The 20th Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Council of Heads of State (SCO-CHS) Summit held this week in Dushanbe, Tajikistan has urged the Afghan Taliban to yield power to a more inclusive government after the American retreat and the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul and reminded the West in general and the United States in particular that it was their responsibility to help avert a humanitarian disaster in Afghanistan after ending their 20-year presence in the country last month.
Regional cooperation is desired to end the ongoing Afghanistan conundrum. In that sense, the SCO needed to be more proactively engaged in Afghanistan. And, this provides an opportunity for the SCO to realize its dream of regional cooperation and play an active role in bringing stability to Afghanistan which is beneficial across West Asia and Central Asia.
The historical significance of SCO
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) was established, just weeks before the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, as a multilateral association to ensure security and maintain stability across the vast Eurasian region, join forces to counteract emerging challenges and threats and enhance trade, as well as cultural and humanitarian cooperation. Its founding leaders are the two great powers of the east — Russia, and China. Its other initial members were Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan to the north and northeast of Afghanistan.
In the wake of the historic summit of SCO heads of member States in Astana, Kazakhstan held on 8-9 June 2017, Pakistan and India were granted full membership while Iran has been granted full membership on 17 September 2021. Moreover. Afghanistan, Belarus, and Mongolia are observers. The SCO has some “dialogue partners”. They include Armenia and Azerbaijan from the neighboring Caucasus region and Turkey a step further to the West. Nepal and Sri Lanka from the subcontinent and Cambodia from southeast Asia, are also dialogue partners. Moreover, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Egypt are also given the status of dialogue partner in last Friday’s meeting. It is interesting to note that Turkmenistan, which shares an 800 km border with Afghanistan and a 1,150 km border with Iran is not a member of SCO and this creates a missing gap.
The SCO was preceded by the creation of a “Shanghai Five” — Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. The three former Soviet republics shared a long frontier with China. The purpose of the Shanghai Five was to stabilize this frontier as well as build on the shared Sino-Russian interest in preventing American meddling in their Central Asian backyard. Moscow and Beijing were also ill at ease with the American military presence in Afghanistan and its impact on Central Asia. The US military withdrawal from Afghanistan has brought joyfulness to both Moscow and Beijing and they are feeling at ease.
What kind of role the SCO can play in the Afghanistan conundrum?
Will SCO be able to adopt a regional approach to settle the Afghanistan issue? Although it seems appealing that the SCO can play a vital role in settling the Afghanistan issue, there are challenges and irritants which the SCO can face.
The Central Asian members of the SCO have quarrels of their own and have struggled to develop collective approaches to their common regional security challenges. It is no surprise that they are at variance with the Taliban.
Turkmenistan, which is not part of SCO, has been quite ready to engage with the Taliban by following its principles of neutrality in foreign relations. Some Russian analysts see Turkmenistan as the potential weak link in the defense against the Taliban’s potential threats to the region. Uzbekistan seems open to a cautious engagement with the Taliban.
But Tajikistan, given its kinship with the Afghan Tajiks and direct links to the Panjshir valley across the border, has been skeptical of Kabul’s evolution under the Taliban. Iran, which has ethnic and linguistic links with the Persian-speaking Tajiks, appears equally worried about the Taliban’s policies towards minorities especially Shia Hazaras and Tajiks.
As Moscow and Beijing, Tehran was happy to see the Americans leave in humiliation and appeared hopeful of a positive engagement with the Taliban. Those hopes may have been postponed for now, if not rejected. India and Pakistan, needless to say, have opposite approaches towards the Taliban and have a divergence of interests in Afghanistan.
Given these issues of divergence, it seems perplexed for the SCO to come up with a “regional solution” for the Afghan crisis. However, Russia’s special relationship with the Central Asian states, China’s emerging global economic and political power, and Pakistan’s traditional deep friendship with China, and Pakistan’s growing closeness to Russia can pave the way for a significant role of the SCO in the economic and political stability of Afghanistan.
Dr. Mian Tahir Ashraf holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur Malaysia and teaches at Bahauddin Zakariya University Multan, Pakistan. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed by the writers do not necessarily represent Global Village Space’s editorial policy