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U.S. envoy to Afghanistan resigns in wake of Taliban takeover

Zalmay Khalilzad said it was the "right time" to resign as the U.S. enters "a new phase in our Afghanistan policy."
As one of few Trump appointees to keep his role after President Joe Biden came into power, Zalmay Khalilzad remained relatively low-profile in recent years, making few public comments in the months leading up to the United States' withdrawal.
As one of few Trump appointees to keep his role after President Joe Biden came into power, Zalmay Khalilzad remained relatively low-profile in recent years, making few public comments in the months leading up to the United States' withdrawal.T.J. Kirkpatrick / Pool via AP

The U.S. special representative for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, announced he is stepping down from his role less than two months after the United States' chaotic withdrawal from the country.

“Tomorrow, I step down from my position as the Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation,” Khalilzad said in his Monday resignation letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken obtained by NBC News.

"I decided now is the right time to do so, at a juncture when we are entering a new phase in our Afghanistan policy," he said.

Critics have accused Khalilzad of wasting any leverage the U.S. might have had in Afghanistan by agreeing to a deadline for the withdrawal of U.S. troops without setting any conditions for a cease-fire and peace accord between the Taliban and the Afghan government led by President Ashraf Ghani.

His defenders have argued the envoy was handed an impossible task, given the tight deadline set by the Trump administration for the United States' withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Khalilzad's decision to resign comes after three years of unsuccessful U.S.-backed negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban. The talks ended with America's hasty and chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan in August and the Taliban's takeover of the country.

In his resignation letter, Khalilzad, who was appointed to the role in 2018 under the Trump administration, made no mention of the U.S. withdrawal and evacuation of U.S. citizens and other at-risk residents.

Instead, his letter amounted to a defense of the 2020 Doha agreement that opened the way for the withdrawal of U.S. troops.

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Khalilzad strenuously defended the deal in his letter, laying the blame on the Taliban and the Afghan government for failing to seize the chance to negotiate an end to the conflict.

He said the agreement meant “the war is finally over for the United States” and that America will now be able to devote resources that had been spent on the war to “other vital needs.”

Khalilzad also said the deal had provided “a road to peace” and a “historic opening for serious negotiations between the Islamic Republic and the Taliban to end the war.” But he said the Afghans had failed to use the opportunity to negotiate a peace settlement, adding that he was “saddened on behalf of the Afghan people.”

Afghans wait to leave the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Aug. 16.Wakil Kohsar / AFP - Getty Images file

"It is regrettable, but it is not the final chapter. Even the Taliban describe themselves as an interim government," he said.

The 2020 agreement with the Taliban was hailed by then-President Donald Trump as a breakthrough and was fully endorsed by then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who attended the signing ceremony with Taliban leaders in Doha, Qatar.

But critics accused the Trump administration of negotiating a “surrender agreement” with the Taliban and have blasted the Biden administration for going ahead with the deal.

“Our secretary of state [Pompeo] signed a surrender agreement with the Taliban,” H.R. McMaster, who served as Trump’s national security adviser before the deal was signed, said on Bari Weiss’ podcast Honestly last month.

“This collapse goes back to the capitulation agreement of 2020. The Taliban didn’t defeat us. We defeated ourselves,” McMaster said.

Although Pompeo backed Khalilzad’s effort and was on hand for the Doha ceremony, he did not sign the accord. Instead, Khalilzad put his signature to the deal.

As one of few Trump appointees to keep his role after President Joe Biden came into power, Khalilzad remained relatively low-profile in recent years, making few public comments in the months leading up to the U.S. withdrawal.

He was widely expected to step down once the exit of troops from Afghanistan was complete.

In a statement published Monday, Blinken announced Khalilzad would be succeeded by Thomas West, who previously served as the deputy special representative for Afghanistan.

West, who served on Biden's national security team when he was vice president in the Obama administration, will lead diplomatic efforts and coordinate closely with the U.S. Embassy Kabul presence in Doha on America's interest in Afghanistan, the secretary of state said.

This comes as the State Department's inspector general informed Congress on Monday that her office would be launching a series of investigations into the Biden administration's Afghanistan withdrawal.

In a letter obtained by NBC News, Diana Shaw, the State Department’s acting inspector general, informed the heads of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee, as well as the House and Senate intelligence committees, that her office would be carrying out “several oversight projects” around the U.S. departure.