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The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and Afghanistan

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  • May 29, 2009
    Fellows' Seminar
    Only by Invitation
    1030 to 1300 hrs

    Chair: ?K Raghunath
    Discussants: Divyabh Manchanda, Arun Sahgal and Arun Mohanty

    The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) represents a major development in the strategic landscape of the Central Asian region. The inclusion of India, Iran and Pakistan as observer states in the SCO mechanism suggests that it is gradually expanding into the wider South Asian region. In the next SCO summit meeting in Russia it is expected that Sri Lanka and Belarus will become dialogue partners of the SCO.

    The changed attitude of the Central Asian regimes created a situation, which provided an opportunity to the SCO for a new geopolitical role. In July 2005 (during Astana Summit) the SCO member states called the US to set a deadline for withdrawing its military presence in the region. As a result, the US had to close down its air base in Uzbekistan in November 2005. In June 2006, the SCO summit took place against the backdrop of the crisis over Iran’s nuclear programme and both Iran and Pakistan sought full membership in the organisation. The Bishkek Summit in 2007 was important, where leaders from China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan pledged to work more closely to develop energy resources and boost security efforts within the SCO framework. The Dushanbe summit in 2008 was held against the backdrop of Georgian crisis and speculations about the start of a ‘new cold war’ between Russia and the US.

    Afghanistan has always drawn special attention during the SCO summit meetings. The SCO Secretary – General Bolat Nurgaliev pointed out that cooperation among the member states should not only cover economy and trade but also anti-terrorism and other fields. The SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group was formed in November 2005 for the purpose of building cooperation between the SCO and Afghanistan on issues of mutual interest. The special conference on Afghanistan under the auspices of the SCO to discuss the issues of joint counteraction against terrorism, illegal circulation of narcotics and organized crime was proposed by the member states.

    Iran, which has an observer status and has been seeking full membership in the SCO has major interest in Afghanistan. Tehran views outside powers to be the cause of problems. Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi argued that Pakistan has a central role in facilitating the stabilization process in Afghanistan and was committed to provide all needed help to reconstruct Afghanistan.

    It can be evaluated that the SCO as an organisation will focus its activities mainly on problems of terrorism and narcotic control. At the same time, Afghanistan directly influences security of the Central Asian states. Experts believe that hopefully the Obama administration with their newly declared desire of “engagement” would be more receptive in coordinating their efforts with the SCO or at least with member countries on a bilateral basis. Hopefully, there will be a stabilization program jointly developed and implemented by Afghanistan and Dialogue member countries.

    The current situation in Afghanistan is worrisome for India. Regional countries have greater stakes in Afghanistan because of their vested security interests. Today, India’s strong economy has the potential to contribute to the reconstruction of Afghanistan. It has contributed in a major way in the past few years but its activities have been hampered due to the deteriorating security situation within Afghanistan and constant efforts of extremist groups backed by Pakistan to sabotage India’s reconstruction work. New Delhi has emphasized the importance of regional cooperation because this can help in addressing trans-border issues, developing commercial and economic opportunity and ending cross-border infiltration and terrorism. India has contributed to the reconstruction process in Afghanistan at the bilateral level. Under the SCO mechanism India remains an observer state and thus doesn’t wield the same influence as Russia or China.

    With the SCO’s increasing influence in the past five years within the Eurasian region, it is likely to play an important role in the future as well. The SCO’s geographical proximity to Afghanistan particularly, with the Central Asian countries, will necessitate that neighboring countries engage Afghanistan bilaterally as well as through the SCO in specific areas like controlling drugs and terrorism. However, the Russia –US and Russia-NATO and the US-Iran relations will determine future developments of the SCO.

    Points in the Discussion:

    The main focus of SCO in Afghanistan is in three areas: counter terrorism, drug trafficking and provision of infrastructure to rebuild Afghanistan.

    SCO is used as a tool by big member states to maintain their geo-political status.

    China is worried about the influence of other member states in the region particularly in the area of energy.

    China and Russia do not want to accept the American presence in the Central Asian region because both countries have great influence and they are not ready to curtail their influence in the region.

    At the bilateral level Russia and the Central Asian Republics try to engage more with Afghanistan.

    SCO is focusing regional countries such as India, Iran and Pakistan to engage more on Afghanistan issues.

    Russian believes that America is not keen to resolve Afghan issues swiftly because America and NATO have military bases only in Afghanistan to protect their interest in the South Asian region.

    The SCO is a China dominated organisation. Moreover, China may try to limit and balance India’s influence by supporting Pakistan.

    India needs to take a collective approach to resolve Afghanistan’s problem, because India is also observer state of the SCO.

    Peace and stability in Afghanistan is a crucial issue for India, and India must be taken seriously.

    Need to examine China’s dominance in the region and is really protecting its interest in CARs through SCO.

    Need to examine if the SCO is really formed to counter NATO.

    Why SCO did not offer Afghanistan observer status?

    Prepared by M. Mahtab Alam Rizvi, Research Assistant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.