Both the New York Times and the Washington Post reported this week that a political deal was under discussion between Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai and Zalmay Khalilzad — the former U.S. ambassador successively to Kabul, Baghdad, and the United Nations, and until recently a possible, if undeclared, contender for the Afghan presidency.
The talks centered on Khalilzad, an Afghan by birth, being appointed to a non-elected post described as chief executive officer, to put sinew into Karzai’s weak, inefficient, and — from Washington’s point of view — unreliable government.
Both Karzai’s office in Kabul and Khalilzad himself at once denied any plans to appoint the former ambassador to such a post.
But a source in a position to know said that the original formula discussed had also included four deputy CEOs, each responsible for a group of government ministries, reporting to Khalilzad. The deputies idea was dropped after the ministries objected that oversight by non-elected officials would undermine Afghanistan’s democratic system. The source said that as far as he knew, a position of key presidential adviser for Khalilzad — discussed at more than one meeting when the Afghan president was in Washington earlier this month — was still on the table.
With Afghanistan’s August presidential elections coming up, the leaks to the U.S. press would seem to send a message to Afghans that Khalilzad had given up his own presidential ambitions and indeed was in the Karzai camp. Secondly, although U.S. officials were quoted as saying the whole matter was up to the Afghans and Khalilzad, a high-level contact close to Karzai would be useful to Washington at a time when the Obama administration has made success in Afghanistan a top policy issue.
Less remarked is that the meetings between Karzai and Khalilzad amounted to a reconciliation after a period of estrangement caused by the latter’s presidential ambitions. The idea of a Khalilzad run for president had initially been championed by his close friend, Ishak Shariar, Afghanistan’s first ambassador to Washington following resumption of diplomatic relations in 2001. Shariar spoke of him as a figure who could unify the country. But the feedback from Afghanistan was not as enthusiastic as Khalilzed and his supporters had hoped, and he eventually cooled to the idea.
To some extent, President Karzai himself is a creature of Zalmay Khalilzad’s creation. It was Khalilzad who stage-managed Karzai’s emergence as the main contender for the job at the Bonn conference on Afghanistan in late 2001. As the Bush administration’s ambassador in Kabul, Khalilzad, acting like a pro-consul, virtually orchestrated the national congress — the loya jirga — that confirmed Karzai as president.
By his own account, Khalilzad ate dinner at the president’s palace six nights a week. Even from his next post, Baghdad, he was on the phone to Karzai daily. The relationship cooled off when Khalilzad was at the United Nations — and particularly when the “Zal for president” stories began to surface. From the looks of things, it’s now warmed back up.