US Greenlit Taliban's Kabul Takeover and Had No Contingency Plan When Hell Broke Loose, Former Envoy Says

Biden administration made a military decision to relinquish control over most of Kabul, according to former US special rep for Afghanistan reconciliation

(Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty Images)
May 1, 2024

The Biden administration gave the Taliban terror group a "green light" to seize control of Afghanistan's capital city, Kabul, in mid-August 2021, setting the stage for the terror group to retake control of the country amid America's botched withdrawal, the Washington Free Beacon has learned.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the former U.S. special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, said in an interview obtained by the Free Beacon that U.S. military leaders rejected a Taliban offer to have the United States provide security for Kabul during an August 15, 2021, meeting with Taliban leaders in Qatar, which came as American officials were scrambling to pull troops and personnel out of the country. This decision was seen as a "green light" for the Taliban to take control of the city.

Khalilzad's disclosures, which are previously unreported, were made during closed-door testimony conducted by the House Foreign Affairs Committee as part of its years-long investigation into the Biden administration's botched Afghanistan evacuation. A transcript of Khalilzad's interview, which was conducted in November 2023, was released in full exclusively to the Free Beacon.

When asked about that pivotal 2021 meeting in Qatar, which included Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, who led U.S. Central Command at the time, Khalilzad said the Biden administration made a military decision to relinquish control over most of Kabul. This decision resulted in the United States controlling only a very narrow piece of the city that included its embassy compound and the airport—the site of a terror attack that later killed a dozen U.S. service members.

"It sounds like a green light for the Taliban to come and take over most of Kabul," an interviewer from the committee's Republican side said to Khalilzad as the witness recounted the meeting.

"I think that's clear," Khalilzad responded.

The interview paints the clearest picture to date of hurried U.S. meetings with the Taliban as Afghanistan devolved into chaos amid the Biden administration's exit from the country. Khalilzad, who served as the central U.S. interlocutor with the Taliban, said under questioning that the State Department had virtually no contingency plan in place to deal with a crumbling security situation on the ground, which likely contributed to the terror attack at the Kabul airport's Abbey Gate.

Both the State Department and Khalilzad assumed the Afghan government would not collapse so quickly once the United States exited the country and developed no plan to deal with that eventuality. Khalilzad predicted the Afghan government could hold its own against the Taliban for at least two years and did not change his opinion on the matter until August 2021, when the terror group was already assuming control.

"The dominant assumption that was, I think, in the government, based on assessments that were being made, was that the [Afghan] government won't collapse that quickly," Khalilzad said. "That was the estimate that guided things and was my own personal judgment on this, putting my official role at that time aside, but that we would have a lot of time to—maybe two years or more."

That assumption was central to the State Department's planning at the time, catching officials off guard when the Afghan government folded immediately after the Taliban took Kabul.

"We don't do alternative futures," Khalilzad said.

"Did you just say that you don't plan for contingencies outside of the dominant train of thought?" Rep. Brian Mast (R., Fla.) asked in response to Khalilzad's disclosure.

"I think not enough of it is done in the—in our profession, in diplomacy planning in that regard," the diplomat said.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken was "noticeably absent" during key decision points around the withdrawal and evacuation from Afghanistan, according to one GOP Foreign Affairs Committee aide who spoke to the Free Beacon about the interview.

"One thing that's clear is the State Department's lack of preparedness and its understanding of the reality of what's happening in Afghanistan," added a second GOP aide who reviewed the testimony.

Khalilzad's contention that al Qaeda and its affiliated offshoots do not operate in Afghanistan also drew surprise from those on the Foreign Affairs Committee, particularly as it has become clear in the years since the Taliban resumed control that al Qaeda is using the country to plan terror attacks.

"I have to say for the record, looking back, that al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent has been dismantled," Khalilzad said. "It doesn't exist anymore, according to our intelligence, since the Taliban took over."

That testimony, one committee source said, "shows that the very person the Biden administration has as their main interlocutor with the Taliban is in denial about the reality of terrorism in Afghanistan."

Khalilzad cast doubt on claims by the Biden administration and its allies that the botched Afghanistan withdrawal was the byproduct of the Trump administration's negotiations with the Taliban.

Talks with the terror group, the diplomat said, actually began during the Obama administration, when Taliban leaders reached out to begin negotiations over a potential military withdrawal.