term objective of the United States and we should game what are the steps needed to get from here to there that would encourage such an outcome. This would mean engaging all three powers, a balance of power among them, a reasonable settlement of the Syria conflict, start of a dialogue, and an agreement and establishment of a new regional organization that includes all these powers.

We ought to learn from the experience of ASEAN [the Association of Southeast Asian Nations] how regional cooperation precluded the conflict and disorder that everyone expected. We even see today progress in the Balkans where neighbors who were once at war are beginning to cooperate. Those with a stake in the future of the Middle East can learn from the experiences of the Balkans and Southeast Asia.

“The longer-term US goal must be for the three major powers of the region—Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia—to come to some sort of understanding about their competition.”

Q: Has the diplomatic opening presented by the Iran nuclear deal not created the conditions for greater US engagement on issues like human rights and regional reconciliation?

Khalilzad: Those should be the goals of our diplomacy. The balance of power may require that we strengthen some of the other regional forces to make sure they feel confident that they are not in a position of weakness in negotiating about the future, sitting at the table with Iranians. If the Shia majority in Iraq are to be accepted as the dominant force ethnically until Iraqis transcend sectarian identities, the same principle has to be applied in Syria so that the Sunni states of Saudi Arabia or Turkey don’t feel that their side is at a disadvantage. For the stability of Iraq, a reasonable settlement in Syria is necessary.

“For the stability of Iraq, a reasonable settlement in Syria is necessary.”

Q: Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is facing a political crisis. What should the United States and Iran be doing to help?

Khalilzad: The last thing Iraq needs is a major political crisis. The Iranians have generally been skeptical of Prime Minister Abadi. Iran has, however, opposed unseating him. Tehran perhaps fears that an ensuing succession struggle may drive Shi’ite parties further apart and divert resources away from the fight against ISIS.

The United States has a good working relationship with Abadi. Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Baghdad last week only affirmed this fact. There is a convergence in the views of the US and Iran on at least one point: a political crisis in Baghdad could hurt the effort against ISIS.

Abadi wants a cabinet that is independent of the political parties. This is not politically unachievable. The United States and Iraq’s neighbors, particularly Iran, can help Iraq avert a crisis by encouraging Iraqi leaders to give Abadi at least some of the government changes he seeks.

Ashish Kumar Sen is a staff writer at the Atlantic Council.

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Image: "The right lesson to learn from Iraq and Afghanistan is that big projects such as these two need to be done very selectively and rarely, we also need to recognize that we might have to do them again,” said Zalmay Khalilzad, a former US Ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq. Khalilzad is a member of the Atlantic Council’s Board of Directors. (Atlantic Council/Victoria Langton)