Abstract. World renowned English geographer and strategic thinker Mackinder defined ‘Central Asia’ as the heartland. The geo-politics, rise and fall of empires, alignment and re-alignment of world powers in more than a century has not changed this constant of history. Yet again in the evolving international environment with rise of China, resurgent Russia and American efforts to influence this region through its permanent presence in Afghanistan has proved the pivotal geographic positioning of Central Asians Republics (CARs). Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) is gradually emerging as a powerful bloc with numerous positive indicators having requisite potential to bring prosperity and strategic stability in the whole region. Post 9/11 US efforts to stabilize Afghanistan has so far failed and no prospects of sustainable peace in Afghanistan appears to be on the horizon. Can a regional approach under SCO contribute towards bringing peace in Afghanistan? This paper takes a deeper view of Afghanistan’s imbroglio and evaluates various dimensions of SCO, incorporating the geo-strategic construct of CARs and proposes certain options for resolving the Afghanistan conflict.
The research is primarily based on qualitative method. The paper argues that Afghanistan’s multi-dimensional challenges are ontologically real, having an impact on Central Asian Republics but there are varying degrees of epistemological interpretations. A realist ontology is therefore used to see, what actual capacity SCO has to shape the Afghanistan’s environment towards positivity. Epistemologically, the research focuses on the validity of existing knowledge related to Afghanistan in the given context. An interpretivist approach is therefore used to evaluate the power potential of Central Asian Republics to jointly address Afghan challenge. Qualitative method being open ended and less structured facilitates in developing a broad understanding of this deep rooted issue and gradually narrowed to develop a coherent view. As done in this paper, the research at the end focuses on working out of options for SCO to address Afghanistan imbroglio.
Idea of ‘responsibility of power’ is deeply embedded in Chinese political thought and has roots in Chinese traditions of statecraft . Chinese conception of maintaining a stable and secure international environment is considered vital for Chinese rise and peaceful development. Thus China’s involvement in the management of global affairs is in Chinese interest and also for international community. Professor Zhang Haibin, School of International Studies, Peking University asserts that, “Chinese conceptions of responsibility need to ‘know no limits and know no boundaries’. In the prevailing global / regional environment, the emerging challenges are transcending state borders. China has displayed its resolve as a responsible member of international community to make positive contributions to the peace and stability.
In the context of global governance, China has always believed in harmonious world. Zhao Tingyang of Chinese Academy of Social Sciences have coined the idea of ‘Tianxia System’. In the historical context, ‘Tianxia’ represents both the ‘world’ and ‘the greatest and highest form of order’. Zhao envisages the (re) inauguration of the Tianxia system as having at its core an ‘all-inclusive humanity’. By employing this concept in making sense of the world, Zhao concludes that ‘we will be able to take responsibility of the world as our own responsibility’.
In encapsulated form in the context of global governance and responsibility, China believes in maintaining world order and stability through common development, prosperity and the creation of ‘inclusive’ pluralist system of governance.
In 1996, Shanghai Five initiative was spearheaded by China with Russia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan as its founding members . Inconsistent foreign policy alignments of Central Asian Republics, growing instability, terrorism and separatist tendencies coupled with ungovernable Afghanistan having geographical linkages with China especially Xinjiang and Russian security and other interests can be identified as main drivers for the birth of Shanghai Five. Subsequently Shanghai Five germinated/blossomed as Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in 2001 with addition of Uzbekistan as its member . The underlying reasons were festering instability thriving further on US presence in Afghanistan and hedging against growing US politicomilitary influence in the region .
Combatting three evils namely; separatism, extremism and terrorism was adopted as an official manifesto of SCO with inter alia and linked objectives such as narco smuggling, poverty alleviation through regional connectivity and economic integration, tapping of immense hydro-carbon and hydrological resources. Subsequently, Mongolia was granted observer status in 2004 followed by similar status to Pakistan, India and Iran  in 2005. During the recently concluded Astana Summit 2017, India and Pakistan have been granted full membership of SCO . With the latest expansion, the full members of SCO has grown to eight whereas, Afghanistan, Iran, Belarus and Mongolia enjoy observer status. Five states including Turkey, Armenia, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Cambodia are dialogue partners of the organisation. With inclusion of new members, SCO’s aura, clout and capacity to grapple with regional and global complexities is expected to increase phenomenally being one of the most significant organisation on globe; representing more than Half of the global population,  4 x nuclear powers (including 2 x perm members of UNSC) and covering entire Central Asia effectively transcending into Asia Pacific, South Asia, Europe and Middle East. Nevertheless, this expansion is accompanied with a set of challenges grounded in irreconcilable divergences and strategic distrust amongst some of its key players. Nonetheless, a fair degree of consensus exists in line with the ‘Shanghai Spirit’  as the founding values of the SCO, featuring mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality, consultation, respect for cultural diversity and pursuit of common development.
