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The Man Who Would Be King

In April 2005, when President Bush decided to transfer Zalmay Khalilzad from Afghanistan to Iraq, Afghan President Hamid Karzai complained. The Afghan-born Khalilzad had been serving as U.S. ambassador to his native country, and his relationship with Karzai--which dated back to the late 1990s, when both men advised the U.S. oil company Unocal on the construction of a Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan pipeline--was strong. In 2004, with Khalilzad ensconced as America's viceroy in Kabul, it was widely rumored that he had worked to engineer Karzai's victory in the country's first presidential election by pressuring other candidates to drop out of the race, a charge Khalilzad denied. Karzai grew exceptionally close to Khalilzad; Time reported that the men dined together at least three times per week.

But Khalilzad may aspire to be more than a confidant to the president of Afghanistan; he may actually aspire to be the president of Afghanistan. Or so goes an admittedly bizarre rumor circulating at the United Nations and the State Department, where many are speculating that Khalilzad--currently America's ambassador to the United Nations and the highest-ranking Muslim to serve in the Bush administration--is contemplating a run for Karzai's job.

One of the few Bush administration hawks to emerge from the past eight years with his reputation relatively unscathed, Khalilzad has long been a fixture in neoconservative circles: He studied at the University of Chicago under military strategist Albert Wohlstetter alongside Paul Wolfowitz, later worked at the Defense Department in the first Bush administration under Dick Cheney, and was an early, vocal advocate of the first and second Iraq wars. More recently, Khalilzad has been widely praised for the clean-up work he did in postwar Afghanistan and Iraq. In both cases, because of the massive amount of reconstruction aid and political reconciliation that the United States had to facilitate, Khalilzad essentially ran the countries during his ambassadorships.

The rumor that Khalilzad was considering a run for Afghanistan's presidency first surfaced in a Washington Post gossip column on January 9, though it had been circulating around Turtle Bay for at least several months. The speculation cropped up again in Newsweek several weeks later, and, late last month, The Guardian reported flatly that Khalilzad "is planning to stand for the presidency of Afghanistan." A high-ranking State Department official told me that "the diplomatic community in New York and abroad is buzzing with speculation concerning Khalilzad's potential bid for president of Afghanistan."

To be sure, the election won't be held until 2009, meaning that Khalilzad and other potential candidates still have plenty of time to make up their minds. Plus, it remains unclear whether Karzai will seek reelection; if he does, it seems unlikely that Khalilzad would challenge his old friend. Moreover, there is the possibility that "the people who have been pushing this story are the old [John] Bolton loyalists," a Senate foreign policy aide told me, referring to Khalilzad's predecessor, who, since his resignation in December 2006, has been a frequent critic of the Bush administration.

Yet Khalilzad himself has done little to quiet the speculation, offering only vague, quasi-denials in person and through his spokespeople. Asked about the rumor while speaking at Columbia University earlier this month, Khalilzad first joked, "I didn't come here to collect contributions for my campaign. I know how poor students are." He then added, "I can say categorically that I am not a candidate for the presidency of Afghanistan." Earlier, a press officer at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations had told Newsweek that Khalilzad "intends to serve out his post as long as [President Bush] wants him in office. And then, after that, he hopes to find a job here in the private sector in the U.S."

Given the outrageous nature of the rumor--would a high-level U.S. government official really seek the presidency of a foreign land?--it seems strange that Khalilzad has not been more forceful in his denials. (At Columbia, as a U.N. diplomat stressed to me, he only said he was not currently running, rather than saying he would never run.) A former State Department official told me that Khalilzad should have immediately deflated the rumor himself, and that his recent comments on the matter are still too equivocal. "When you're the U.S. ambassador, confirmed by the U.S. Senate, representing the U.S. government, one should not tolerate rumors that you're interested in running a foreign government," this person told me. "It can easily be put to rest with an unequivocal, firm 'I have no intention of seeking the office,'" says Bruce Riedel, a friend of Khalilzad who served on the National Security Council during the Clinton and second Bush administrations. "Why does this [rumor] keep surfacing?" Through a spokesman, Khalilzad declined to comment for this article.

Not surprisingly, some high-ranking officials at the State Department are uncomfortable with Khalilzad even toying with the idea of becoming a foreign country's leader; one told me that a "running joke" among some of his colleagues is that "We have an Afghan warlord as the permanent representative of the United States at the U.N." Like Riedel, this official wonders why Khalilzad does not just come out and explicitly deny that he will ever be interested in the job. "People over the past several months have been concerned about Khalilzad's various non-denial denials," the official said.

