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Ex-Ambassador Khalilzad to become US adviser on Afghanistan

WASHINGTON: Former US Ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad will join the State Department as an adviser on Afghanistan, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Tuesday as he headed to Pakistan to discuss Islamabad’s role in helping to end the Afghan conflict.

“Ambassador Khalilzad is going to join the State Department team to assist us in the reconciliation effort, so he will come on and be the State Department’s lead person for that purpose,” Pompeo told US pool reporters traveling with him.

Known by many in Washington as “King Zal”, the 67-year-old Khalilzad has decades of experience in the region. Now he has what Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described Tuesday as a “singular” mission to get the Taliban and the Afghan government to reconcile.

This mission marks Khalilzad’s return to focus on the country of his birth and childhood, and the place where he served as US ambassador from 2003-2005 under President George W. Bush, helping to guide regime change in the messy aftermath of the fall of the Taliban.

He was instrumental in setting up the government structure in Afghanistan and guiding President Hamid Karzai through the first elections in 2005.

Fluent in Pashto and Dari, Khalilzad’s experience as a foreign policy operative in the country dates back to the 1980s, when he served as an adviser to the Reagan administration.

He spent most of the 1990s in the private sector, but returned to public service when Bush appointed him to the National Security Council with an Afghanistan brief.

After the Kabul posting the Bush administration appointed Khalilzad — who is also an accomplished arabophone — as ambassador to Baghdad in 2005, despite Karzai reportedly pleading with the US president not to transfer him.

Unlike his smooth stint in Afghanistan, where he cut deals with tribal chiefs and warlords, Khalilzad’s Iraq mission was rocky.

He knew the Iraqi political terrain well, having served as Bush’s envoy to the “free Iraqis” before the 2003 US invasion, and helped draw up the country’s new constitution after the toppling of Saddam Hussein.

But he failed to accomplish a task similar to the one he now faces in Afghanistan: getting Iraq’s warring factions to reconcile, and defusing the terrorist core of Sunni resistance.

Khalilzad was allied with Bush administration hawks like Vice President Dick Cheney and John Bolton, whom he replaced as Washington’s UN envoy in 2007. He held the position until 2009.

He later criticised President Barack Obama’s handling of the war in Afghanistan, especially the decision to draw down US troops.

Born in 1951 in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif, Khalilzad attended the American University of Beirut before earning a doctorate from the University of Chicago in 1979.

He taught at Columbia University from 1979 to 1986, and has over the years also held key positions at prominent US think tanks, including the RAND Corporation.

Before his stints as ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq and the UN, he also served in various capacities in the State Department, the Pentagon and the National Security Council.

Khalilzad also once worked with US oil giant Unocal and runs a business advisory firm called Gryphon Partners.

In 2014, Austrian authorities briefly froze bank accounts belonging to his wife during an investigation into money he transferred from the US. Khalilzad denied any wrongdoing.

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