The situation in Afghanistan has a varying degree of fallout invariably on all the SCO states. Hence SCO emerges as one of the principle stakeholder in peace, prosperity and stability of Afghanistan. During the SCO Summit of 2013 in Cholpon Ata, Kyrgyzstan, SCO leaders unanimously endorsed the inseparable linkage of peace and stability in Central Asia and South Asia with that of Afghanistan. Presence of multiple stakeholders, divergent interests of regional players and growing influence of Taliban and ISIS further complicates Afghan conundrum warranting a comprehensive and all-inclusive regional approach towards Afghan issue. SCO, due to its inherent organizational strength and regional approach, can play a meaningful role in facilitating a sustainable solution to Afghan Problem.
All the neighbours of Afghanistan, through SCO have a unique opportunity for deliberating the Afghan problem from a regional perspective. Alongside US unyielding efforts with dismal and uncertain geo-political outcomes; contributions of SCO towards peace and stability in Afghanistan too have not been appreciable so far. Afghanistan is yet far from being a politically or economically viable or a stable state. With eroding US / western commitment post drawdown and setting in of donor fatigue, the danger of ensuing chaos and return to anarchy looms large with wider ramifications for the entire region including SCO countries. Notwithstanding, its raison d’être, SCO faces multitudes of challenges in figuring out a unified approach and promising policy options for dealing with Afghan situation; primarily attributable to US intransigence in addressing legitimate concerns of key stakeholders and some divergence of interests amongst SCO members and observers.
The location and close proximity to major oriental powers (Czarist Russia and Han / Qing’s China) of the world presented Central Asia a unique and distinctive geo- strategic location throughout history. However, the geography of the region never supported the local population to make a dominant mark over the neighbourhood. Therefore, notwithstanding its mammoth size and resource riches, Central Asia rarely aspired for the seat of power or
becoming an empire by itself. Central Asian region as a whole mostly remained highly contested, serving as a battleground for outside powers than as a power in its own right.
Central Asia remained the focus of Mackinder’s ‘Geographical Pivot of History’ theory, in which, he argued that the ‘Heartland’
was the most advantageous geo-political location of the world. His doctrine suggested that the geopolitical actor that dominated the Heartland would possess the necessary geopolitical and economic potential to ultimately control the World .
Central Asia had both the advantage and disadvantage of a central location between four historical seats of power  (Russian Empire, Chinese Empire, South Asian Dynasties and Persian Empire). From its central location, it has access to trade routes to and from all the regional powers. On the other hand, it has been continuously vulnerable to attack from all sides throughout its history, resulting in political fragmentation or outright power vacuum, as it is successively dominated.
Historically, Afghanistan’s borders with the Central Asian states did not exist in a modern sense; instead frontiers witnessed constant transition with the rise and fall of empires (northern Afghanistan and Central Asia both have also been part of a single state or empire at different times). However, in the beginning of 19th century, the ‘Great Game’ between the Russian and British empires phenomenally
redefined the geo-strategic significance and the political outlook of the entire region. Russia’s imperial expansion into Central Asia coincided with the growth of the British control over India, and instead directly fighting each other for further expansion, both the expansionist / colonial empires finally settled for establishment of a buffer zone with defined frontiers in what is now Afghanistan .
The Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989 and subsequent disintegration of Soviet Union in 1991 as a strategic shock emerged altogether new geo-political realities giving birth to the Central Asian states of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. Despite Soviet a-religious outlook and officially repressive policies, a sizable Central Asian populace was practicing Muslims and even Islamists, which explains how Islamism took root in the region shortly after the Soviet collapse. Meanwhile, Afghanistan descended into internal conflict in the aftermath of Soviet withdrawal and abandonment of US assistance for mujahideen. Forces of chaos eventually led
to the rise of extremism and Islamic militancy with expansionist character, strongly radiating threat of Islamic militancy in defiance of international system.
Embryonic Central Asian republics already grappling with the legacy of Soviet era and multitudes of political and economic issues post-independence also started experiencing serious security challenges from certain Islamic movements including Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and Islamic movement of Central Asia. These groups had strong linkages with Taliban in Afghanistan, and later with Al- Qaeda, with objectives of creating a panCentral Asian Islamist theocracy. Geographic and demographic linkages with Afghanistan made things simpler for the leaders of these movements to frequently exchange ideas and course of action with each other. A large number of youth have also been recruited from the region to fight for Islamic State (formally ISIS) in Afghanistan. Furthermore, IS with established footprint in Afghanistan is already trying to make an ingress in Central Asia for exploiting region’s poor socio-economic indicators .
Peace, prosperity and economic prosperity of Central Asian States are directly linked with peace and stability in Afghanistan. Due to border contiguity, demographical, ethnic, cultural and tribal affinities, developments in Afghanistan have invariably affected Central Asian States. US inability to achieve desired peace and stability in Afghanistan and ensuing chaos post drawdown of US / NATO forces dramatically increase the vulnerability of Central Asian states. Rapidly eroding writ of Afghan government vis-à-vis increasing frequency of terrorist attacks in Afghanistan purported by IS elements or Taliban are indicative of a direct threat to Central Asian Republics in particular, and to the region in general. Two of the deadliest attacks in Istanbul (airport attack, June 16 and Riena Night club attack, January 17) were carried out by IS terrorists belonging from Central Asia . Prevailing chaotic order in Afghanistan provide the much needed enabling environment wherein armed militias, radicalized movements and splinter groups / breakaway factions could thrive and unleash monstrous instability for the entire region.
