American diplomacy owes a considerable debt to the Perra family of Ceres, California. The Perras accepted a young Zal Khalilzad into their home as part of the American Field Service exchange programme; he promptly fell in love with America and so the scene was set for an extraordinary conjunction of individual destiny and history.
After an academic career at Chicago and Columbia, Khalilzad entered the musical chairs world of think tanks and successive Republican administrations, alternating between the two. Had events not intervened, he would probably have completed a worthy career of public service, but, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Afghan Americans serving in the Bush Administration were rare and Khalilzad never looked back.
American strategic sensibilities in 2001 were still dominated by the sophisticated calculus of the Cold War, and had little feel for the politics of the bazaar in Afghanistan and Iraq. But, as ambassador to both countries, Khalilzad was on home soil and probably uniquely among senior US officials at the time possessed an instinctive understanding of the culture of patronage on which the societies were based.
His account of all that followed is as sinuous as his diplomacy. His judgements are always vindicated in the long run, others make the big mistakes and he is even perceptive enough to talent spot a then unknown senator called Barack Obama. He goes some way to acknowledge his failure to deliver unified government in Afghanistan and to take on sectarianism in Iraq, but, beneath the self-justification shines an enduring love of America. His only regret is that he did not serve it better….