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ISLAMABAD - The U.S. peace envoy for Afghanistan says he secured a last-minute deal with the Taliban in mid-August to keep the insurgents outside Kabul while they negotiated a political transition. But, he says, President Ashraf Ghani's decision to flee the country scuttled that plan.
Afghan-born envoy Zalmay Khalilzad made the disclosure in an interview with the Financial Times, saying he had negotiated a two-week grace period hours before the Afghan capital fell to the Taliban on August 15. He said Ghani's escape left a security vacuum in the city, however, which prompted the Islamist group to march into the city that day.
Khalilzad explained that the deal would have allowed Ghani to remain in his post until a settlement was reached in Doha on a future government, even as the Taliban stood at Kabul's gates.
A Taliban official Wednesday confirmed details of the understanding they had reached with Khalilzad in Doha, the capital of Qatar, where the insurgents run their political office.
"Yes, there was a gentleman word from our side that our forces will not enter Kabul city, and we will talk about a peaceful transfer of power," Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen told VOA from Doha.
Khalilzad told the Financial Times he had no clue that Ghani was intending to flee into exile in the United Arab Emirates.
"There were questions of law and order in Kabul after Ghani fled. ... The Talibs [then] ... say: 'Are you going to take responsibility for security of Kabul now?' And then you know what happened, we weren't going to take responsibility," the U.S. envoy said.
Khalilzad negotiated an agreement with the Taliban in February 2020, paving the way for the United States to bring home all American troops from Afghanistan after nearly 20 years of involvement in the Afghan war.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken also has repeatedly stated in recent days he had received assurances from Ghani on the eve of his escape that the Afghan president was on board with Washington's plan.
"What he [Ghani] told me in that conversation the night before he fled is that, as he put it, he was prepared to 'fight to the death,' " Blinken told Afghan-based Tolo News earlier this month.
Ghani has issued statements in recent days from the UAE apologizing for "abandoning" Afghans and saying he acted on the advice of the presidential palace security. The former president also dismissed allegations of taking off with tens of millions of stolen dollars.
The Taliban announced a caretaker government last week in Afghanistan, 20 years after they were ousted from power by the U.S.-led international military invasion for harboring al-Qaida leaders.
The Taliban introduced strict Islamic laws when they were previously in control of the country from 1996 to 2001. A brutal justice system, mistreatment of Afghan minorities, the barring of women from public life and banning of girls from receiving an education marked the Taliban rule at the time, leading to Afghanistan's global isolation.
The U.S. and many other countries now are pressuring the Taliban not to bring back their hardline governance system if they want their country to remain part of the international community and win diplomatic recognition for any Taliban-led government in Kabul.