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Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad on Ayman al-Zawahiri

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Almost 21 years after 9/11, the mastermind of those attacks is dead. A U.S. drone strike killed al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri on Sunday morning in Afghanistan. The intelligence community tracked his location to a safe house right in the middle of Kabul.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: It's a house in the Sherpur neighborhood of Kabul, which is upscale, a lot of big houses. Some of them used to be occupied by U.S.-backed warlords - big blast walls, guard towers. Now, of course, the population has flipped. It's different because the rulers are different.

CHANG: That's NPR's Steve Inskeep reporting from Afghanistan, a country now run by the Taliban after the U.S. withdrew its troops last year and less than one year after that evacuation. The head of al-Qaida turned up in Afghanistan's capital. So what does that mean for the future of the country? That is a question for Afghan American diplomat and former U.S. special representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, who joins us now. Welcome.

ZALMAY KHALILZAD: Thank you. Good to be with you.

CHANG: Good to have you. So do you believe the Taliban knew with total clarity that Zawahiri was in the heart of Kabul? What do you think?

KHALILZAD: Well, it's very likely that some Taliban knew, but that their leadership as a whole knew it, I'm not sure. But certainly, it looks like the Haqqani network, which is an important element of the Taliban, did know.

CHANG: But you think it's plausible that some elements of the Taliban did not know of his presence there?

KHALILZAD: It is possible. I will not rule it out. And maybe there was a disagreement or anger even, and that the - some elements were violating the agreement that was negotiated between the United States and the Taliban, and that this action by the Haqqanis would have put that the rest of the gains that they had made and lessons that they had learned that by supporting al-Qaida the last time cost them a lot.

CHANG: Right.

KHALILZAD: So I would not be surprised that some elements of the Taliban may have helped us, that tipped us off in terms of the location.

CHANG: Well, can we talk more about this agreement you speak of? This is the Doha agreement. You helped negotiate this U.S.-Taliban deal that allowed the U.S. to withdraw its troops. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said today that the Taliban, quote, "grossly violated that agreement by allowing Afghan territory to be used by terrorists." If we can just take a step back for a moment, what exactly did the Taliban promise in those discussions?

KHALILZAD: Well, they signed an agreement, a text in two parts. Part one specifically in general terms says that the Taliban would not allow the territory of Afghanistan to be used by groups or individuals, especially al-Qaida - and that was our demand because of 9/11 - to threaten the security of the United States and our allies. And then the annex, great details of how we would evaluate Taliban performance or compliance. So the secretary of state is quite right to say that allowing the head of al-Qaida in Afghanistan, in Kabul was a gross violation of that agreement.

CHANG: So in that case, in your mind, what is the viability of the Doha Agreement at this point, this deal that you help broker? Should the U.S. trust Taliban leadership after this?

KHALILZAD: Well, we never trusted the Taliban leadership. We hold them accountable to the agreement that they made. But at the same time, we wanted to maintain and have maintained that capability to respond to the presence of al-Qaida or other terrorists that would threaten the United States. Our commitment, the bipartisan commitment, has been that we would not allow Afghanistan to become a safe haven for terrorists who would threaten the United States. And we demonstrated a few days ago that even though we don't have a large number of troops or any troops in Afghanistan, we have the capability and the will to execute and deliver on the commitment that we have made.

CHANG: Well, now, let me ask you this. The Taliban is accusing the U.S. of violating the Doha agreement by initiating this drone strike in the first place. How would you respond to that?

KHALILZAD: Well, that's obviously wrong. And the agreement is clear. That's in black and white. Allowing someone to plot and plan, attack - someone who plotted and planned the 9/11 attack, was - carried out other attacks on the United States to stay in Kabul and issue a statement threatening the security of the United States is a clear beyond any doubt violation of the Doha agreement.

CHANG: OK. In the last minute and a half we have left, I want to ask you this. And that is what has the U.S. been doing the last 20 years? Because the U.S. invaded Afghanistan to take out al-Qaida leadership after 9/11, stayed there for two decades. Less than a year after the U.S. withdraws troops, this happens. What does that say about what the U.S. has managed to achieve the last two decades, you think?

KHALILZAD: Well, we achieved a great deal. We weakened, decimated al-Qaida. Al-Qaida is in Afghanistan, was its very center that thousands of followers there. It plotted and planned there safely and security. Now, there are very few al-Qaida members in Afghanistan. We have killed the two major leaders, Osama bin Laden and al-Zawahiri. And we have developed our capability technologically to do what we couldn't do around 9/11, which is to be able to effectively attack from afar. That still is some work in progress. We need to do better to even develop further that capability. Then we had to go on the ground and to manhunt. We may still have to do some of that, but as we demonstrated yesterday, without a big presence that was very costly to the United States, we can still do effective counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan.

CHANG: Zalmay Khalilzad, former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan and former special representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, thank you very much for joining us again.

KHALILZAD: Thank you - good to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Megan Lim