In reality, the SCO never sought to become an anti-American alliance. Not only would any such goal clash with the principles set out in its official founding documents, but it would also run counter to its members’ interests. They are keen to cooperate with the United States and the West in order to facilitate their own economic development.
There has been increasing talk recently in Europe and the United States about the possibility and even necessity of a dialogue between the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and NATO. The reason is simple. In the West, this new international body was first either ignored or given the cold shoulder. When George W. Bush and his entourage came to power, the existence of an international body closed to the West that had Russian and Chinese as its official languages, not English, was seen as undermining the Pax Americana.
In reality, the SCO never sought to become an anti-American alliance. Not only would any such goal clash with the principles set out in its official founding documents, but it would also run counter to its members’ interests. They are keen to cooperate with the United States and the West in order to facilitate their own economic development. This view is prevalent in Russia and China, as well as in Central Asian countries, which are displeased by their status as mere bargaining chips in disputes between major powers.
Common approaches to combating terrorism and normalizing the situation in Afghanistan could well become the basis for 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. While George W. Bush’s Republican administration ignored any outside advice and rejected any notion of cooperation with the SCO, Obama’s administration concluded that it needed anyone who wanted to be involved in resolving the Afghan problem. Both the SCO and NATO understand that the West’s failure in Afghanistan could turn out to be a grave, perhaps irreparable, blow to the entire system of international relations. The SCO countries all face terrorism and narco-trafficking threats from Afghanistan, and therefore have a vital stake in that country’s stabilization.
This convergence of positions led to the first consultations taking place between NATO and the SCO on the Afghan issue. Initially, a special conference on Afghanistan was held in Moscow on March 27, 2009 under the SCO’s aegis. The conference marked a major stage both in the organization’s development and in the evolution of the international community’s approach to regional issues. The list of those who participated testified both to its importance and to the SCO's role in the global community: as soon as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had finished his introductory address, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon took the floor. Other participants included OSCE General Secretary Marc Perrin de Brichambaut and Assistant Secretary General of NATO Martin Howard. The fact that the conference attracted such high profile attendees was an indication that the West now viewed the SCO as a serious and useful partner in Afghanistan.
Unfortunately, little was done to build on this success. Meanwhile, an increasing diversity of new formats have started emerging to deal with the Afghan issue. Uzbekistan has advanced the idea of a Six plus Three contact group: six of Afghanistan’s neighbors plus the United States, Russia and NATO, working under UN auspices. The Dushanbe Group of Four – Russia, Tajikistan, Pakistan and Afghanistan – has met twice. Turkmenistan, with its experience of mediation in the intra-Tajik dialogue, has come forward with a proposal to hold talks on an Afghan settlement in Ashgabat.
The only piece missing for a comprehensive discussion of the Afghan issue in the Six plus Three format is Afghanistan. Under Tashkent’s proposal, the current Kabul government is viewed as one of the parties in an internal conflict. As such, it must therefore be involved in intra-Afghan talks, not act as a contact group concerned with the external aspects of this issue. Therefore this format is unlikely to appeal to Afghanistan, and will probably have only limited appeal to the United States and NATO, who both support the current Afghan government. On the other hand, the Dushanbe format, which incorporates the Afghan government, is too narrow a medium for there to be a comprehensive discussion of such a complicated issue.
Meanwhile, the SCO has every opportunity of launching a peaceful intra-Afghan dialogue. The organization is fully qualified to take that challenge on. The SCO is particularly valuable here because some of its member-states and observer countries carry a great deal of weight with individual Afghan ethnic groups (specifically: Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Iran, Pakistan and India). These influential external players could motivate those groups inside Afghanistan to join internal conflict resolution talks. The SCO, whose members and observers include practically all Afghanistan’s neighbors, acting with UN authorization and involving the U.S., NATO as well as, conceivably, Turkmenistan, could create an effective mechanism for the resolution of the Afghan issue. Effectively, the Six plus Three format and the Dushanbe Group of Four could be combined, benefiting from the experience of the present regional organization.
On the other hand, NATO, while seeking the SCO’s assistance, should not forget that the SCO countries need to benefit from their cooperation with Brussels. At the moment, however, practically nothing is on offer to Russia, China or Central Asia, all of which are deeply concerned about the alliance’s geopolitical plans. Missile defense talks with Russia are making difficult headway. China views the increasing proximity of NATO bases to its borders solely as a geopolitical threat. Real cooperation cannot be a one-way street.