Afghanistan’s centrality to the SCO

Updated on Sep 12, 2022 01:30 PM IST

The article has been authored by Soumya Awasthi , a PhD scholar, diplomacy and disarmament programme, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University and associate fellow, Vivekananda International Foundation.

SCO has deliberated over the Afghanistan situation even before the Taliban's return was prophesied. Keeping in mind the significance of Afghanistan, SCO set up a Contact Group (ACG) in 2005 to collaborate and coordinate on issues of mutual interests.
SCO has deliberated over the Afghanistan situation even before the Taliban's return was prophesied. Keeping in mind the significance of Afghanistan, SCO set up a Contact Group (ACG) in 2005 to collaborate and coordinate on issues of mutual interests.
ByHindustan Times

Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) was formed on the pretext of the Afghan civil war in response to direct threats of terrorism and drug trafficking in the late 1990s in Afghanistan. The SCO idea was born from a joint effort for a regional coalition to combat these threats. All the previous Afghan government's fight against terrorism, extremism, and opium cultivation was tuned to the SCO's objective to fight the ‘three evils,’ which formed the base for its formation in 2001. SCO was concerned about the threat emanating from the terror groups like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), and Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HUT) endeavoured to topple the Central Asian governments and create Muslim caliphates in the region.

However, in the current undergoing, Afghanistan is not a permanent member and carries the status of an observer State, along with Belarus, Mongolia and Iran, which should be promoted to full membership in the upcoming SCO Summit from 15th -16th September this year. At the same time, Pakistan and India gained full membership in July 2017.

SCO has deliberated over the Afghanistan situation even before the Taliban's return was prophesied. Keeping in mind the significance of Afghanistan, SCO set up a Contact Group (ACG) in 2005 to collaborate and coordinate on issues of mutual interests. However, in 2009 ACG was suspended due to a rise in violence in West Asia with Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. The SCO's focus has always been on ensuring regional security and stability, for which, in 2002, Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS) was established in Tashkent. Amidst all the efforts toward regional stability, Afghanistan never showed any enthusiasm for joining the Eurasian group, probably because it was preoccupied with the United States (US) presence. In 2015, Afghanistan signed the SCO-RATS to combat terrorism; the same year, Kabul applied for full membership in the group. By 2016, Afghanistan became more active in the regional grouping, given regional geographic proximity to South Asia and Central Asia. In 2018, Afghanistan signed a protocol for discussions on "political matters and to counter terrorism, extremism and illicit drug trafficking and the regional economic cooperation processes."

With the security challenges swinging back from West Asia to Afghanistan, post the US withdrawal, the SCO is geared up to deal with the Afghan conundrum and its spillover effect on the member states. The SCO members must consider Afghanistan's full membership in the group for five drivers.

First the geographic factor--Afghanistan is a part of the SCO region. It is a direct neighbour to four SCO members– China, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan – and has close historical and economic relations with the other four: Russia (a former Afghan neighbour in the Soviet era), India, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan. Although Afghanistan does not have direct borders with the latter four countries, they are still considered "close neighbours" in Afghan foreign policy. Afghanistan has ethnic associations with the SCO region. Almost 30 ethnic groups out of 150 ethnic groups from SCO member states reside in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is a melting pot of ethnicities represented in SCO member states. Hence, Afghanistan's membership will have a multiplier effect on the SCO region, resulting in a more culturally and ethnically connected region.

Second, the diplomatic factor--Afghanistan has had bilateral ties with the SCO members for decades, including Pakistan and India. During the recent foreign ministerial meetings, India proposed a more significant role for the Chabahar port to increase regional connectivity. The Chabahar Port is considered the gateway for trade between India, Iran and Afghanistan with the Central Asian countries. The Chabahar Port is considered not just a beneficiary for the three partner countries but also, in future, if the port is connected with the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC), it can open the vast Central Asian and European markets. It will give impetus to the INSTC and counter the Chinese presence in the region. Therefore, any security challenges will directly impact South and Central Asia trade. Hence, Afghanistan has become a vital player in the transport corridor for trade.

