the envoy from kabul to the white house

Written by Nimra Dawood 12:30 pm Book Reviews, Published Content

The Envoy: From Kabul to the White House, My Journey Through a Turbulent World

Zalmay Khalilzad contributed to the reconstruction and peace-building of Afghanistan after the USSR invaded the country – and in the post-Taliban era. In “The Envoy: From Kabul to the White House, My Journey from a Turbulent World,” Khalilzad details his turbulent journey from a traditional country like Afghanistan to a modern and developed country like the US. Khalilzad also argues that the world has already moved toward disorder and chaos because of several factors including terrorism, mistrust among allies, unrest in the Middle East, the rise of China, and Russian aggression.
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About the Author(s)
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Nimra Dawood is an undergraduate student, pursuing a degree in international relations from National Defence University, Islamabad. She is interested in current affairs, geopolitical trends, regional political dynamics, and power transition in the international arena. She loves to critically analyze the changing dynamics of the world and the motives of key actors.

The Author

The author of the book “The Envoy: From Kabul to the White House, My Journey Through a Turbulent World,” Zalmay Khalilzad, an Afghan by birth, was born in 1951 in a conservative Pashtun family. He later moved to the United States where he remained associated with the RAND Association, before becoming a direct member of the Bush Administration. He was appointed as a special envoy of President Bush to Iraq, ambassador to Afghanistan (2004-2005) and Iraq (2005-2007), and Undersecretary for Planning.

Khalilzad has also been in crucial positions in the State Department where he played a decisive role in formulating the US policy on Iraq and Afghanistan. Khalilzad’s contributions to the peace-building missions of Iraq and Afghanistan are recognized at the global level. He was also under consideration for the position of Secretary of State in the Trump administration but was appointed as the Special Representative to Afghanistan for reconstruction under both the Trump and Biden administration from 2018 to 2021.

It was because of his diplomatic initiatives and hectic negotiations that the US-Taliban peace deal came into being in 2019. However, the aftermath of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan lead to criticism of the peace deal and the role of Khalilzad and therefore he resigned from his post of special envoy to Afghanistan in September 2021.

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Khalilzad worked as the Permanent Representative of the US to the United Nations after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, playing a critical role in rebuilding the relationship between the two.

From Afghanistan to the US

The first chapter can be regarded as the most insightful and interesting chapter of “The Envoy: From Kabul to the White House, My Journey Through a Turbulent World,” as it sketches the glimpse of transformation that Khalilzad experienced after moving from Afghanistan to the United States. The initial part of the chapter is based on the description of the historical background of some important cities of Afghanistan such as Mazar-e-Sharif, Balkh, Kandahar, and Kabul.

Khalilzad was the son of conservative parents who were quite liberal when it came to the studies of their children, but the opposite when dealing with the equal treatment of women at home. The second and third chapters describe Khalilzad’s initial days in the US of which he had been negatively informed through radio shows and movies.

Khalilzad was intrigued by the “glamorous and fashionable” way of life in the US with an unbelievable entrepreneurial orientation and perks of capitalism. The fourth chapter describes his swift entry into the realm of politics after getting into the University of Chicago.

Khalilzad met with Professor Albert Wohlstetter, CEO of Pan Heuristics and a consultant in the government, where he started working on various projects. During this time, Daoud Khan’s regime had been overthrown by the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan.

Afghanistan, Soviet Union & Iraq

The fifth chapter overlooks Afghanistan in the post-1979 invasion and capture of Kabul by the Taliban in 1996. Khalilzad, as a member of the policy planning staff, was not in favor of giving any concession to the retrieving Soviet Union in 1989 as they were rejecting a sincere agreement with the US. The sixth and seventh chapters discuss the events that unfolded in Iraq under Saddam Hussein and the US policy reorientation in the unipolar world.

Being a member of the State Department, Khalilzad, on meeting with Saddam’s right hand, Tariq Aziz, got an impression that the regime might use chemical weapons on their enemies. In chapter eight, Khalilzad explains that like every other Afghan, he was also initially optimistic about the rule of the Taliban because it would finally be ending the Hobbesian world for Afghanistan, but things turned otherwise.  

Chapter nine deals with Khalilzad’s appointment as a special assistant to the president and senior director at the National Security Council where he had a bumpy relationship with Rumsfeld, but this did not undermine their collective assignments. Khalilzad was involved in shaping policies on Iraq and the increasing influence of Al-Qaeda in and around Afghanistan.

9/11 & Return to Afghanistan

Chapters ten and eleven discuss the events before and after 9/11, impacting not only the US and Afghanistan but the entire world order. At the time of the attack, Khalilzad was present in the State Department along with his colleagues, and an atmosphere of restlessness and panic in the American population was evident. Khalilzad’s importance increased in the administration because of his ethnic and religious background, becoming the “favorite Afghan of President Bush”.  

In chapters twelve and thirteen, Khalilzad describes his first experience in Kabul after the US invasion of Afghanistan which was very depressing and disturbing for him. Events surrounding Khalilzad’s appointment as the Special Envoy of President Bush to Iraq in 2002 were discussed in chapter fourteen of the book. Members of various institutions agreed that Iraq was emerging as a greater threat to the US in the region that needed to be disarmed.

In chapters fifteen and sixteen, despite serious threats and warnings by the regional actors on the US involvement in Iraq, Khalilzad was successful in carrying out a comprehensive dialogue with the Iraqi opposition within the Iraqi territory, and it was decided that the US would invade the country with a comparatively larger number of troops. After being removed from Iraq, Khalilzad was again sent to Afghanistan for nation-building. The dynamics of this posting were described in chapters seventeen and eighteen of the book.