Afghanistan is producing approximately 90 % of world opium supply . 25 % of this quantity is smuggled to Russia, Europe and America through Central Asia (Northern route) . The boom of opium production in Afghanistan radiates yet another unmistakable threat to socio-political fabric of the entire Central Asian region. The linkage between drug money, organised crimes, gang wars and terrorism needs no amplification.
Central Asia’s landlocked status has constrained its socio-economic uplift by limiting its trade and energy flow through Russia (quite similar to Soviet era). Instable and insecure Afghanistan is thus acting as a strategic barrier for southwards trade and energy flow (through pipelines and denying shortest access to Indian Ocean) and profitable integration of Central Asia with South Asian and Middle Eastern economies. A stable Afghanistan could have yielded enormous geo-political and geo- economic dividends for Central Asia including becoming part of CPEC via shortest access for connectivity with China, Pakistan and India and beyond. Projects like TAPI gas pipeline are stalled and not likely to make some headway till a semblance of peace is not achieved in Afghanistan.
True socio-eco dev potential of landlocked Central Asia cannot be unlocked without peace and stability in Afghanistan. Russia and all the Сentral Asian members of SCO aptly recognize and ack the value of peace and stability in Afghanistan for their development. Going by irrefutable dictates of geography, Afghanistan, thus figure out to be a strong candidate for SCO’s membership.
Almost all Shanghai members have a very clear set of issues, like drug trafficking, instability, poverty, separatism and terrorism; which to a great extent has roots in an unstable and war-torn Afghanistan which shows that Afghanistan is admitlingly very significant to SCO members and observers - Afghanistan‘s security and economic conditions directly and invariably affect national interests of each SCO member and observers .
In the backdrop of growing threats of militancy, extremist movements and separatism emerging from Afghan civil war of 90’s, China initiated a process of creating a group of likeminded states called ‘Shanghai Five’. Although resolution of the borders dispute was stated as one of the core strand of creation of SCO, yet a considerable majority of scholars believes that this organisation was primarily created as a counter weight to growing unipolarity increasing assertiveness of US in the region with anti-west and anti-US orientation. Another major factor was the Afghanistan’s spill-over effects that had the potential to destabilize the entire region. Shanghai Five was officially transformed into SCO in 2001 with enhanced mandate.
The Charter of SCO urges the member states to jointly contribute towards strengthening of peace, security and stability in the region. The main aim of the organization has been to tackle three evils, namely terrorism, separatism and religious extremism with its members signing the convention on combating these evils in June 2001 . Certain relevant goals and tasks as enumerated in SCO Charter  are:
To consolidate multidisciplinary
cooperation in the maintenance and strengthening of peace, security and stability in the region and promotion of a new democratic, fair and rational political and economic international order.
To jointly counteract terrorism,
separatism and extremism in all their manifestations, to fight against illicit narcotics and arms trafficking and other types of criminal activity of a transnational character, and also illegal migration.
To cooperate in prevention of
international conflicts and in their peaceful settlement.
To jointly search for solutions to the
problems that would arise in the 21st century.
The primary task of the SCO is to jointly react effectively to global threats and challenges so as to ensure sustainable socio-economic development in the area of the SCO.
In October 2001, US launched its ‘Global War on Terror’ with physical invasion of Afghanistan. With US invasion, the regional security architecture in Central Asia underwent a major change. Though the SCO condemned the 9/11 attacks on US and extended support to its operations against terrorism in Afghanistan, however it could hardly render any practical help to US due to absence of any military capability under the auspices of SCO. However, certain member states participated in antiterrorism operations with an individualist character as a national undertaking. Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan offered their airbases to support US operations in Afghanistan. Tajikistan also provided its territory for conduct of US operations . These countries in a way welcomed US presence as a security guarantee against possible spillover of Afghan instability towards their territories.
In order to counter US presence in the region, SCO established a Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS) in 2004 with its headquarters at Tashkent to coordinate the activities of the member states in dealing with the three evils. With setting of deadline for US to abandon its military bases from the region in SCO’s Astana Summit Declaration 2005, the SCO, it became somewhat obvious that primarily China and Russia are driving SCO’s forum for elimination of US presence from Central Asian Region; considering it be NATO’s eastwards expansion in their backyard .
The SCO security concept acknowledges that security can no longer be viewed strictly in terms of territorial divisions, and as a result collaborative approaches between nationstates are required . Therefore, instead of concentrating on traditional inter-state military collaboration, the SCO has elected to focus on the harmonization of its member states’ national approaches to these challenges. The central components of the SCO’s Convention on Combating Terrorism, Separatism and Extremism are the mutual exchange of information and intelligence between member states. The SCO security concept also extends to the development of complementary processes for identifying, addressing and punishing actors contravening convention throughout the SCO region and the joint development of methods to combat sub-state security threats . It is interesting to note that the Shanghai Convention on Combating Terrorism, Separatism and Extremism was signed three months prior to 9/11 attacks, at the SCO Summit in Shanghai in 2001.
The Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS), headquartered in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, is a permanent organ of the SCO which serves to promote cooperation of member states against the three evils of terrorism, separatism and extremism. The Head of RATS is elected for a three-year term. Each member state also sends a permanent representative to RATS. Its main objectives and functions are given below .
Maintaining working contacts with main administrative body of SCO member-states and strengthening coordination with international organizations on matters of struggle against terrorism, separatism and extremism.
Participation in preparing drafts of
international legal documents on matters of struggle against terrorism, separatism and extremism.
Taking measures to establish together
with the UN Security Council and its antiterrorist committee, international and regional organizations, the mechanism of effective regulation of global challenges and threats.
Gathering and analysing information,
provided by member-states, on matters of struggle against terrorism, separatism and extremism.
Creating data bank of anti-terrorist
structure, presenting considerations on building up cooperation by the Organization in struggle against “three evils”.
Preparing and holding scientific-
research conferences, exchanging experience on matters of struggle against terrorism, separatism and extremism.
One of the major performance limitations of RATS is that it has no jurisdiction to enforce its policy recommendations. It is focused on nonstate security and such policy actions fall within domestic legal parameters. So instead, the RATS has focused on establishing itself as a mechanism of communication between the SCO member states to facilitate greater coordination between each state’s internal security organs .
Current dispensation and US endeavours for peace and stability in Afghanistan can be termed as frustrating to say the least with likelihood of further destabilization looming overhead. The writ of central administration is dwindling in the face of growing violence and increasing clout of regional / factional leaders. Inter-ethnic, communal, lingual and sectarian cleavages are deepening. The Afghan government presently controls about 57 percent of the country’s populated districts i.e about 15 percent fewer than it controlled in November 2015 . According to Robert Grenier, who served as CIA’s top counter-terrorism official, there are significant parts of the country, particularly in the south and the east, where it seems inevitable that the Taliban will further consolidate their control. Moreover, IS forces are active in Nangarhar and Kunar provinces .
The stability and security of Afghanistan with its geographic and demographic contiguity with Central and South Asia has inalienable linkages with nearly all the SCO member states. Flocking of IS in bordering region of Central Asian states and in Nangarhar opposite Pakistan is already ringing alarm bells. Chinese concerns of internal security and stability, particularly in Xinjiang region also emanate from Afghanistan . The Central Asian region is the soft underbelly of Russia and any destabilization and radicalization of the region will increase security worries for Russia itself. Hence, stability in Afghanistan has serious security implications for almost all the SCO states (including members and observers alike).
Since 2013 Cholpon Ata summit, there is growing awareness amongst SCO for seeking resolution of the Afghan issue. Its seriousness at the leadership level is reflected through various commitments made by the head of SCO states and senior ministers with some glimpses as under:
At Cholpan Ata, SCO leaders agreed that peace and stability in Central Asia depended on development of the situation in Afghanistan.
During SCO summit at Tashkent in 2016,
Chinese President Xi Jinping stated that SCO can play a constructive role to help Afghans in their quest to restore peace and stability in the country.
Tajikistan’s President Emomali
Rahmonov, during Tashkent summit, laid strong emphasis on the establishment of longstanding peace and stability in Afghanistan and said that stability in Afghanistan was in the interest of the entire region and the world.
Presently, SCO’s initiatives regarding Afghanistan are limited in scope and manifestation as the lead role of Afghan peace process is still with US / NATO forces operating inside Afghanistan. However, failure of US Afghan strategies in ensuring sustainable peace and the credibility of ANSFs to simultaneously deal / fight / defeat Taliban and brewing IS challenge becomes questionable. Therefore, an increasingly supportive role of SCO in Afghanistan becomes a logical preposition. The situation offers challenges and opportunities for SCO in assuming a well-defined, measured and carefully calibrated role for resolving one of the most complex security cum geo-political challenges of modern times.
Keeping in view the importance for regional peace and stability of the region, Afghanistan has always been remained on agenda of SCO. Important landmarks are summarised below:-
- 2005 – Protocol on establishment of an
SCO Afghanistan contact group was adopted by the SCO in Astana for increase in mutual cooperation between the SCO and Afghanistan. .
- 2007 – in SCO’s Bishkek summit,
former Afghan President Hamid Karzai urged the SCO states to focus on the fight against drugs and even come up with a regional plan to tackle this menace . During the same summit, the Russian President called for creating a ‘belt of counter narcotics security’ around Afghanistan and hunting down the financial roots of drug trade in the region .
- 2009 – a special conference focusing on
Afghanistan was held in Moscow under the aegis of the SCO in which a plan of action to combat terrorism, illicit drug trafficking and organised crime was signed by SCO and Afghanistan.
- 2011 – at Astana summit of the SCO,
the member states identified the unresolved situation in Afghanistan as a key threat to regional stability in Central Asia. They also agreed that it is impossible to solve the Afghan crisis by military means and efforts need to be directed towards solving the socio-economic problems in the country .
- 2012 – SCO’s summit at Beijing
supported Afghanistan’s effort to build an independent, neutral, peaceful, prosperous country free of terrorism and drug related crimes. They also agreed that the national reconciliation process in Afghanistan should be Afghan led and Afghan owned .
- 2012 – Afghanistan accorded observer
status in Beijing summit and the members states too agreed to help the Afghan people in their reconstruction efforts .
