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Reading the Tea Leaves III -Afghan Elections and ‘The Butterfly Effect’

Lt Gen GS Katoch, PVSM, AVSM, VSM (Retd) writes the initial US euphoria over the Afghan peace talks seems to be transitioning into wary pessimism. The US and the Afghan Taliban may appear to be talking but certain issues are very vexing

The initial US euphoria over the Afghan peace talks seems to be transitioning into wary pessimism. The US and the Afghan Taliban may appear to be talking but certain issues are very vexing. The most contentious one is where do the talks leave the National Unity Government (NUG), those who have put themselves at risk in advocating democracy in Afghanistan or those sections of society (elite and women) who would be loath to lose the enlightened privileges they have got used to in the past 18 years.

The Americans are looking for an exit from the war which becomes important as the US Presidential elections of Nov 2020 get closer. A Vietnam like ignominious evacuation from Afghanistan will not bode well for Trump and the Republicans. On the other hand, not withdrawing will also be a failure of Trump to deliver on his 2016 promise to the American people to exit from Afghanistan. A US Withdrawal is what the Taliban want, for them that is not only a ‘notion of victory’— it is victory.  The US knows that unless an enforceable treaty is agreed upon, the conflict in Afghanistan will continue, in the manner it continued after the Soviet withdrawal. However, there will be a difference, the Russians are flexing muscle; they have done that successfully in Syria; they will be on someone’s side—and it is likely they will side the winning side.

Pakistan on the other hand may yet again be saddled with an abandoned war whose complexity it cannot solve on its own. Will it be able to get the Chinese in?  Would Iran support the Afghan Taliban? With the US reapplying pressure on Iran and in view of the Iranian’s seeing the Taliban as a lesser evil than the Islamic State or Al Qaeda— which are attempting to gain space in Afghanistan— Iran should support the Taliban. More so because a US exit makes then secure on their Eastern flank.

Pakistan had brought upon itself prolonged unrest and internal strife because of its support to the US. For long the US has supported Pakistan militarily and economically as Pakistan was its frontline , first in the Cold War with the USSR, and later the war on terror.  Now with US strategic competition with China increasing it is unlikely that US will extend any support to Pakistan in case it exits Afghanistan. Some say that the US-Pakistan relationship was never strategic. As Touqir Hussain of Georgetown and Syracuse University says,in a strategic relationship, there is a larger conceptual framework embracing an enduring shared vision”. The irony is that there is no US-Pakistan shared vision. They cannot have a shared vision as Pakistan is firmly in the Chinese camp as long as it sees India as its most dangerous threat. This perception will not change for a long time.

To that extent it is in Pakistan’s interest that the US maintains a presence in Afghanistan which needs Pakistani support to maintain because that is the only dependency which will get it continuing— even if decreased US support. So, does Pakistan want to facilitate a US-Taliban agreement? If it does, then it may want the US presence in Afghanistan to be accepted by the Taliban. With these opposing dynamics peace in Afghanistan will remain elusive and the elections which have been postponed three times due to political uncertainty will remain hanging (presently delayed to 28 Sept 2019). The US-Iran antagonism which is fuelled by the Israel-Arab (Hezbollah) conflict exemplifies how interconnected is conflict in the world. In case one vital cog is made to move positively it can clear the log-jam, if negatively then it will fan further conflict. In what is a “Butterfly Effect” the elections in Afghanistan are impacted by the rockets fired from the Gaza strip by a Sunni led Hamas which is largely supported by the leader of the Shia world—Iran.

So what options does India have which has good relations with both Israel and Iran with respect to the Afghan future? In fact in this region it has reasonably good relations with everyone except Pakistan.

It should be the Monarch butterfly; create small wind eddies in the manner it is doing, and wait for them to transform into positive fair winds.

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One thought on “Reading the Tea Leaves III -Afghan Elections and ‘The Butterfly Effect’

  1. Vivek says:

    Beautiful articulation of Afghanistan conundrum.

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