U.N. Envoy Rebuked For Solo Diplomacy

By Glenn Kessler and Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, was once again scolded by senior State Department officials for diplomatic freelancing, but he appears likely to keep his job in the Bush administration's waning months, U.S. officials said yesterday.

Khalilzad, a voluble, Afghan-born political appointee who previously served as ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq, was rebuked recently by the senior official for South and Central Asia affairs for planning to give "advice and help" to Asif Ali Zardari, the husband of assassinated former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto. Zardari has declared himself a candidate to replace Pervez Musharraf as president, a move that thrown the Pakistani government in turmoil. The United States is officially neutral in the Pakistani presidential race.

State Department spokesman Robert A. Wood said yesterday that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice retains "full confidence" in Khalilzad, who is known as "Zal" in diplomatic circles. Another U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, put it more bluntly: "Zal can do no wrong. The vice president is growing weary of his unpredictability, but the president thinks he's still a rock star."

During his postings in Kabul and Baghdad, Khalilzad won praise for hammering together agreements among divergent political factions. But officials in Washington often complained that he disregarded instructions and left them in the dark about his dealings.

The latest incident came to light when the New York Times yesterday published details of an e-mail from Assistant Secretary of State Richard A. Boucher to Khalilzad regarding his contacts with Zardari.

"I was on the phone today with Asif Zardari and he mentioned that he was going to be in Dubai on September 2 to meet with you. He says you are providing 'advice and help,' " Boucher wrote in the e-mail dated Aug. 18. "Can I ask: What sort of 'advice and help' are you providing?"

Boucher demanded that Khalilzad clarify what "sort of channel" he was opening with Bhutto's husband -- government, private or personal. "We have maintained a public line that we are not involved in the politics or the deals," Boucher wrote. "We are merely keeping in touch with the parties. Can I say that honestly if you're providing 'advice and help?' "

Boucher is a former spokesman for the department and had little expertise in South Asia when Rice named him to the post in 2005, in contrast to Khalilzad's web of contacts in the region. Indeed, Khalilzad has done little to dispel rumors that he is considering running for president of Afghanistan, seeking to oust Hamid Karzai.

U.S. officials said that Boucher and Deputy Secretary John D. Negroponte have repeatedly tripped across Khalilzad's footprints as they try to conduct diplomacy in the region.

The first instance regarding Pakistan occurred last year, when Boucher, during initial negotiations with Bhutto, realized that Khalilzad had been conferring with her and Zardari since the summer of 2006. "He was traveling to London to see them, having dinner with them in New York," said a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was discussing internal disputes.

The contacts gave Bhutto and Zardari leverage over Musharraf and Nawaz Sharif, a Bhutto rival, because they could say a representative of the U.S. president was advising them.

In mid-2007, Negroponte took up the task of delivering a "stern warning" to Khalilzad, saying the department had been "alerted to the existence of a separate channel." Khalilzad said it would stop. Three days later, Khalilzad had dinner with Bhutto, prompting a sarcastic e-mail from Boucher making clear he knew about the dinner.

Meanwhile, U.S. officials in Kabul learned that Khalilzad had put together an informal fundraising and advisory network of wealthy, educated Afghans who had returned home from the United States, Australia, Britain and elsewhere. They met for lunch every Thursday at the Serena Hotel in Kabul to discuss their disdain for Karzai and to plan the nascent Khalilzad presidential campaign. In July, Boucher had to thwart Khalilzad's efforts to attend an Afghan donors conference in Paris, apparently with the intention of undercutting Karzai.

Khalilzad did not respond to requests for comment. "Ambassador Khalilzad had planned to meet socially with Zardari during his personal vacation," Wood said. "But because Zardari is now a presidential candidate, Ambassador Khalilzad postponed the meeting, after consulting with senior State Department officials and Zardari himself."


© 2008 The Washington Post Company