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SCO and Afghanistan

  Oct 09, 2021

SCO and Afghanistan

Q Why is it in News ?

A On the face of it, the summit meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, is well placed to lead the stabilization of Afghanistan after the American retreat.

Q What are some key details about SCO ? 

  • After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the then security and economic architecture in the Eurasian region dissolved and new structures had to come up.
  • The original Shanghai Five were China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan.
  • The SCO was formed in 2001, with Uzbekistan included. It expanded in 2017 to include India and Pakistan.
  • Since its formation, the SCO has focused on regional non-traditional security, with counter-terrorism as a priority.
  • The fight against the “three evils” of terrorism, separatism and extremism has become its mantra. Today, areas of cooperation include themes such as economics and culture.

Q How is Afghanistan and SCO related ?

A Afghanistan and SCO

  • Afghanistan has been engaged with the SCO for over 15 years.
  • In 2012, Afghanistan became an observer in the SCO when then-Afghan president Hamid Karzai visited China.
  • In 2015, Kabul applied for full membership in the group.
  • Kabul sought to be a member of the SCO as it believes that it is a natural candidate.
  • Geographically, Afghanistan is a part of the SCO region.

Q How can SCO play role in Afghanistan ? 

The crisis in Afghanistan presents a major opportunity for the SCO to realize its regional ambitions.

  • Involvement of regional superpowers: The SCO’s importance for Afghanistan seems self-evident when you look at its sponsors and members. Its founding leaders are the two great powers of the east  Russia and China.
  • Neighbourhood are members: Its other initial members were Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan to the north and northeast of Afghanistan.
  • Observers vested interest: Besides Afghanistan, Iran, Belarus and Mongolia are observers. Iran is said to be on track for full membership.
  • Many dialogue partners: The SCO has a number of “dialogue partners”. They include Armenia and Azerbaijan from the neighbouring Caucasus region and Turkey a step further to the West. Nepal and Sri Lanka from the subcontinent and Cambodia from southeast Asia are also dialogue partners.

Q What are issues associated with SCO  ?

  • China centrism: For an organization that bears the name of Shanghai, but is focused on Central Asia, its associates look disparate.
  • Lack of coherence: The Central Asian members of the SCO have quarrels of their own, and have struggled to develop collective approaches to their common regional security challenges.
  • Dint go beyond dialogues: As it broadened its membership, the SCO has, unsurprisingly, struggled to deepen institutional cooperation.
  • Not comprehensive: There is also one important country missing in the mix. It is Turkmenistan, which shares an 800 km border with Afghanistan and a 1,150 km border with Iran.
  • Neutrality of members: The organizing principle of Turkmenistan rulers is absolute “neutrality” — think of it as an extreme form of “non-alignment”. It refuses to join any regional institution, political or military.
  • Individual interests: Russia’s effort to build a regional institution in its Central Asian periphery ran parallel to its plans for the so-called “strategic triangle” with China and India. India and Pakistan, needless to say, are poles apart on the Taliban.
  • No common interest in Afghan Peace
  • The US military retreat from Afghanistan has brought cheer to both Moscow and Beijing, although publicly they criticize President Joe Biden’s hasty retreat.
  • The US retreat might weaken the glue that binds Moscow and Beijing in Central Asia or tightens it.
  • Although Russia and China are closer to each other than ever before, their interests are not entirely the same in Central Asia.

Q What can the SCO do now?

  • The Afghanistan debacle presents an opportunity for the SCO to play a constructive role in meeting the region’s burgeoning security challenge.
  • Providing humanitarian relief, tending to refugees, facilitating an inclusive dialogue and national reconciliation constitute immediate and long-term goals in which the organization can fill a role.
  • The SCO can also pressure the Taliban to share power with other domestic actors and refrain from providing sanctuary to foreign terror organizations (through foreign funds from Saudi*).
  • It can suspend Afghanistan’s observer status, curtail border traffic or withhold recognition, investments, and aid, should Kabul be found wanting.

Q What can be Way forward ?

  • While the SCO is not an impressive regional institution, it remains an important diplomatic forum.
  • India has sought to make full use of the SCO’s diplomatic possibilities without any illusions about its effectiveness.
  • At the SCO summit this week, PM Modi would remind other leaders of the “three evils” that the SCO set out to defeat — terrorism, extremism, and separatism.
  • Few would disagree that the Taliban embodied all the three sins in the past. Today, the Taliban and its mentor Pakistan say the sinner wants to become a saint.
  • India must focus on finding common ground with those members of the SCO who do share India’s concerns about Afghanistan.
  • Given this divergence, it is unlikely that the SCO can come up with a “regional solution” for the Afghan crisis.
  • The only real Afghan convergence today is between Pakistan and China.
  • Expect them to try and nudge the SCO towards a positive engagement with the Taliban.