If true, Khalilzad's interest in the presidency of Afghanistan would help to explain what many see as his increasingly erratic behavior. Last month, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Khalilzad spoke on a panel alongside the Iranian foreign minister, angering administration officials. "There's no possibility that it was inadvertent," a State Department official told me. (This week, Khalilzad was reprimanded by his boss, Condoleezza Rice, for the episode.) The day before that encounter, The Guardian reported that Khalilzad had played an instrumental role in "sabotaging" the appointment of Paddy Ashdown, the widely respected British statesman and former high representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, to a similar job in Afghanistan, perhaps to blunt the influence that a proactive foreigner might play in the reconstruction of that country. (Khalilzad has denied obstructing Ashdown's appointment.) All this seems to support the contention of one former State Department official, who told me that Khalilzad "doesn't play by the rules," and of the current, high-ranking official, who characterizes Khalilzad's diplomacy as "across-the-board freelancing."

Then there was Khalilzad's decision last year to have lunch with George Soros, the billionaire financier who spent tens of millions of dollars to unseat President Bush in the last presidential election--an odd move for a staunch neoconservative like Khalilzad. But Soros's Open Society Institute funds programs to the tune of $5 million annually in Afghanistan. And, the high- ranking State Department official told me, aside from currying support from the philanthropist, "you could also attribute another ulterior motive to that, which is making himself amenable to a future administration that isn't Republican."

The rumors about Khalilzad's political ambitions may also help explain his recent odd behavior regarding Israel. After all, no one perceived as a Zionist lackey is going to be elected president of a Muslim country. Last fall, Khalilzad submitted a resolution to the Security Council endorsing the agreement between Israelis and Palestinians at the Annapolis peace conference. But not only did Khalilzad reportedly decline to consult Israel about the resolution; he also apparently surprised Rice by bringing it to the council. Less than 24 hours after Khalilzad had submitted the resolution, one of his deputies was handed the humiliating task of withdrawing it. Moreover, the high- ranking State Department official told me that Khalilzad has been skipping meetings involving Israel, sending deputies in his stead. A U.N. diplomat knowledgeable about the situation told me that Khalilzad "is missing most meetings where Israel is discussed," and that his decision to ignore Israeli concerns about the Annapolis resolution was "part of a trend."

How can a top U.S. official get away with allowing rumors to fester that he is going to run for president of another country? One explanation may be Khalilzad's close relationship with President Bush. "Bush can't fire him," a veteran U.N. watcher told me. A former State Department official says that Khalilzad "had a relationship with the president, picked up the phone to the president, picked up the phone to the secretary [of state]. ... He totally ignored--blew off, dissed, however you want to put it--the whole policy process. It was as if it didn't exist." This style was on display in Iraq, where, a former Foreign Service officer who worked under Khalilzad in Baghdad told me, "Zal was conducting his own personal foreign policy."

Khalilzad would not be the first U.S. government official to become president of a foreign country. In 1998, Lithuanian voters elected as president 71-year-old Valdas Adamkus, who until then had spent nearly 50 years living in the United States. Adamkus fought in the anti-Nazi (and later, anti-Communist) underground and fled his homeland for the United States in 1949. He settled in Chicago where he attended the Illinois Institute of Technology, and in 1971 he became a deputy in the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), eventually rising to become the organization's Midwestern regional administrator. In 1983, Adamkus earned national plaudits when he blew the whistle on EPA heads in Washington who attempted to whitewash a report his staff had written about pollution in Michigan. With $50,000 of his own money and $1.25 million from friends in Chicago, Adamkus defeated Lithuania's former prosecutor general, who had accused him of being a carpetbagger. He serves to this day.

Khalilzad would face steeper odds than Adamkus. Afghans are more likely than Lithuanians to view the United States with suspicion, despite the fact that the United States helped liberate both countries from totalitarian rule. "Zal is an Afghan-American, but he is an Afghan-American," Riedel notes. "This is an extremely nationalist country." What's more, Khalilzad would hardly be the only big name vying to succeed Karzai. Among the other possible contenders are Ali Jalali, the country's former interior minister who resigned in 2005 and currently teaches at National Defense University in Washington; Mostapha Zaher, the grandson of Afghanistan's late king; the head of Kabul University; the current parliamentary speaker; and the country's finance minister. According to a U.S.-based Afghanistan expert, at least two Afghan newspapers have included Khalilzad in presidential polls--and he "fares pretty poorly in them."

If Khalilzad runs anyway, it may be because he decides that there is nothing left for him to achieve in the United States. "In terms of the U.S. government, it's pretty clear he's tapped out," the former Foreign Service officer who worked with Khalilzad in Iraq told me. And returning to the land of his birth as president would serve as a stunning culmination to a storied international career. Plus, given Afghanistan's numerous ongoing crises, the country could probably do worse than having a capable, experienced diplomat with ties to powerful Americans at the helm. As one former State Department official told me, "You could argue that Zalmay Khalilzad would have more relevant knowledge pertaining to governing Afghanistan than a Midwestern EPA administrator would to running Lithuania."

James Kirchick is an assistant editor at The New Republic. This article originally ran in the February 27, 2008, issue of the magazine.