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Russia-China and SCO: Analyzing the impact of new regional alignments

Since 2015, Afghanistan has been striving to get full membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), with no success as of yet. Afghanistan has been engaged with the SCO for over 15 years. It signed a protocol establishing the SCO-Afghanistan contact group in 2005; however, its “activity was suspended in 2009.” In 2012, Afghanistan became an observer in the SCO when then-Afghan President Hamid Karzai visited China.

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US withdrawal from Afghanistan resulted in a power vacuum for the country usually referred to as the playground of global powers. Afghanistan’s power structure since the last two centuries coexisted with influence from foreign powers with mostly chaotic consequences. USA’s departure has left a gap, which according to many, will eventually be filled by Russia and China. But the question of the mechanism of such an endeavor remains. It is improbable that Russia might intervene militarily or attempt a direct influence on Kabul as the lessons of the Soviet invasion and its ultimate cost are etched in the collective memory of Russians.

On the other hand, the Chinese are too “historically aware” of the implications a military intervention of Afghanistan can have for the invader. As both parties are reluctant to act unilaterally, one possible solution could be sharing the load and adopting a joint strategy vis a vis Afghanistan. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization(SCO) presents a golden opportunity for all regional stakeholders to collaborate on a joint Afghanistan strategy. Several factors alleviate SCO’s status as a viable instrument to maintain stability in Afghanistan. The primary one is that all Afghanistan’s neighbors (except for Turkmenistan) and key regional actors are SCO members.

Read more: What Pakistan can learn from Afghanistan’s troubled History?

Besides strategic and political interests

The SCO region holds significance for Afghanistan in the realm of trade and financial relations. According to Afghan Statistical Yearbook, throughout 2017-2018, eighty-seven percent of Afghanistan’s imports came from the SCO region while fifty-seven percent of total exports went to the SCO region. Furthermore, the very formation of SCO resulted from the desire to collectively combat grave issues emerging out of the unrest in Afghanistan during the nineties. SCO is the successor organization to the Shanghai Five, a security pact created in 1996  to formulate a shared response to the effect of the Afghan Civil War and address the border limitation issues after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

The Afghan Civil War had grave security implications for Shanghai Five and Central Asia in general. Certain groups fueling the  Civil War in Tajikistan(1992 – 97) operated from Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan also suffered from instability perpetrated by the groups enjoying safe havens in the Afghan territory. Insurgency in Chechnya and the rise of extremism in Xinjiang in the nineties are also associated with Afghanistan. One of the core  SCO objectives is to fight three evils of “terrorism, extremism, and separatism” along with drug trafficking- all these factors can be in some way or form associated with Afghanistan.

All SCO members have shared some unique national security concerns arising out of  Afghanistan. Russia is primarily worried about the influx of terrorism -particularly the ISIS factor- into  Central Asian Republics. Instability in Central Asia-  considered a soft underbelly of the Russian Federation- means spillover of instability within Russian borders. For China, the biggest threat is Uyghur separatists’ safe havens and operations from Afghanistan. Instability in Afghanistan is considered a threat to the stability of the Xinjiang Autonomous Region. For India,  certain forces within Afghanistan heighten the fear of transnational support to the Kashmir insurgency and upsurge of violence in the valley.

For Pakistan, Iran, and Central Asian Republics, the haven of terrorists and refugee influx presents the primary challenges concerned with Afghanistan. The challenges of terrorism and instability emanating from Afghanistan are the common denominator for all regional stakeholders.   In light of a shared threat to the national security of all member states, the SCO can play a crucial role in enacting some semblance of stability in Afghanistan and the region. SCO can set some mechanisms to regulate the Taliban regime’s behavior, particularly regarding the provision of sanctuaries to terrorists and various non-state armed actors.

Taliban require access to their frozen assets and international assistance to run Afghanistan. International donors financed a whopping eighty percent of Afghanistan’s budget. In other words, the international community sustained Kabul for twenty years and prevented a humanitarian crisis. With the Taliban in power, the international community, except for some countries, has suspended assistance for Kabul. This action will unleash a humanitarian crisis of unprecedented proportions in the country. According to the UN’s forecasts, a humanitarian tragedy is already beginning to take shape in the country.

Challenges facing Afghanistan 

Widespread hunger, food shortage, and unemployment will lead to extremism and popularity of IS (Islamic State) doctrine and other transnational jihadist organizations. Taliban insurgency succeeded primarily because of US-supported Afghan governments’ poor governance, corruption, and incompetency. Suppose the Taliban fail to prevent the looming humanitarian tragedy. In that case, their fate might be the same as their predecessor, with IS and other pan Islamists forming their packets of power and plunging the country into another civil war, albeit more deadly.

Read more: After Pakistan’s OIC, UNSC adopts resolution to aid Afghanistan

Such a scenario will be a doomsday for the region as the Taliban harbor no transnational designs for all their vices, unlike ISKP and other pan jihadists. To prevent such circumstances from ever occurring, the SCO can formulate a simple give and take formula. Kabul has been an aspirant of a full SCO membership for quite some time now. Afghanistan’s international isolation post US withdrawal, and its consequences for the ordinary Afghans has heightened this desire. SCO, in this situation, presents a platform that could serve the interests of Afghanistan and other member states. SCO could leverage the Taliban’s needs with conditions necessary to contain terrorism and non-state armed actors.

One step could be to sustain Afghanistan’s budget with monetary assistance to contain groups of particular concerns to SCO member countries. Similarly, the diplomatic recognition of the Taliban regime could also be associated with control of drug trafficking or safeguarding human rights in the country or other national security concerns of SCO members. Resumption of trade between Afghanistan and the SCO region( sixty percent of total Afghan trade was with SCO before US withdrawal) could also be used to dictate the Taliban’s regime’s behavior regarding the prevention of terrorism and extremism. In theory, the SCO is the most suitable instrument to address the Afghan issue.

To make this a reality, SCO members must think beyond the bilateral terms and more through the lens of multilateralism and collective regional response. As mentioned earlier, in the perception of SCO members, prevention of terrorism is the common thread among all threats arising from Afghanistan. Despite having divergent national interests vis a vis Afghanistan, all SCO members count instability and terrorism as the common challenge. This realization should be enough for SCO members to spring into action and formulate a framework to contain this core threat. SCO  could fill in the gap left by the US, in a way better sense, only if all members achieve a consensus and work towards a stable Afghanistan. China and Russia can play a key role in bringing all regional stakeholders to a shared Afghan agenda and mitigate foes arising out of the Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.

 

The writer is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Abdul Wali Khan University, Mardan. He can be reached at op-ed@hafeezkhan.com.The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.