Zalmay Khalilzad has been the White House special envoy for both of the Bush administration's major military efforts: the war in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq.
Shortly after the bombs stopped falling in each country, he took the leading role in the reconstruction.
In Iraq, he helped organize the first meeting of Iraqi leaders after the ouster of Saddam Hussein's regime, and in Afghanistan, he managed the loya jirga, or tribal council meeting, that led to the election of Hamid Karzai.
At the initial meeting in Iraq, Khalilzad assured the delegates: "We have no interest, absolutely no interest in ruling Iraq."
It was an unusual promise for Khalilzad to make, since retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, the official appointed by the White House to run an interim Iraqi administration, was also in attendance.
But the White House apparently has come to view the Afghanistan-born Khalilzad as its face to the Muslim world.
In an article about Khalilzad, the German news agency Deutsche Presse-Agentur said the Bush administration considers him its "Muslim 'secret weapon.' "
"The fact that he is Afghan and comes from an Islamic country [likely makes him] more amenable to Iraqis and Middle Easterners than a white guy without a Middle Eastern name," said Richard Dekmejian, a political science professor at the University of Southern California, who says he has known Khalilzad for more than a decade.
There was no question Khalilzad was uniquely qualified when the White House named him its special envoy to Afghanistan in the wake of after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks: He was the only Afghan in the White House.
Even better, he is a Sunni Muslim born to a Pashtun father — a representative of the dominant religion and ethnicity in that sharply divided country.
But Khalilzad's qualifications amount to more than his background. Before becoming special envoy, he had been working under National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.
"I regard him as a very acutely bright individual with a very penetrating mind," said Thomas Gouttierre, director of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska, who has known Khalilzad since he came to the United States from Afghanistan on a student exchange program as a teenager.
Khalilzad was born in 1951 in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e Sharif, to what Gouttierre described as "members of the civil-servant class." He grew up in Kabul, the Afghan capital, and after returning from his exchange program, graduated from high school there.
He went on to earn an undergraduate degree from the American University in Beirut, Lebanon, and then a doctorate in political science from the University of Chicago in 1979.
Khalilzad then taught political science at Columbia University, and joined the State Department in 1985, working under Paul Wolfowitz. Now deputy secretary of defense, Wolfowitz was one of the staunchest advocates for deposing Saddam Hussein.
Meanwhile, Khalilzad remained a key voice in Washington for his homeland as a Soviet invasion tore it apart. Khalilzad successfully lobbied to supply the Afghan mujahideen with shoulder-fired Stinger missiles, which were crucial in their victory over the Soviets.
Khalilzad continued working under Wolfowitz during the following Bush administration and the first Persian Gulf War.
During the Clinton administration, he worked for the Washington think tank RAND, and returned to public service when George W. Bush came to power, managing his Pentagon transition team.
Skeleton in the Closet?
Khalilzad may be an experienced government operative, but the part of his job history that has received the most attention is his stint as a paid adviser to the oil giant Unocal in the mid-1990s.
At that time, he took part in talks with the Taliban about the possibility of building gas and oil pipelines through Afghanistan. He even defended the Taliban's style of fundamentalism in The Washington Post, comparing it favorably against the kind that is practiced in Iran.
Shortly after Khalilzad's appointment, Jennifer Van Bergen, a faculty member of the New School University, wrote in the online publication truthout.org: "Simply put, Khalilzad's appointment means oil. Oil for the United States. Oil for Unocal".
Ted Rall, a political commentator who has traveled extensively throughout Central Asia, said that case is even stronger now that Khalilzad is working in Iraq.
Iraq and Afghanistan have little in common, he said — Iraq is predominantly Shiite and Afghanistan is predominantly Sunni, and the Middle Eastern culture of Iraq is different from the Central Asian culture of Afghanistan.
"What he is, is a common thread who connects things at first glance which are not immediately connected," Rall said. He dismissed the idea that Khalilzad could be an operator for all Muslim countries, saying such a philosophy only reflected the ignorance of his superiors.
However, Khalilzad's friends defend his appointment. Dekmejian said Khalilzad's oil connections were "at best a tertiary consideration."
"Zalmay simply doesn't have that kind of rank," he said. The stronger argument for his friend's appointment, Dekmejian said, was that "he has connections with people in power now in government, he ideologically fits with that group."
Gouttierre said Khalilzad is simply the man best-suited for the job. "People generally recognize him for his knowledge of Afghanistan," he said, "but throughout his political career he has always focused in a sense on Iraq."
Khalilzad's appointment to be the White House's Iraq envoy "is not in any way a surprise," Gouttierre said.