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Washington’s new special envoy for Afghanistan is an old Afghan hand

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WASHINGTON: The Biden administration has selected Thomas West, a diplomat with years of experience in dealing with Afghanistan, as America’s new Special Representative for the war-torn country.

Mr West, who previously served as the Deputy Special Representative, replaces Zalmay Khalilzad who concluded the US-Taliban deal in February 2020 after two years of negotiations.

Mr West has also served on then-Vice President Joe Biden’s national security team and on the National Security Council staff.

In a statement issued in Washington, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Mr West “will lead US diplomatic efforts, advise the Secretary and Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, and coordinate closely with the US Embassy Kabul’s presence in Doha on America’s interests in Afghanistan.”

The decision indicates the Biden administration’s desire to stay engaged with Afghanistan despite the withdrawal of all its troops from the country in August this year.

Mr West will also work with Pakistan to persuade the Taliban to expand its government and include other religious and ethnic factions and political groups as well.

He will also try to convince the Taliban to respect human rights, reopen schools for girls and allow women to work.

Ambassador West will also be required to ensure regular humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan while the Taliban and Pakistan may ask him to resume economic aid and unfreeze Afghanistan’s reserves in US banks.

The Biden administration seized the assets and severed economic ties with Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover in mid-August.

Noting that Mr Khalilzad was stepping down from his role, Secretary Blinked extended his “gratitude for (Mr. Khalilzad’s) decades of service to the American people, thanked him for his service and welcomed Mr West to the role.

Mr Khalilzad served as the special envoy for Afghan reconciliation under both the Trump and Biden administrations since September 2018, when then-secretary of state Mike Pompeo brought him to lead negotiations with the Taliban and the Afghan government.

He also served as the US ambassador to Afghanistan from September 2004 to June 2005 and as ambassador to Iraq from June 2005 to March 2007. From April to January 2009, he was the US ambassador to the United Nations.

Mr Khalilzad served as US Special Representative for Afghanistan for more than three years and negotiated the US-Taliban deal in Doha, Qatar, which ultimately led to the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Afghanistan in August 2021.

He has been criticised for concluding a deal that his critics say clearly favored the Taliban and brought down the US-backed government in Kabul.

Mr Khalilzad will step down this week. He said in his resignation letter that after leaving government service he would continue to work on behalf of the Afghan people.

Published in Dawn, October 21st, 2021

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