Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s Role in Stabilizing Afghanistan: Challenges & Prospects
By Dr. Nivedita Das Kundu
The Regional mechanism which is expected to provide better solutions to the emerging new security and politico-economic challenges are underway to advance and serious efforts have been made for making such mechanism a successful one. While most of the discourse on regionalism acknowledges the relevance and utility of such Institution, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) one such mechanism is in place. SCO is an inter-governmental international organization founded in Shanghai on 15 June 2001, by six countries, China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. SCO is focused on fighting the Trinitarian evils of terrorism, extremism, and separatism on the one hand and on creating a web of regional prosperity on the other. India, Mongolia, Iran, Pakistan (all observer states) have expressed their strong desire to become full members of the organization. India and Pakistan are considered as the favorites for getting full membership of SCO by 2014. It is expected that Afghanistan will soon get the status of observer from the dialogue partner so that they can play more active role in the organization (other SCO dialogue partners are Sri Lanka and Belarus). Most of the SCO member/observer states shares common border with Afghanistan; Afghanistan’s significance for three Central Asian SCO states Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan is immense as apart from sharing borders. They share very close historical and cultural ties with the people of Afghanistan. The people of Northern Afghanistan are essentially of the same ethnic stock as Central Asian Uzbeks, Tajiks and Turkmen. Thus, the ethnic, social, cultural and political relationships between them are deep-rooted. Consequently the two decade of crisis in Afghanistan had its repercussions on these countries too. During the Soviet period, Central Asia bore a heavy burden of causalities from the war in Afghanistan. In the more recent years, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) was provided bases, training and access to the arms market by the Taliban. The IMU, with Taliban support carried out incursions into Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Further, refuges from the Afghan civil war in Tajikistan were influenced by developments in Afghanistan. Also, much of Afghanistan’s drug production flows to Europe through Central Asia. All these factors make SCO to intervene into Afghanistan for maintaining peace and stability in the region. Moreover, when North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces leaves Afghanistan by the year 2014, Afghanistan will not yet be ready to fully assume responsibility for its own security. Security forces will continue to need to be trained and equipped; infrastructure projects designed to improve the quality of life and integrate Afghanistan better so that this country could play its role as the hub between Central and South Asia will need to be protected further.
There is, of course, no denying that for India being observer state of SCO and soon going to become full member can contribute a lot for stabilizing Afghanistan along with other SCO states as stability in Afghanistan is of immense importance. India has been maintaining bilateral relations with Afghanistan for many years now. These ties go back to the Vedic times. India’s has contributed in a major way for the reconstruction of Afghanistan but its activities have been hampered due to the deteriorating security situation within Afghanistan and constant efforts of extremist groups to sabotage India’s reconstruction work. However, India's economic cooperation programmes have been very successful and have won enormous goodwill among Afghans. But India will have to develop and deepen contacts with all sections in Afghanistan. New Delhi has emphasized the importance of the regional cooperation because this can help in addressing trans-border issues, developing commercial and economic opportunity and ending cross-border infiltration and terrorism and India believes this can be done by SCO.
Moreover, SCO might be amenable to the idea of a co-security partnership with NATO. This is because SCO unlike NATO or Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) lacks the identity of a military bloc, till date SCO did not plan for any military involvement in Afghanistan, but now this could begin with the security concerns related to drugs trafficking and arms smuggling. In this regard, the organization would like to work together with the regional powers in fighting the Common cause of combating terrorism and stabilizing the situation in Afghanistan.
Common approaches to combat terrorism and normalize the situation in Afghanistan have become the basis for SCO’s broader cooperation with NATO. The trend towards cooperation between the Western powers and the SCO on the Afghan issue increased after Barack Obama came to power in Washington. SCO is now ready to cooperate with the west on Afghan issue. This convergence of positions led to the consultations that took place between NATO and the SCO on Afghanistan. Initially, a special conference on Afghanistan was held in Moscow on March 27, 2009 under the SCO’s aegis where NATO countries also participated. The conference resulted in a ‘SCO-Afghanistan Action Plan’ that called for closer SCO involvement in Afghanistan and wide collaboration in fighting terrorism and drug trafficking in the region. As mentioned earlier, SCO members and observers surround Afghanistan hence the action plan appears to be a roadmap to eventually draw Afghanistan into the SCO fold. The United States and the SCO already began to look forward for ways for cooperation on working together to ensure a transition from a NATO-led operation in Afghanistan to one where the regional countries take the lead.
SCO is now fully ready to take the challenge in Afghanistan. SCO’s contribution in stabilizing Afghanistan will be particularly valuable because some of its member & observer states carry a great deal of weight with individual Afghan ethnic groups specifically countries like Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Iran, Pakistan and India, these influential external/regional players could motivate certain groups inside Afghanistan to join internal conflict resolution talks. The changed attitude of Russia and the Central Asian regimes created a situation, which provided an opportunity for SCO for a new geopolitical role in the region.The members and observers of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, both in an individual as well as a collective capacity can address the Afghans concerns as all SCO members and observers – Russia, China, the Central Asian states, India and Pakistan – have vested interests on stabilizing Afghanistan. Hence, it is possible that the SCO will assume responsibility on the issues related to the stabilization of Afghanistan even after the withdrawal of coalition forces in 2014. However, there is a need to see weather US-Russia reset relationship is going to be more of a confrontation or cooperation. Though Russia and the U.S. can benefit if they work together in Afghanistan to address their national interests, however, the question will remain that will they be involved in a zero-sum game, a win-lose game, or a win-win game. There is a need to look into the Russia-US and the NATO-SCO relations which will determine the future developments of the region. Nonetheless, it can be expected that better coordination between SCO-NATO and the West can ensure peace & security in Afghanistan as well as in the whole region. At the same time, despite limitations and constrains, the SCO will continue to play a significant role in the region as the two leading countries in the organisation, i.e. Russia and China will intend to use SCO to maintain stability as well as retain their influence in the region.
Dr. Nivedita Das Kundu is a Foreign Policy Analyst currently working with Indian Council for Social Science Research.