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For new U.S. envoy to Afghanistan, ‘deja vu all over again’

Zalmay Khalilzad previously served as a special envoy to Afghanistan and later the U.S. ambassador to the country. (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

NEW YORK — The quest to end America’s longest war, 17 years in Afghanistan with no end in sight, now partly falls on the shoulders of Zalmay Khalilzad, an urbane veteran U.S. diplomat who describes the experience as “deja vu all over again.”

Khalilzad was present at the beginning, helping the administration of George W. Bush plan the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001. After the United States invaded, he became a special envoy to Afghanistan and later the U.S. ambassador in Kabul. On Friday, he was sworn in again as a special envoy — this time tasked with helping to jump-start talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, which still controls a large chunk of the country of his birth.

He is optimistic it is different this time, but experience has taught him to be cautious.

“It seems some Talibs, or the Taliban as a whole, are looking for possible reconciliation and a political settlement to end the conflict,” he said in his first interview since being sworn in. “And my job is very narrow this time, narrowly focused on testing that proposition and helping, if there is reality to it, to facilitate and help the parties to reach an agreement and to participate, if needed, in the meetings and discussions leading to a possible agreement.”

Khalilzad is in New York this week for the annual U.N. General Assembly, meeting with Afghan government officials and diplomats from other countries with an interest in the region. He said it is premature to predict what shape any talks would take, or a venue. But he did not rule out possible U.S. participation in talks Russia has proposed be held in Moscow and could include Iran as well as the Taliban.

“To us the key would be the Afghan government,” he said. “How it feels about it. How it’s organized, what the purpose is. There are a lot of questions at this stage that I haven’t myself focused on yet.”

The Taliban has insisted on direct talks with the United States, and this summer the group said it had met face to face with senior State Department officials. Khalilzad considers direct talks inevitable, if there is to be peace.

“You’ve got to talk to end the conflict, which is the mission, to see if there is a settlement that meets our basic national security interests,” he said. “Which is, that Afghanistan doesn’t become a sanctuary for terrorists again that could attack the United States. It’s an important national security interest. And also a settlement that’s worthy of our sacrifices of blood and treasure of 17 years, that we would meet with interested parties. By any measure the Taliban are an interested party.”

Over the decades, Khalilzad has seen Afghanistan in many stages of war and peace. Now 67, he spent his childhood in the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif. He came to the United States as a teenager to attend high school. After attending the American University of Beirut and the University of Chicago, he served as a foreign policy adviser to Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. It was the elder Bush’s son, George W. Bush, who appointed Khalilzad as ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq and the United Nations.

In Afghanistan and Iraq, he was involved in rebuilding institutions devastated by war, including drawing up new constitutions.

The decision to draft him, after almost 10 years out of government service, is widely seen in the region as a message to Pakistan. His appointment was announced while Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, accompanied by Khalilzad, was en route to Pakistan this month. Initially a counselor, he officially assumed the title last week.

Khalilzad has been strongly critical of Pakistan in the past, blaming Afghanistan’s deteriorating security on its neighbor’s military and intelligence agency, which he believes has provided a haven for Taliban insurgents. That has created a reservoir of mistrust toward Khalilzad in ­Islamabad.

“I hope Pakistan will turn a new page,” Khalilzad said, acknowledging the mistrust and noting that the Pakistani government had assured him and Pompeo that it wants to see an end to the conflict across its border.

“There are some things that are important and clear,” he added. “We don’t want them to provide sanctuary for people who are committed to violence and attacking Americans, Afghans, coalition partners across the border, Afghan civilians. Large numbers are dying.”

He said he sees room for cooperation with Russia in Afghanistan in the fight against extremism and terrorism.

“I do understand that there is this potential for rivalry and a kind of a nostalgia on the part of Russia for kind of this great role that it had in the past. And that, too, may shape its behavior,” he said, adding that the potential for cooperation may also be constrained “by these other factors — the state of our bilateral relations, the vision that President Putin has for Russia’s role in the region and the world. And you know, we’ll work hard to engage.”

An ethnic Pashtun who has been seen as an ally to President Ashraf Ghani, Khalilzad is familiar with the ethnic divisions that have only deepened in recent years. But he said he believes more Afghans have embraced a “common Afghan-ness” that gives him a measure of optimism.

He recalled that when the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001, the country had two currencies, several armies and two flags.

“They decided not to go their separate ways,” he said. “They decided to come back and build a common Afghanistan homeland for themselves, except the Taliban and some elements did not join.”

“That history makes me hopeful. . . . But there is a political reality that in Afghanistan, like in many other places, ethnicity has become politicized, or sectarianism has become politicized. But there is a need, as a result of this process, for a common vision, and that will be a challenge for Afghan leaders. . . . Will they rise to the occasion? I hope they will, and we will do all we can.”