- 2013 & 14. Similar commitments
regarding Afghanistan were reiterated by the SCO states.
- 2015 – Afghan authorities applied for its
full membership in the Organization .
- 2016 – during Tashkent Summit,
member countries deliberated security situation in Afghanistan as one of the most important agenda items. Members also expressed their pledges for supporting Afghanistan in its war against terrorism .
- 2017 – during Astana summit, Russian
President Vladimir Putin said; “it was obvious that a military solution to the Afghan conflict was not feasible, and Russia and the other SCO members back a political solution based on agreements between the Afghan government and the Taliban insurgency” .
Presently, various global and regional platforms are being used in a bid to resolve Afghan issue. Post US drawdown environment in Afghanistan and chaotic projections have accentuated the need for early settlement of the issue. Although a number of initiatives have been propelled but none could be termed as a success story. Nevertheless, a regional perspective facilitates a greater degree of understanding by SCO members as compared to Western / US extra regional players. Details of some of the initiatives in search of sustainable peace and stability in Afghanistan involving SCO members with a varying degree of success are given below.
- The Heart of Asia - Istanbul Process.
The Heart of Asia - Istanbul Process was established to provide a platform to discuss regional issues, particularly encouraging security, political, and economic cooperation among Afghanistan and its neighbours. This region-led dialogue was launched in November 2011 to expand practical coordination between Afghanistan and its neighbours and regional partners. The US and over 20 other nations (including all SCO members less Uzbekistan) and organizations serve as “supporting nations” to the process. Six ministerial level conferences have been held so far, however, the outcome remained elusive.
- The Quadrilateral Coordination
Group (QCG).The Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) which consists of the US, Pakistan, Afghanistan and China, is a forum to discuss the Afghan-led peace and reconciliation efforts. First meeting of the group was held in Islamabad in January 2016, which highlighted “the need for immediate resumption of direct talks between the Afghan government and Taliban.”.
• Doha Peace Process
Senior leaders of the Taliban are currently
stationed in Doha, Qatar. The original purpose for the Taliban leaders’ presence in Qatar was to open an office that would facilitate reconciliation between members of the Taliban, Afghanistan, the US and other countries. However, shortly after the opening of the Taliban office in 2013, the office was closed by the Qatari government. While the Taliban leaders are still present in Doha, and continue to be provided for by the Qatari government, since that day, all peace negotiations have been suspended and the Taliban office remains closed.
In January, 2016 the Taliban in Qatar
participated in a Doha Dialogue titled “Peace and Security in Afghanistan”. While the conference was attended by key leaders from the Taliban offices in Qatar, the Afghanistan embassy and government boycotted the event.
- Russia - China - Pakistan Initiative.
Russia’s growing interest in Afghan affairs is apparent from Moscow’s hosting of peace talks. The recent talks on ‘peace in Afghanistan’ were held in Moscow in the middle of April 2017. Representatives from Afghanistan, China, India, Iran, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan participated in the talks.
Regional Approach - SCO Strengths. The SCO’s charter defines the main purposes of the organisation as “strengthening mutual trust, good neighbourliness and friendship among member states; developing effective cooperation in political affairs, economy, trade, science and technology, culture, education, energy, transport and environmental protection; and working together to maintain regional peace, security and stability”. Some of the unique strengths enjoyed by SCO as one of the biggest regional organizations are deliberated in ensuing paragraphs.
- The interventionist approach practiced
by the US to tackle the issue of terrorism could not bring the desired dividends. Thus, SCO has a legitimate stance to prosecute the issue through regional institutionalisation of fight against terrorism as a collaborative and participative undertaking.
- Afghanistan has a number of
peculiarities that deeply connect its fate to Central and Southern Asia, such as cultural and tribal affinities and irrefutable transitional connections to other groups around the region. In this sense, a regional approach to its internal problems seems to be most appropriate way to deal with them.
- The development of the SCO by and
large is a result of growing confidence in its capability and potential to address security across the region, especially with regard to the ‘three evils’. However, this has only been possible because the institutional design of the SCO has proven itself durable and acceptable to the leaderships of the member states. Since the SCO model of cooperation is based on inter-governmental cooperation, it can function efficiently as a mechanism of coordination and communication. Prime Minister of Pakistan, Mr Nawaz Sharif termed SCO as an anchor of regional stability at Astana Summit 2017 .
- The cooperative framework of SCO
certainly provides a useful platform to involve regional powers of South Asia in permanent consultation and cooperation, on the basis of shared principles. Its consensus approach to decision making barricades hegemonic or coerced cooperation, which is imperative to check the bigger members‘ interference in the smaller members‘ internal affairs as well as prevent the forum to be hijacked from the bilateral disputes of the belligerent neighbours.
- With inclusion of India and Pakistan
as full members of SCO (currently playing at cross-purposes to each other at all regional and international fora including Afghanistan) on 9 June 2017 may further the progress towards resolution of Afghan issue. “Cooperation under the auspices of SCO amongst these three major countries on Afghanistan’s borders could expedite the process of an Afghan settlement as Afghanistan is surrounded by members of a powerful regional association with common values and approaches to resolving issues”.
