On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001 Condoleezza Rice was chairing a meeting of the national security council in the White House. By the time the assembled foreign policy wonks saw the second plane hit the World Trade Center, it was becoming clear that the US was being attacked by al-Qaeda and the country was at war.
From that moment on, a previously obscure staffer became the center of attention, bombarded with questions. His name was Zalmay Khalilzad, and the country of his birth, Afghanistan, was about to become a war zone.
Since then Khalilzad, who became an American citizen in 1984, has become the country's most indispensable diplomat. He was in Kabul just after the fall of the Taliban and in Baghdad days after the first US troops reached the Iraqi capital. When postwar Afghanistan was in danger of being torn apart by warlords in 2003, he was appointed ambas-sador to Kabul to help prop up Hamid Karzai and oversee elections.
Last June, when Afghanistan appeared relatively stable but Iraq was imploding, he was transferred to Baghdad. His title there is ambassador, but he is more of a viceroy, with 5,000 staff in the biggest US embassy in the world and backed by more than 130,000 US troops.
It is an unenviable job. For the insurgents, Khalilzad represents the highest value target possible, and on the few occasions he ventures outside his offices in Saddam Hussein's former marble presidential palace and out of Baghdad's Green Zone, he must do so with a small army around him, complete with air support.
But he has been strikingly successful. He was acclaimed for brokering a constitution last year, a feat that frequently involved improvising US policy on the spot. "I know he has considerable sway. I saw it first hand," said Peter Galbraith, a former US diplomat who advised the Iraqi Kurds during the drafting of the constitution. "His predecessors were visiting the leaders, repeating the talking points."
Born: 1951, Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan.
Family: Married, two sons (22 and 14).
Education: One-year exchange scholarship to California, 1966; scholarship to American University, Beirut, 1970 to 1974; doctorate, University of Chicago, 1975.
Career: Becomes American citizen and fellow of Council on Foreign Relations, 1984; adviser on Afghanistan and Iran-Iraq war at state department, 1985 to 1989; political scientist, Rand corporation, and associate professor, University of California at San Diego, 1989 to 1991; assistant deputy undersecretary for policy, Pentagon, 1991 to 1992; head of Pentagon transition team for Bush campaign, 2000 2001; special presidential envoy to Afghanistan, 2001 to 2002; ambassador to Afghanistan, 2003; ambassador to Baghdad, June 2005.
He had the clout to call up the National Security Council, a former NSC colleague said. "Most feel that he is a breath of fresh air in Baghdad after the rather stale immobility of the [John] Negroponte period." Khalilzad's predecessor is now director of national intelligence.
It is easy to see why Khalilzad is essential to the US effort in Iraq. He combines the commitment of a Washington neoconservative with the cultural sensitivity of his foreign roots. He is a Muslim, born in 1951 in Mazar-i-Sharif, where his father was a middle-ranking civil servant married to an illiterate but strong-willed woman who appears to have been a significant influence on his life.
He told the New Yorker magazine his mother "could not read or write herself, but she would have the kids read the newspapers to her."
"I think if she had been born at a different time she would have been quite an established political figure," he said.
Urged on by his mother, the young Khalilzad won an exchange scholarship to California for a year at the age of 15, and then, after he finished school, to the American University in Beirut. His background gives him a familiarity with the Arab negotiating style.
Unlike most American diplomats, he is prepared to sit chatting for hours, fidgeting with prayer beads, and listening to local leaders.
Khalilzad's path keeps getting steeper. He has to square the circle of US policy in Iraq, coaxing Shia leaders to cede some power to the Sunni minority in order to form a government, while extremists on both sides are murdering each other. It is little wonder that the US' man in Baghdad is drifting off message. While the White House and the Pentagon have been pumping out mostly happy talk on Iraq, Khalilzad has become outspoken about the scale of the problems facing the country and more apocalyptic in his predictions.