Third, the Pakistan factor--it is suspected that it is playing a strategic game against Afghanistan. There is an agreement in Kabul that Pakistan must cooperate regionally to end the protracted conflict. In that regard, Afghanistan's inclusion will aid in fostering regional agreement, urge Islamabad to assist in containing domestic terrorism and discourage the natural connection between organisations like the TTP and the Taliban or the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

Fourth, the Russia-China factor--The SCO heavyweights, China and Russia, nevertheless have a stake in the events in Kabul. Thus regional agendas for Afghanistan are likely to continue. Moscow is concerned about two things: the potential relocation of US troops to Afghanistan's neighbouring countries, which may weaken the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in Central Asia, and the embodiment effect that a Taliban victory on the battlefield would have on its historically volatile Muslim regions.

Beijing is apprehensive that the resurgence of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), an extreme organisation made up of ethnic Uyghurs, will be used by religious militancy in Afghanistan to spark a domestic Islamist insurgency. It might have an unfavourable impact on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which aims to construct a network of overland roads, train lines, pipelines for oil and gas, and other infrastructure projects from West China through Central Asia to Europe.

The SCO's members have Muslim citizens, including China and Russia, who have sizeable Muslim populations. This aspect offers the SCO member states more weight when trying to convince the Afghan government to adopt contemporary practices to advance the country's social, political, and economic conditions.

Fifth, the extremism factor--Whether pursuing the economic cooperation and regional connectivity envisioned in the SCO Charter has mainly been in line with the aspirations of all the Afghan governments in the past. Afghanistan's security and economic engagement with the SCO region will most likely improve with full membership. Both sides are working for the same goal: a region connected by greater connection and free from terrorism, extremism, and drug trafficking.

Sixth, the multi-alignment neutrality factor--seeking membership in the SCO, which counts China and Russia as members, is also in line with the Taliban government's foreign policy of neutrality in the domestic issues of the member states. This new shift in Afghan foreign policy came after the US withdrew from the country. The Taliban government wants to build its ties with regional countries to gain legitimacy to function as a legal government– not necessarily through a military presence but through enhanced military, security, diplomacy, and economic assistance.

Therefore, it becomes imperative for the Beijing-led SCO grouping to consider Afghanistan's full membership. Afghanistan's membership will support the grouping in achieving the objectives and boost regional integration and connectivity. It is assessed that the Taliban have not cut ties with al-Qaeda yet, despite pledging to do so in their dealings with the US. During negotiations with the US, the Taliban regularly consulted with al-Qaeda and offered guarantees that it would honour their historical ties."

The Taliban's ascension to power in Afghanistan and its consequent implications for the region and the world began to dominate the summit. If the Taliban administration does not abide by international standards and the 2020 Doha peace accord, all SCO members will face significant security concerns. As a result, South-Central Asian economic linkage, trade, and transit may be hampered, and the socioeconomic development of Afghanistan may be jeopardised. Investments in regional projects like the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan Power Interconnection Project, the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan Gas Pipeline, and the Central Asia-South Asia Electricity Transmission Project are all dependent on peace and security in Afghanistan.

The immediate victims will be Iran, the Central Asian Republics (CARs), Pakistan, and the Chinese province of Xinjiang, while security and terrorist issues will affect India and Russia. The SCO will not recognise the Taliban government in Afghanistan but will establish contact with its leaders, and Amir Khan Muttaqi will meet the delegation in Samarkand. In continuation to the deliberation over recognising the Taliban, in May 2022, India organised SCO's RAT, where the situation in Afghanistan was discussed, and a multilateral approach was adopted.

Although the troop withdrawal from Afghanistan may have been a strategic failure, it won't have much of an impact on NATO countries' security but almost certainly will have a significant impact on Afghanistan's neighbours. The actions of any SCO member might turn the situation into regional security and geopolitical problem. Al-Qaeda and the ISKP have regrouped and resumed their terrorist attacks in Afghanistan using suicide bombers. The resurrected Taliban will rekindle aggressive attitudes, radicalisation, and aberrant behaviour among the people of the neighbouring nations, compromising regional security. The SCO nations must review their different policies and objectives in the interest of regional peace and prosperity and cooperate through a common framework to deal with the Taliban. The best way to solve the problems arising from the Afghan scenario, particularly a resurgence of terrorist and extremist activity, is through multilateral collaboration under the SCO. Therefore, considering these factors and drivers, it becomes evident that Afghanistan is crucial for the SCO.

The article has been authored by Soumya Awasthi , a PhD scholar, diplomacy and disarmament programme, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University and associate fellow, Vivekananda International Foundation.

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