- With China’s benevolent and benign
outlook, Afghanistan’s mineral sector can be developed in consultation with other stakeholders as a prime source for long term economic sustainability. Afghanistan has plenty of mineral resources, such as iron, copper etc, with an estimated value of more than three trillion US dollars. Regional countries, particularly China (which has a greater acceptability in Afghan masses and is already involved in mining of Ainak Copper Mines)  may come forward with their technological knowhow and fiscal resources to help Afghanistan benefit from its natural resources. Such exploration of mineral riches of Afghanistan can greatly facilitate peaceful development of Afghanistan.
SCO’s Constraints and Impediments in Afghanistan. This list of positive potential needs to be viewed from the perspective of some of SCO’s limitations in relation to ground realities. As a relatively new institution, the organisation is still evolving and developing its own mechanisms battling a host of constraints and limitations.
- US / NATO consider rise of Chinese
strategic initiative for advancing her agenda of global dominance through benevolence and regional integration / connectivity. Therefore US / NATO seems apprehensive of growing clout and effectiveness of SCO as a regional politico-economic alliance. Surely US / NATO would not like to see SCO growing as an Eastern security alliance acting as a strategic counter weight to NATO. Hence prima facie US / NATO would rather like to remain in a state of denial than awarding a meaningful role in Afghanistan. The foregoing can be validated from repeated disassociation of each other from peace and stability endeavours of the others.
- Similarly, SCO has concerns regarding
the presence of extra-regional forces in the region in general and Afghanistan in particular. The US request for observer status was refused because of its being an extra-regional power . Russia and US / NATO forces have divergent view points on Afghan situation. Though the US and NATO’s role in Afghan affairs is crucial, they were not invited in either of the round of talks held in Moscow. According to US State Department spokesman Mark Toner, “It seemed to be a unilateral Russian attempt to assert influence in the region that we felt was not constructive at this time” .
- Regional stakeholders do not have
common understanding on Afghan issue especially applicable for India and Pakistan.  The activities of different SCO members in Afghanistan at present do not reflect a coordinated or harmonized endeavour instead is marred by lack of mutual understanding regarding Afghanistan during its transition period after the US / NATO withdrawal. Though the member countries are part of various initiatives and peace processes, SCO as a unified platform has not been able to meaningfully assert itself in Afghanistan.
- Some divergences and mistrust between
two of its founding members (Russia and China) over dominance in region is yet another hurdle in the way of unified approach. Russia sees Afghanistan as part of its exclusive zone of influence (Near Abroad ). Sino-centric order in SCO is somewhat worrisome for Russia as it is for the west and NATO. Russia realizes that Central Asia is more than willing to embrace Chinese investment ventures for their national interest.
- SCO lacks institutional mechanisms
and financial capacity to increase its role in Afghanistan. Russian experts Dmitri Trenin and Alexei Malashenko have highlighted the financial handicap of the SCO as one of the main reasons that may not let this organisation play a big role in Afghanistan. Unlike US and ISAF and other donors, SCO countries are not willing to throw capital in a blind alley only to be eaten away by corrupt political mafias instead being helpful in poverty alleviation. According to them, “the SCO, whose budget is a mere US $ 4 million, has no chance of playing a significant role within Afghanistan”. Lack of political will and capacity also points towards a limited and less consequential role of SCO in Afghanistan at present.
- The SCO at present has no military
command and structure as it has adopted a conscious approach to stay away from the military alliances or opting for a competition in the global strategic environment. Foregoing notwithstanding, alongside politico-economic support Afghanistan also desperately needs a ready and arrayed military support for serving the cause of peace.
- Role of SCO in Afghanistan is being
downplayed by certain quarters highlighting that with limited financial capacity, without any military capability, unbridgeable divergences amongst members especially with respect to their support for different ethnicities and politico-religious factions; SCO is merely a channel of communication for Afghanistan (and nothing more that this) which will continue to depend upon US / NATO for all types of assistance .
- Afghanistan was granted the status
of observer state of SCO in 2012. Although, Afghanistan applied for the full membership in 2015  yet it hadn’t taken any real steps toward complete accession with the membership status supposedly attributable to US / Western influence.
- Afghan imbroglio figures out to be the
biggest impasse in actualizing the SCO’s true potential by linking energy-surplus Central Asia with energy-deficient South Asia / East Asia.
Shanghai convention to address and combat the “three evil forces” of terrorism, separatism, and extremism and ushering in a better security environment was signed in 2001. Since then, the SCO has adopted a series of mechanisms to curtail the penetration of the three evil forces into its member states. Certain highly consequential achievements of strategic dimensions for SCO in this regard include:-
- Effective containment of US influence
in Central Asian republics directly linked to fomenting instability, regime change and separatist tendencies engineered through public uprising e.g colour revolutions.
- Increasingly effective border control
between SCO members deemed pivotal for countering destabilizing forces and proprietors of three evils.
- General consensus on politico-military
assistance and intelligence sharing amongst SCO members for countering three evils.
- Fair degree of success in containing
Afghan unrest from spreading into Central Asia and China.
