Global Policy Forum

'Viceroy' Khalilzad Leaves Controversial


By Rachel Morarjee

Agence France Press
April 6, 2005

US ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad was more like a ruler than a humble envoy as he guided the war-shattered country on the road to democracy after the fall of the Taliban, analysts said. Dubbed the 'viceroy' by locals -- the term used for India's British colonial leaders -- the Afghan-born diplomat was seen as the power behind President Hamid Karzai and won praise for keeping Afghanistan atop Washington's agenda.

However Khalilzad, who has been nominated as the new US ambassador to Iraq, was also criticised for wielding too great an influence over the fledgling Afghan government. "He was undoubtedly the most influential person in Afghanistan. He was more than an ambassador," Naimatullah Khan, political commentator on Afghan affairs based in the Pakistani border city of Quetta, told AFP.

Fluent in the Afghan tongues of Dari and Pashto, Khalilzad was appointed as US President George W. Bush's special envoy to Afghanistan shortly after the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington. The former university professor was then sworn in as ambassador in November 2003.

Familiar with Afghanistan's complex tribal dynamics and with billions of US dollars at his disposal, he was able to mediate between different factions. "There is, though, a perception among many Afghans that the real center of power and decision-making lies at the US embassy rather than at the presidential palace, which leads to a feeling of a lack of ownership of governance," said a western analyst speaking on condition of anonymity.

Khalilzad's negotiating powers were widely credited with saving October's historic Afghan presidential election from chaos, after many opposition candidates threatened to boycott the result because of fraud allegations. But many Afghans allege he was too close to his fellow ethnic Pashtun President Karzai, regularly appearing at his side on the campaign trail and leaving few in any doubt about Washington's favourite candidate. "He was eager to see Mr. Karzai in this post," said Sayed Mohammad Ali Jawed, spokesman for the newly formed political party of Yunus Qanooni, Karzai's chief rival for the presidency.

Khalilzad often stole the limelight from President Karzai, who would speak to him almost daily on the telephone and who looked to him for advice on policy matters, sources at the presidential palace told AFP. When dozens of people were killed last August in a factional battle in western Herat province between Tajik warlord Ismael Khan and a rival ethnic Pashtun militiaman, Khalilzad stepped in to publicly broker a truce. "He should not have taken credit for the ceasefire in Herat. It would have looked better to Afghans if he had taken a backseat and let Karzai take the spotlight," a US military source told AFP, again requesting anonymity.

However, US sources and Western diplomats argue that it was precisely Khalilzad's high-profile persona which kept Afghanistan at the top of the policy agenda in Washington. As a former counselor to US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Khalilzad had the ear of many powerful hawks on Capitol Hill.

With Afghanistan taking its next steps towards rebuilding itself after 25 years and with parliamentary elections due for September, at least some in the country wonder what the country will do without its most powerful deal-maker. Afghanistan's chief justice Fazel Hadi Shinwari wrote last week to US President George W. Bush pleading with him not to transfer Khalilzad to Iraq until after September's Afghan parliamentary polls. "No one else can work as he has been doing or has done in the past," Shinwary wrote.

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