'The Envoy': Zalmay Khalilzad's Journey From Afghanistan To The White House As U.S. ambassador in Iraq and Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad was unique — "a son of the soil" — as he puts it in his new memoir. He talks to Renee Montagne about his book, The Envoy.

'The Envoy': Zalmay Khalilzad's Journey From Afghanistan To The White House

'The Envoy': Zalmay Khalilzad's Journey From Afghanistan To The White House

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As U.S. ambassador in Iraq and Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad was unique — "a son of the soil" — as he puts it in his new memoir. He talks to Renee Montagne about his book, The Envoy.


Let's meet a man now who played a key role in both Afghanistan and Iraq, a diplomat who had a hand in the elections and constitutions, plus the empowerment of the leaders who rose up from the ashes of war. As a U.S. ambassador in the region, Zalmay Khalilzad was unique - a son of the soil, as he puts it in his new memoir, "The Envoy." He was born in an Afghanistan barely removed from its ancient ways. When his father as a young man chose to leave his village to seek his fortunes in the city, the family held a symbolic funeral.

ZALMAY KHALILZAD: In the case of my father, he walked most of the distance, 400 miles. Sometimes he was on a horseback. And they didn't expect to see him again. And I've heard similar stories from others that their families held funerals assuming that they would never see them again. It was a different world.

MONTAGNE: And in 1966, at the age of 16, Zalmay Khalilzad embarked on his own epic journey along with other high-achieving students, including a teenaged Ashraf Ghani, now the president of Afghanistan. It was a year-long exchange program that took Zalmay to California.

KHALILZAD: I came to America to a small town in San Joaquin Valley near Modesto. And the thing that really struck me was how people related to each other, particularly men and women - how there was a relationship of partnership, of sharing chores around the house. My father would have never done any of that - helping to clean the kitchen or putting the dishes in the dishwasher. It also made me aware that here was Afghanistan that had been the seeds of great empires at one time. And now it was so underdeveloped. You know, my sister, young sister, died when I was 4 or 5-years-old. And I remember her howling from pain for hours, and there was no hospital to take her to.

MONTAGNE: And that was - she died, as a little girl, from appendicitis.

KHALILZAD: Right. So this made me also aware of Afghanistan had lost its way, that things needed to be done differently and that Afghanistan could learn from America that it needed to develop.

MONTAGNE: Years later, Zalmay Khalilzad himself became an American. He got his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. Eventually, he signed on with the State Department's policy planning team. He got a front-row seat to the Reagan administration's decision to arm the Mujahedeen fighters resisting the Soviets in Afghanistan, a decision that would end up haunting the U.S. when the Soviets pulled out.

KHALILZAD: Rather than helping the Afghans form a government, come together, we distanced ourselves. We had achieved our goal of the Soviet departure. And the groups that had fought the Soviets, some of them Islamic extremists, some moderate nationalists, these groups, with our disengagement, went to war against each other.

MONTAGNE: And that chaotic civil war led to the Taliban takeover in 1996, the alliance with Osama bin Laden and finally the attacks on 9/11. It was a series of events that few in Washington would've predicted.

KHALILZAD: A lesson that I have learned from my years of dealing is that you have to be very careful about what you assume would be the outcome of very big struggles.

MONTAGNE: That lesson, Khalilzad writes, applies equally to another cauldron of unintended consequences, the invasion of Iraq. The idea of regime change had taken root in his neoconservative circle. And when Saddam Hussein was finally toppled in 2003, Khalilzad agrees that the Bush administration was ill prepared to pick up the pieces. And in 2005, when Khalilzad was named ambassador to Iraq, he found himself contending with a government run by newly-empowered Shiites led by a fellow Shiite, Nouri al-Maliki.

KHALILZAD: One lesson that we need to keep in mind that leaders in that region - or maybe anywhere - are not good or bad regardless. Whether it was President Karzai in Afghanistan or Mr. Maliki in Iraq, they operate in their own environment. And their priority's how they can remain dominant in their domain - in power. And when we were helping them to do so, they'd behave one way. When they think we are not working with them, they behave another way. Both in Afghanistan and Iraq, I would say there was a Karzai one, and a Karzai two. And there was a Maliki one, and a Maliki two. Maliki one was very helpful. He moved against the Shiite militias. He moved against the insurgents. He reformed the national unity government. So during his first term, he was broadly an effective, strong leader that we could work with. Maliki two - when we began to disengage from Iraq - for him to survive, he became a sectarian leader that undid the achievements of his first period.

MONTAGNE: All of which helped plunge Iraq into civil war, which gave rise to the Islamic State as well as this question, which I put to him - had there been no Iraq War, would there be an Islamic State?

KHALILZAD: I mean, al-Qaida emerged although there was no regime change. I think we can self-flagellate ourselves a little too much because the extremism and terror that we see is the result of a crisis of Islamic civilization. That it did well at one time, the Islamic empires conquering Europe, being the most powerful entity on the face of the earth. And then it began to decline. And Muslims, in the Middle East in particular, have had a hard time how to deal with this. And a part of their reaction has been this extreme reaction.

MONTAGNE: May I say, you're speaking as a person - as a Muslim.

KHALILZAD: Yes, of course. But my family, they were moderate Muslim. My mother and father, they both prayed. But yet they were in favor of good relations with the world. My mother never went to school herself, but yet a high school in Kabul will be named after her later this year. I'm delighted for that. But with regard to ISIS and Iraq, would we not do regime change if ISIS took over Damascus? Would we not do regime change if ISIS took over eastern Saudi Arabia, where most of the Persian Gulf oil that the world depends on comes from? So I think we ought to be discriminating. Afghanistan and Iraq, they have posed particularly difficult challenges, but there is a risk that we could over-learn from these experiences.

MONTAGNE: Zalmay Khalilzad. His memoir is, "The Envoy."

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