- Suppression / limiting of extremist
tendencies, particularly in Xinjiang and Tibetan regions.
- Enhanced security cooperation
(including joint military exercises, counterterrorism, counter narcotics, and cyber security cooperation) amongst member states.
However, despite significant progress in above mentioned domains (especially in developing intelligence sharing and trust between its members), the SCO is yet to prove that it is an effective tool for addressing the multitudes of non-traditional security threats (NTSTs) present in Central Asia, China and now in South Asia also (with India and Pakistan becoming its members).
SCO Policy Options for Peace Initiatives in Afghanistan
Option I – US / West and SCO’s Partnership for Achievement of Sustainable Peace in Afghanistan
SCO with nearly all the regional players / key stakeholders fully onboard as its members is rightly in a position for bidding / seeking a major role in Afghan peace process partnering US led western alliance. SCO with its huge politico-economic potential and effective ‘Soft Power’ potential can significantly and positively contribute in resolving Afghan mess up - provided US / West is ready to accommodate it as a major partner or a key stakeholder in peace and stability of Afghanistan.
The likelihood of sustained peace and stability in Afghanistan largely depends on its capabilities to sustain economic growth and ensure good governance. The SCO can more effectively achieve its goals in Afghanistan through economic, educational and governance reforms. Following steps can yield desired dividends:-
- Focusing on developing Afghanistan’s
legal economy and improving its basic economic infrastructure.
- Financing joint projects in Afghanistan,
eliminating SCO trade barriers and creating employment opportunities.
- Enhancing people-to-people contacts,
and cooperation in fields such as youth and women empowerment, health care, sports and environmental protection.
- Assistance for fighting drug trafficking
in Afghanistan, including creation of a potent control mechanisms along the country’s borders.
- Educational reforms under a joint
mechanism with Afghan government ensuring cultural sensitivities are not hurt.
- Implementation of Turkmenistan –
Afghanistan – Pakistan – India (TAPI) pipeline project, Central Asia – South Asia power project (CASA-1000), revitalization of the ancient Silk Road and other similar projects.
- Lending SCO’s support to all other
bilateral and multilateral peace initiatives involving any of the SCO members, especially those with active involvement of China, Russia and Pakistan. With inclusion of Pakistan and India as members of SCO, its capabilities to resolve the issue through dialogues will enhance significantly.
SCO may opt for taking the lead role in resolution of Afghan issue, provided US / NATO also willingly cede this role to SCO. Despite its regional clout, SCO by itself is currently not in a position to claim or assume this role vis- à-vis US hold over geo-politics backed up by an unparalleled military might. Moreover, besides a political prong spear headed by SCO (endeavouring to address most of the concerns of all stakeholders) a meaningful military capability is a must for negotiating from a position of strength – this comprehensive military capability and desired architecture is at present is only available with US led Resolute Support Mission (RSM) and SCO at present is not configured to field any worthwhile military capability (would require considerable time and effort; should SCO embark on such an undertaking). Moreover, accepting a policy position subservient to SCO by US led RSM is an unlikely preposition in the given regional / global environment.
The growing clout of organisation with friendly and benign outlook towards Afghanistan vis-à-vis eroding US influence bearing a hegemonic character can be usefully channelized for achieving desired end state in Afghanistan. Although giving a lead role to SCO at policy tier (in finding a political solution spear heading the peace initiative) supported by US / RSM military machine for force oriented support unambiguously figures out to be the near ideal / best possible option (for restoring order in the shortest possible time); nevertheless, it is not fitting in prevailing geo-strategic construct. However, now Pakistan and India as members of SCO provide SCO an excellent forum for a regional solution.
In view of the intransigence and resistance from US / NATO countries to let SCO play a rightful role in resolving Afghan issue, SCO may adopt a policy of wait and see for the time being and keep building its capabilities in cognitive and non-cognitive domain simultaneously for handling Afghan issue in a befitting manner at a later / opportune time. Major strands of ‘Status Quo’ would include:-
- US / NATO forces to continue lead
role in Afghanistan with substantial military presence in Afghanistan.
- Peace initiatives through various fora
like Istanbul Process, QCG, Doha process, and Russian initiative to continue at their own stream. SCO may continue to accelerate and facilitate these processes through active involvement of its member states where possible.
- An increased coordination and
cooperation with US / NATO forces to find common grounds of interest in Afghanistan while reducing the irritants.
- Engagement with Afghan Government
 and accelerating process of granting full membership to Afghanistan, followed by Iran, as major stakeholders of Afghan issue.
Afghan problem is far too complex to be dealt with by SCO alone by itself. Hence, under the given circumstances, Option-I with SCO seeking enhanced role as a major stakeholder in peace and stability logically figures out to be the best way forward. As neither SCO is fully configured at present for a lead role nor US / West would like it that way. Entirely taking a back seat akin to status quo too has its own shortfalls with serious implications for regional security.
SCO has emerged as a very powerful and effective regional organisation with a strong global outlook. With three of the world’s rapidly emerging global powers (rising China, Russia and India becoming harbinger of multipolarity and power transition from west to east) as its members (with all the regional and trans-regional countries as potential aspirants of SCO’s membership), SCO has an immense potential to play a decisive role in world politics in coming days.
