The recent annual summit of Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) held in Bishkek made the ceremonial reference to prevailing situation in Afghanistan in its declaration. It emphasised that Afghan issue can be resolved only through political dialogue and inclusive peace process. Afghan problem has a significant impact on SCO members; however, SCO has a limited role to play in Afghanistan.
The stability and security of Afghanistan has linkages with the SCO states as it shares borders with four SCO members (Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan and China) and one observer state (Iran). China alleges that more than thousand Uighur separatists have been trained in Afghanistan. The political instability and radicalisation in Afghanistan has spill over effects on the Central Asian Republics which was evident during the Tajikistan civil war.
Afghanistan is world’s largest poppy producer that finds users in Central Asia and is also transported to end-use markets in Russia and Europe through Central Asia. Afghan drugs are also illegally sent to China. The Central Asian region is the soft underbelly of Russia and any destabilisation and radicalisation of the region will pose a security threat to Russia itself.
To increase mutual cooperation between the SCO and Afghanistan, a protocol on establishment of an SCO-Afghanistan contact group was adopted by the SCO in Astana in 2005. Afghanistan has been attending the SCO’s annual summits since 2005, whenever it has been invited to do so by the SCO.
The potential has always been there for SCO to help Afghanistan in its reconstruction and rebuilding. Still, it is unlikely to be actively involved in the country. Some agreements and interactions have taken place between the two sides in the past, but nothing concrete has emerged till now. Different SCO members have been providing economic and security assistance to Afghanistan at bilateral level but the SCO has not shown any collective effort to do so.
Probably, the only direct action the SCO has shown regarding Afghanistan till now came in 2012 when the country was given an observer status in the organisation. The activities of different SCO members in Afghanistan do not reflect any coordination between them which shows a comprehensive and wider lack of mutual understanding regarding the regional problem.
Prominent SCO members give more importance to bilateral than multilateral engagement with Afghanistan, thus, limiting the role of SCO. China has been having a bilateral dialogue with Taliban and Russia has its own mechanism, Moscow format consultations to discuss the Afghan issue. India so far has no direct link with Taliban and has invested around USD 3 billion in Afghanistan’s reconstruction. All these efforts have nothing to do with SCO.
The Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG), consisting of the US, China, Afghanistan and Pakistan looks dead now as the US President Donald Trump has appointed Zalmay Khalilzad as the Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation. He is directly involved in talks with the Taliban outside the QCG format. Since Russia was not a part of QCG, it could have been one of the main reasons why it started the Moscow format so that its interests are not totally overlooked in Afghanistan.
Another factor is Russian mistrust of China’s dominance in the SCO which is why the organisation is unlikely to play an active role in Afghanistan. Since Russia deals with the Central Asian security issues through the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), it is unlikely that Russia will let the SCO play a role in Afghanistan more high profile than the CSTO. If in a worst case scenario, instability in Afghanistan spins out of control and affects the Central Asian states, the CSTO troops—instead of the SCO—would be used to secure the Central Asian borders with Russia contributing maximum troops. This model has already been used during the Tajik civil war in 1992-97.
Moreover, the CSTO has a Collective Rapid Reaction Force at its disposal that can be used for emergency deployment. The SCO does not have any such force. Russia had cleared its stand in 2014, when it said that there was no role for the SCO in Afghanistan after the US-NATO withdrawal. Lastly, the SCO lacks institutional mechanisms and financial capacity to increase its role in Afghanistan. Despite making noise about drug trafficking from Afghanistan and its security linkages for the Central Asian states, the SCO has not given any financial or other assistance to Afghanistan to tackle this problem.
The US-NATO presence in Afghanistan is the main driver of Afghan policies and SCO has no means to compete with them. However, SCO has some benefits to offer to Afghanistan. It provides Afghanistan a forum where it can cement its relations with other regional powers. It creates a channel of communication and cooperation where mutual interests can be harmonised. The SCO could also facilitate Afghan re-integration into the regional economy which is very important for long-term development of the country. There is need to harmonise US-NATO and SCO activities in Afghanistan for better future of Afghans.
Dr Raj Kumar Sharma is an Academic Associate at faculty of Political Science, Indira Gandhi National Open University, New Delhi.