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The SCO in Afghanistan

www.gatewayhouse.in | April 20, 2022

The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation has been focused on resolving the Afghan crisis. But divergent views of members and the influence of China and Pakistan have eluded a solution. This has been further impeded by the ongoing sanctions and humanitarian issues which are beyond the organisation's scope.

Despite the bleak picture of turmoil and instability emerging from Afghanistan since the 15th August 2021 withdrawal of the U.S., the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) has been almost unique in attracting bets on its ability to solve the Afghan crisis. However, faith in this regional, international alliance is misguided due to the organisation’s record in Afghanistan, irreconcilable differences among members, and its limited scope to solve any dimension of the conflict.   

A regional organisation, the SCO has been interested in Afghanistan since its inception in 2001, primarily because the country’s stability impacts its members, i.e. Pakistan, India, China, Russia, Iran, and the Central Asian Republics.   

The SCO’s mission to combat the “three evils of terrorism, separatism, and extremism” dovetailed with the goals of the Karzai and Ghani governments. Afghanistan was a base for terror groups, so the SCO set up an “SCO- Afghanistan Contact Group” in 2005 to cooperate on counterterrorism, drug trafficking, and organised crime. As violence escalated in the region, and U.S. influence grew after its invasion, the Contact Group was rendered irrelevant, and disbanded in 2009.  

Afghanistan was granted observer status at the SCO when President Hamid Karzai visited China in 2012, and signed an SCO protocol on counter-terrorism in 2015. In 2018, Afghanistan officially reaffirmed its commitment to the fight against terrorism, extremism, drug trafficking, and to economic cooperation.  The Afghan Contact Group was revived in 2017, holding annual meetings until one month  before the Taliban takeover. 

Although Afghanistan was engaged with the SCO, key SCO member states opened bilateral relations with the Taliban because of its growing strength, and because of members’ internal differences Pakistan has maintained close links with the Taliban for decades. China hosted the Taliban in 2019 and 2021, the same year as Russia did. 

Clearly the SCO member states’ divergent interests in Afghanistan make multilateral cooperation difficult. This was evident at the SCO’s July 2021 meeting on Afghanistan that not only failed to produce a plan of action but was unable to name the country1 as member states could not agree on a common language to describe the Taliban takeover.    

Russia continues to view Afghanistan and Central Asia through the prism of its Soviet past. Seeing itself as the primary provider of security it likely prefers the Central Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) to the SCO. Russia can hardly be expected to concede territory and influence to China’s growing ambitions in Central Asia. While it is interested in India playing a bigger role to balance China, that is at odds with Pakistan’s views and China’s desire to isolate India from Afghanistan. Since Russia, China, India, and Pakistan do not see eye to eye on Afghanistan, it is unlikely that the SCO will come up with a regional solution to the Afghan conflict. 

Integrating Afghanistan into its Belt and Road Initiative would allow China to fill the economic and political power vacuum left by the US withdrawal. But it wants the Taliban to agree not to harbour Uyghur and other anti-China groups.   

Uzbekistan has engaged with the Taliban because many Uzbeks live in Afghanistan, though persecuted. Turkmenistan is neutral, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan sit on the fence. Tajikistan supports the pre-Taliban government and hosts Afghan refugees and politicians, including former president Ghani.  

India and Pakistan’s differences regarding Afghanistan could not be greater. India was the last regional stakeholder to establish contact with the Taliban, while Pakistan has amicable ties and influence with the previous and current Taliban regime.  The Taliban takeover is a blow for India, as it has invested over $3 billion and provided about $750 million in aid since 2001. India’s loss of influence is perceived as Pakistan’s gain of “strategic depth.” By refusing to participate in National Security Advisor level talks hosted by India, and by excluding India from the special meeting of the Organisation of Islamic Countries on Afghanistan it hosted in December 2021, Pakistan seeks to further isolate India. It is unlikely that the two countries can find common ground within the SCO.   

Some of Afghanistan’s most pressing problems are beyond the scope of the organisation. Recognition, sanctions, and humanitarian aid fall within the purview of the UN and are complicated by the Taliban’s prohibition on girls over grade six from attending school. 

No state has officially recognised the Taliban. Most Western countries have expressed their disapproval of the ban on girls’ education. The U.S. cancelled talks with the Taliban at the recent Doha Forum. India remains committed to not recognising the regime. Only Pakistan- and, to some extent, China- are open to recognising Taliban rule. The Chinese foreign minister’s trip to Afghanistan a day after the school ban indicates Chinese willingness to normalise relations. By accrediting a Taliban diplomat in Moscow, Russia gave a nod to increased economic ties with Afghanistan.   

Russia, China, Uzbekistan, and Pakistan supported unfreezing Afghan assets and allowing the Taliban access to Afghan resources. The World Bank suspended four projects after the ban on girls’ education. The Biden administration ordered the allocation of half of the Central Bank of Afghanistan’s $7 billion to a trust fund for Afghanistan, and the other half to families of the victims of 9/11. Acute shortage of cash has brought the Afghan economy to the brink of collapse.  

The threat of starvation looms for 95% of Afghans. The SCO’s response to the humanitarian crisis has been lukewarm and country specific. India has sent medical aid and shipments of wheat in cooperation with the World Food Programme. As of now, $2.4 billion has been raised, short of the $4.4 billion requested by the UN.  

The Taliban regime has reneged on its commitments to establish a representative and inclusive government. Restrictions on women’s freedom and human rights have jeopardised recognition, humanitarian aid, and access to frozen assets.  Beset by member disagreements, the SCO’s role in a key part of the world is now limited.

-Prof. Kasturi Chatterjee, Assistant Professor of International Studies.

(Source: https://www.gatewayhouse.in/the-sco-in-afghanistan/)