SCO with four nuclear powers (Russia, China, India and Pakistan) accounting for almost half of world’s population and 1/3rd of total area including Afghanistan as observer can play a significant role in resolution of Afghan imbroglio in constructive engagement with all the stakeholders.
Serving the cause of peace, rise of SCO is a positive omen as it affirms that stability in the region can only be guaranteed when the regional strategic competitors are convinced that the use of military force to shift the prevailing balance of power or altering the status quo in one’s advantage is not a prudent strategy; hence a consensus approach or a win-win for all is to be endeavoured for Afghanistan. SCO is a unique forum for regional dialogue to decrease regional tensions and lay down foundations for mutual understanding.
In this first part of the 21st century, many imminent and salient threats to international security are trans-national in nature, with regional or even global repercussions. Extremism, terrorism, and separatism are deadly menaces emanating from ungovernable Afghanistan as an epicentre; warranting a regional security apparatus for which SCO is the only viable forum.
With India and Pakistan successfully acquiring full membership status on 9 June 2017 at Astana Summit,  SCO’s political and economic profiling as one of the most potent regional organisations gets significantly elevated. Nevertheless, more meaningful role by this organisation can only be played if endeavours of all its members are synergized for achievement of common good and none of its members works in isolation or at crosspurposes to each other (especially applicable to Indo-Pak legacy of arch rivalry). For effectively serving the cause of peace and stability in Afghanistan, Iran and Afghanistan also need to get integrated with full-fledged membership status of SCO. Inclusion of Turkey with full membership  would further strengthen SCO once seen in the backdrop of Turkey’s active role in Afghan peace initiatives (including Istanbul Process) and growing warmth of Russo-Turkish relations.
Chinese soft power, socio-economic uplift and mining projects are already being well received by Afghans without any kind of prejudice. Pakistan too has been an inseparable player in Afghan equation with shared destiny as validated from baggage of centuries. Of late India and Iran, too have started wielding their influence by making considerable inroads into Afghan society through socio-economic uplift projects and playing favourites. Russia too is poised to provide all necessary assistance provided rightful place is conceded to SCO for playing its part in Afghanistan. SCO can yield enormous dividends for Afghanistan in terms of connectivity and regional integration as a major transit for trade, commerce and industry. Hence it can safely be concluded that instead pursuing politically motivated and exclusive peace processes for politico-economic gains (bearing semblance of new Great Game) an all-inclusive and participative peace process involving SCO as a key stakeholder promises enormous dividends.
- Presently, SCO faces numerous
challenges and hurdles in effectively playing its positive role in regional politico-economic developments. Afghan issue by far poses one of the most complex politico-economic and security challenges to the Central and South Asian region with serious ramifications for global peace. Notwithstanding, US / Western intransigence, taking a back seat and being complacent with status quo is not an option for SCO. Instead, with enhanced membership base, SCO should assert itself through politico- economic ventures and softer prongs, creating a win-win for all stakeholders (without taking sides). Peace and stability in Afghanistan is already a strategic imperative for SCO as continuously breeding insecurity, extremism and terrorism (challenging the foundational cardinals of SCO) are directly affecting almost all the SCO members.
- The internal mechanisms of SCO
including expansion of organisation, shaping of security mechanism, financial wherewithal, and coherence between interest of member states would also warrant due attention for effective transformation of SCO into a potent and dynamic organisation, fully empowered in aptly handling the regional issues.
- Pichamon Yeophantong, “Governing the world: China’s Evolving Conceptions of Responsibility” The Chinese Journal of international Politics, volume 6, 2013, 134.
- Ibid, 160.
- Ibid, 164.
- Ibid, 165.
- .On October 22, 1995, Turkmenistan adopted a policy of neutrality in its foreign affairs. Subsequently, the 185 member-states of the UN unanimously adopted a special resolution of the General Assembly on the ‘permanent neutrality of Turkmenistan.’ Due to its policy of ‘positive neutrality’, Turkmenistan did not join the SCO. http://www.idsa.in/askanexpert/TurkmenistanisnotamemberofSC Oyet%3F (accessed on 18 June 17).
- The Shanghai Five was created on 26 April 1996 with the signing of the “Treaty on Deepening Military Trust in Border Regions” in Shanghai by the heads of states of China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan. Eleanor Albert, “The Shanghai Cooperation Organization,” Council of Foreign Affairs, October 14, 2015, https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/shanghai-cooperation- organization (accessed June 13, 2017).
- Presence of US bases in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan was a matter of deep concern for Sino-Russian duo. Moreover, US was also seen as sponsoring different movements / revolutions such as color revolutions dubbed as human right activities for permeating liberal western democratic values across the entire Central Asian region.
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- ‘The participants underscored the historic significance of expanding the association. The corresponding decisions by the SCO Heads of State Council granted India and Pakistan full membership in the Organisation. The Heads of State spoke in favour of further deepening mutually beneficial cooperation with the SCO observer states and the SCO dialogue partners across all areas of interest’. Press Release on the Results of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Heads of State Council Meeting, June 9, 2017. http://eng.sectsco. org/news/20170609/289274.html (accessed June 12, 2017).
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