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.