In chapters nineteen and twenty, Khalilzad sketched out a democratic face of Afghanistan when for the first time in the last 5000 years of Afghanistan, in 2004, Afghan nationals chose the head of their state with a voting turnout of 8.1 million. The elections for vice-president witnessed a tussle between different groups and segments but all parties ultimately accepted the result.

A Difficult Phase

Khalilzad was sent to Iraq for the formation of its new constitution, to hold elections for the creation of an inclusive government in Iraq that was less hostile towards the other sects. Unlike Afghanistan which had faced the problem of a weak center, the Iraqi people had been oppressed by the totalitarian and centralized system. The consensus-building over the formation of a centralized governmental setup and the creation of new federating units proved to be the hardest phase of Khalilzad’s career.

The last chapter is the crux of the entire administrative experience of Khalilzad as he talks about the establishment of multipolar world order and the rise of ideological conflicts in the world. To counter the rise of terrorism, loss of confidence in Europe and in the EU, Russian aggression, the rise of China, and the conflicts in the Middle East, Khalilzad suggests that the US adopt some short-term and long-term goals and objectives, focusing primarily on the geopolitics of Asia-Pacific, Europe, and the Middle East. All this would need the US to sharpen its skills in the world with rising challenges and regain its role as the most powerful country in the world.

Critical Analysis

My Point of View

The main argument propagated by the author sketches a dim picture of the future of the world because of the diminishing stakes of the US in various regions. I do not agree with the main argument and its supporting evidence in “The Envoy: From Kabul to the White House, My Journey Through a Turbulent World,” because it depicts a one-sided perspective of the entire story.

On one hand, he has criticized the role of Pakistan in the rebuilding of Afghanistan, and on the other side, he has completely ignored the jihad plan initiated by the US along with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia during the Soviet invasion of the country in 1979. The same Pakistan that was declared the “Major Non-NATO Ally” has been turned into an evil and warmonger by the author.

Although Khalilzad has shown himself as the “Son of the Soil” and lover of his homeland, traces of the imperialist mindset and the white man’s burden are present. Moreover, the writer has defended atrocities inflicted by the US military as an inexperienced move of the forces and the means at their disposal.

Targeted Audience

“The Envoy: From Kabul to the White House, My Journey Through a Turbulent World,” can be an interesting read for a diverse kind of audience, ranging from policymakers to the common public interested in Khalilzad himself, his contributions to the US policy initiatives, or the study of the US foreign policy of the recent past.

Written Expression and Distribution

The division of “The Envoy: From Kabul to the White House, My Journey Through a Turbulent World,” into 26 chapters seems too much as several dimensions of several points can be compiled and narrated in a single go. The title of each chapter appears to be a collection of words with no clear connection with each other. The writer could have instead started each chapter with more attractive and catchy title lines.

Construction of Knowledge

“The Envoy: From Kabul to the White House, My Journey Through a Turbulent World,” like all other occidental production of knowledge, has created a discourse of “othering” while explaining the dynamics with the Taliban, Saddam Hussein, Iran, and Pakistan. The US is shown as a lover of peace, freedom, and democracy while the others are oppressors, barbarians, and uncivilized that cannot govern themselves and need constant monitoring and support from the West.

Image of Pakistan

Starting from the first chapter of this book, Khalilzad has presented a negative image of Pakistan that is hated by ordinary Afghans based on the historical disputes between the two countries over the Durand line. Khalilzad declares Pakistan as a failing state because of its weak economic and political structure, while ironically focusing less on the failing state of Afghanistan which remains the worst country with a humanitarian catastrophe even after trillions of dollars of investment.

Similarly, he kept on blaming Pakistan for the double game played by its authorities in using the US dollars against the US in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, but Khalilzad has not identified the immediate shift in the policy of the US towards Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks when it started bombing the same people it had created to fight against the USSR.

Khalilzad claims that Pakistan was not sincere with the US, even when President Bush and the head of the CIA were blindly trusting the Zia regime. Khalilzad has ignored the fact that a sovereign state is free to pursue its national interests especially when its ally i.e. the US does not come to its help against India even after becoming part of CENTO and SEATO. On the contrary, the US was weaponizing India without prior notice to Pakistani authorities, making a joke out of the agreements signed between the two countries.

Inter-departmental Tussle

The book undertakes several events in which there existed a severe clash among the various departments of the US, most notably the State Department, Pentagon, the Department of Defense, and the CIA. This intergovernmental rivalry led to delays and periods of indecisiveness within the administration, directly impacting the lives of millions of individuals in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Moreover, Khalilzad has also shown the element of vested interests of these agencies and departments in affecting the dynamics in the countries where they were playing the role of nation-building. For example, it was because of the departmental rivalry that Zalmay Khalilzad was removed from his post of ambassadorship to Iraq, and substituted by Paul Bremer by President Bush.

Diplomat Going Native

There exists a perfect example of the phenomenon where a diplomat went native as he knew more about the on-ground realities as compared to the upper authorities. Before being sent to Iraq as an ambassador, Khalilzad had to convince the entire opposition that the US only planned to do a regime change operation in the country after which the country would be handed back to its natives.

However, the aftermath tells us that this did not happen. Khalilzad was able to see the resentment and anger people had because of this treachery by the US; on his insistence on handing over the authority to the natives, he was replaced by another diplomat and Khalilzad was appointed on a mission to Afghanistan.


It can be seen that Zalmay Khalilzad utilized a continuous negotiation pattern to mitigate the matters in Afghanistan. In Iraq, when no one was listening to the other party, Zalmay decided to hold a dialogue between the intra-Iraq factions and himself entered the process at the ripe moment by threatening the parties that if no consensus was built, the US would be forced to leave the country. This use of coercive diplomacy led to the end of deadlock and the beginning of negotiations between the opposing factions.

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The views and opinions expressed in this article/paper are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Paradigm Shift.

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