The Potential of Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Stabilizing Afghanistan

Afghanistan today remains afflicted with instability and looming threat of terrorism. Kidnapping, killings, bomb blasts and other such notorious activities continue to vandalize the lives of millions of Afghans. Moreover, it also poses a perilous threat to regional security and has the potential to jeopardize the ongoing economic projects, the most pertinent of which is the Chinese initiated Belt Road Initiative (BRI). After a protracted stay of 17 years in Afghanistan, the U.S forces have ultimately decided to withdraw its troops and bring an end to the Afghan War. However, the withdrawal of the United States will change the security dynamics of Afghanistan. The regional players are well aware of this fact and have galvanized their efforts to avert the possibility of chaos in the region after the United States extricates.

BRI is a colossal initiative and is the manifestation of China’s ambitions to entangle the region into an economic interconnectedness. This magnanimous project will evolve a number of opportunities for other regional states including Afghanistan. A stabilized Afghanistan is a dire requirement of BRI; partly because the integration of Afghanistan into the initiative will be very fruitful and partly because turbulent conditions in Afghanistan can pose obstructions in the functioning of various projects particularly, China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Furthermore, countries like China and Russia are extremely apprehensive of the spillover effect of terrorism to other states.  Hence, chalking out a secure environment is crucial.

Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is the largest and most populous regional organization which commenced in 2001 for the fostering of friendly relations between the members, expediting regional connectivity and eradicating terrorism. In 2005 SCO-Afghan Contact Group was established to put forward recommendations and proposals for the cooperation between SCO and Afghanistan on security matters along with various aspects of mutual concerns such as enhanced trade activities. Even though the activities of the forum remained stalled till 2009; However 2017 onwards the SCO-Afghan Contact Group held three annual meetings. Moreover, in 2012 SCO accorded the observer status to Afghanistan.

In the 2017 meeting of the SCO-Afghan Contact Group in Astana Kazakhstan, the organization readjusted the Group activities in the light of the expansion of the organization by adding new members: India and Pakistan. All foreign ministers endorsed the building of a stable Afghanistan and exchanged opinions to combat the prevailing threat of terrorism and carve out a secure environment. Similarly, all the parties generated a consensus on the dire requirement to bolster the SCO-Afghanistan cooperation in the future. In addition China offered to host the 2018 Contact Group meeting which was accepted by all of the parties to materialize the initiatives proposed in the meeting through further discussions, proposals and frameworks.

In the 2018 meeting in Beijing, all the members again reasserted their support to intensify the cooperation between Afghanistan and SCO. Secretary-General Rashid Alimov also attended the meeting, and  made the opening remarks by stating,  “The leaders of the SCO member states are unanimous in their firm commitment to Afghanistan’s sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity and national unity, as well as their invariable support for the Afghan Government and people as they strive to restore their country and strengthen democratic institutions”.

Again in 2019, the meeting held for the third time. The participants discussed the current status of the security condition in Afghanistan, Afghan reconciliation process along with a roadmap draft for future actions. Furthermore, parties agreed on fostering further cooperation between Afghanistan and SCO members on terrorism and the prospects of regional connectivity.

SCO has emerged as the largest and most populous regional organization. The BRI initiative will indeed be the manifestation of regional interconnectedness. It opposes unilateralism and trade protectionism. Moreover, the SCOs principles of non-interference and consensus are also quite captivating for Afghanistan. Likewise the geostrategic location of Afghanistan is very pertinent for the BRI initiative. China has become either the first or second largest trading partner of most of the SCO members. Hence Afghanistan can benefit a lot from this initiative provided the security conditions are tamed.

The Chinese attitude towards Afghanistan has been very amiable. In June 2018, during a meeting between President Ghani and President Xi Jinping, Xi called for the amplifying of high-level interaction, bolstering local-level cooperation along the anti-terrorism and trade cooperation. Moreover, he also praised the endeavors of the Afghan government towards peace and stability in view of the announced cease-fire with the Taliban. The President also highlighted that an “Afghan led and Afghan owned” reconciliation process will serve as the sole driver for paving sustainable peace in Afghanistan. An engaging aspect is that China being a dominant regional player has the capacity to pacify the tensions between the Afghan and Pakistan government, this will be a mighty achievement and will serve the interest of regional security. Similarly another area where Afghanistan needs assistance is the governance. Augmenting the weak institutions of Afghanistan is mandatory for the efficient functioning of the state. SCO members can play a part in fortifying the institutions through a proper framework.

Most important is the urgent need to curb the ISIS from protruding its network in Afghanistan. This is a very pressing task and requires a synergized action by all the regions through efficient intelligences sharing and the training of Afghanistan’s forces in a manner that they can tackle this potential threat on their own.

Taliban are an indispensable part of Afghanistan. Years after fighting, all the parties have realized that there is no military solution to the Afghan issue. China and Russia are active actors in the Afghan Peace Process and are even in talks with the Taliban. Hence, they can play an instrumental role to steer them to the talking table with the Afghan government.

The China-led organization serves as a potential driver of stability in Afghanistan in the long run due to the economic interconnectedness which will curtail the onerous economic crisis which Afghanistan is tackling at the moment and at the same time aid Afghanistan for security measures. The SCO members, observers and dialogue partners can collectively push towards stabilizing Afghanistan. Moreover, the expansion of SCO is quite likely in the future with the prospects of roping in Afghanistan as a full member are also on the table. Afghanistan can attain a lot from SCO and vice versa. Changing geopolitical landscape, geostrategic location of Afghanistan coupled with the ongoing economic initiatives has opened a pathway on which Afghanistan can tread towards stability.

Shaza Arif
Shaza Arif
Shaza Arif is a Researcher at the Centre for Aerospace & Security Studies (CASS). She can be reached at cass.thinkers[at]gmail.com