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Reading The Tea Leaves V: Negated Negotiations & Emollient Elections

Lt Gen Ghanshyam Singh Katoch (Retd) Writes: At 3.51 PM on 07 Sep 2019 President Donald Trump tweeted the until then secret information, of an impending talks with the Taliban at Camp David scheduled for 08 Sep i.e. the next day. He also informed that they were now cancelled.The tweet was no surprise. What would have been surprising was if the talks had continued regardless of the suicide car-bomb attack at Kabul’s Green Zone on 05 Sep 2019 which killed one US and Romanian soldier each and 10 Afghan civilian

Lt Gen Ghanshyam Singh Katoch (Retd) Writes: At 3.51 PM on 07 Sep 2019 President Donald Trump tweeted the until then secret information, of an impending talks with the Taliban at Camp David scheduled for 08 Sep i.e. the next day. He also informed that they were now cancelled.

The tweet was no surprise. What would have been surprising was if the talks had continued regardless of the suicide car-bomb attack at Kabul’s Green Zone on 05 Sep 2019 which killed one US and Romanian soldier each and 10 Afghan civilians.

President Donald Trump’s campaign pledge of ending the war was the sole driver for the perseverant peace talks by the US President’s special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad which have been on for a year.

Campaign pledges are required to be honoured in case the next election is to be won. So far President Trump had been doggedly pursuing the talks because exit from Afghanistan was what the American people wanted. The brazen Taliban attack on the eve of the now publicised secret talks at Camp David which were to be attended by the top Taliban negotiators, and separately by the Afghan President, has put the talks on hold.

It was obvious that a withdrawal from Afghanistan on the terms of the Taliban, based on an agreement signed consequent to the killing of a US serviceman was going to be considered a craven act especially when in the past week as per a New York Times report, at least 179 pro-government forces and 110 civilians were killed in Afghanistan mostly in Taliban attacks, even as American and Taliban negotiators finalized the details of a preliminary peace agreement.

US casualty figures are reducing in Afghanistan. At the same time public memories are diverted by frequent attacks of white supremacists / deranged people within the US. These have killed many more people than the war casualties in Afghanistan. The 03 Aug El Paso, 04 August Dayton and 31 Aug Odessa/Midland shootings led to more people killed in the month of August 2019, than from  01 Jan to 05 Sept 2019 in Afghanistan (16 servicemen killed in Afghanistan versus 40 in these three shootings). Therefore, for now, public opinion appears to be against a humiliating deal with the Taliban. The deal may have a negative effect to the re-election prospects for President Trump.

The present situation throws out several open-ended questions, pondering upon which will give some shape to the patterns of the tea leaves we try to read to decipher the future in Afghanistan.

Firstly, will the September Afghan elections take place?  President Ashraf Ghani has insisted that the election must not be delayed. He seeks a second term and a stronger mandate to negotiate with the Taliban—who label him a puppet—on the country’s political future. President Ghani has rejected talk of an interim government, an idea that appears probable in many minds and which has led to many other presidential candidates not campaigning at all.

Secondly, can there be a Presidential candidate who can be acceptable to most Afghans—especially the Pastuns and Tajiks both. Without allaying the fears of the Tajiks, it is improbable that any US peace deal with the Taliban can bring peace to all of Afghanistan. A division of Afghanistan with a Tajik proto-state (like the Kurd proto-state in Iraq) would be very likely in case the Tajiks remain apprehensive.

Thirdly, are the Taliban really in control of the violence in Afghanistan? The attacks on 05 September in Kabul and also in Logar province (which wounded nine US Special Forces personnel) do appear incongruous if indeed a peace deal was imminent. As President Trump rightly summarised in his tweet, “If they cannot agree to a ceasefire during these very important peace talks, and would even kill 12 innocent people, then they probably don’t have the power to negotiate a meaningful agreement anyway.”

Fourthly, will prolonged US military presence force the US government to reluctantly keep Pakistan as their ally due to logistic reasons? What does such a scenario portend for India?

Tea leaf reading (Tasseography) is not the use of magic. It is more a way of connecting with your subconscious and chunking stored knowledge and information to make an informed intuitive forecast.

This tasseographer’s forecast is that there will be a hiatus in the peace talks during which there will be Afghan elections. We may see a candidate acceptable to all sides in the conflict becoming the President who can assuage the feelings of all factions including the Taliban—and then restart the peace talks. Ashraf Ghani being such a candidate appears unlikely. Can it be Abdullah Abdullah who may be more acceptable to both Pastun and Tajik and the United States? Or will it be Hanif Atmar or from among those who have been informally attending the conferences either in an individual capacity or nominated from the High Peace Council? Such leaders have sat on the fence and kept their links to the Taliban alive. The wild card may be Zalmay Khalilzad who would have built up a rapport with all parties through the long and arduous negotiations so far and has a deep understanding of the issues because of his present appointment and through his earlier tenure as the US ambassador in Kabul.

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