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WASHINGTON - In a luxury hotel along Doha's coastline last year, Zalmay Khalilzad smiled as he shook hands with the Taliban's co-founder Mullah Baradar in front of journalists and diplomats from around the world.
"We have signed an agreement with the Taliban that achieves U.S. objectives," Khalilzad, the United States' special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, wrote on Twitter later that night.
Twenty months later, the U.S.-backed Afghan government collapsed as the Taliban swept through the country at lightning speed and marched into Kabul unopposed. Khalilzad was left seeking the militant group's help in a chaotic U.S. evacuation from Kabul.
Current and former U.S. officials told Reuters that in the three years Khalilzad has been in the role, he became the face of one of the largest U.S. diplomatic failures in recent memory.
U.S. officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the veteran American diplomat relinquished leverage to the militant group, continuously undermined the Afghan government, and had little interest in hearing different viewpoints within the U.S. government.
"How does he still have a job?" a U.S. official asked. "There is no longer any Afghan reconciliation left."
Khalilzad declined to comment on the record.
Some officials, lawmakers and foreign policy experts said that he is one of the few U.S. diplomats to have relations with the Taliban and was simply following orders from both U.S. Presidents Donald Trump and Joe Biden: get all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan.
"Khalilzad looks bad. But I think that he was dutiful in the sense that he did what he was asked to do," said Michael Kugelman of the Wilson Center think-tank.
Khalilzad, while a major figure in America's humiliating end to a 20-year involvement in Afghanistan, was one of many people who made mistakes during four administrations - two Republican and two Democratic.
GAVE AWAY THE FARM
When Khalilzad, who was born in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif, was appointed to be the special envoy in 2018, there was a growing political desire to leave Afghanistan.
Having campaigned on ending "the endless wars", Trump had publicly talked about his desire to remove thousands of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
But officials said that despite his desire to leave, Trump had shown that he could order a withdrawal only to walk it back, like he did in Syria.
In negotiations, officials said Khalilzad gave away too much early by making clear that Washington was looking to withdraw all of its troops.
A major concession, according to the officials, was Khalilzad agreeing to the Taliban's demand that President Ashraf Ghani release 5,000 Taliban prisoners.