The Biden administration is keeping former President Trump’s top envoy for Afghanistan peace talks, who has led regular negotiations with the Taliban, in place for the time being, according to three sources familiar with the matter.
This move is not typical. Traditionally an incoming administration replaces politically appointed officials with their own team, particularly on foreign policy matters with such significance. Keeping the negotiator in place, at least for now, demonstrates the Biden team's initial commitment to maintaining adherence to the US-Taliban peace agreement until the new team reviews it in detail and fully develops their own Afghanistan policy.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, has been on the job for more than two years and was the primary Trump administration official who met with all of the stakeholders leading up to the signing of the peace agreement in Doha. At times he had a contentious relationship with Afghan government officials who viewed him as favoring the Taliban.
Khalilzad is a diplomatic veteran, having served as a US ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq and the United Nations. He is well known in foreign policy circles. Khalilzad's own deeply personal ties to Afghanistan, where he was born, and his free-wheeling approach to the negotiations have also been viewed as controversial by some and effective by others.
The State Department did not comment when asked about Khalilzad staying on board.
During his confirmation hearing, Anthony Blinken, President Biden’s pick for secretary of State, reiterated Biden’s commitment to ending the war in Afghanistan but indicated that he had not yet been briefed on the US-Taliban agreement in a detailed way.
"We have to look carefully at what has actually been negotiated," Blinken said. "I haven't been privy to it yet, particularly with regard to the agreement that was reached in the first instance between the United States and the Taliban to understand fully what commitments were made or not made by the Taliban. And then to see where they get in their negotiations with the government of Afghanistan."
The Biden foreign policy team will immediately have to begin making decisions about the presence of US troops in the country. That is where things will get dicey: the US-Taliban agreement commits all US and NATO forces to leave the country by May, and that is at odds with a desire by Biden and his foreign policy team to keep residual force in Afghanistan.
"We want to end this so-called forever war. We want to bring our forces home. We want to retain some capacity to deal with any resurgence of terrorism which is what brought us there in the first place," Blinken said during his hearing.
Extending the military mission also threatens to upend the peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government. This is because those peace talks – which have been slow to produce any results – were committed to by the Taliban a result of the US agreeing to a full withdrawal.