The Central Asian countries, plus Pakistan and China, believe that Afghanistan should be a part of the group.
By Shome Basu
Every bit of today has to go back to World War II and consequently to the Cold War between the US and the USSR, till the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, and finally to 1991 when the Soviet Union was fragmented into more than a dozen separate nations. But how did the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) emerge to become a challenger to the last known superpower: the US? SCO is an organization of nine countries and together they account for nearly half of the world’s population and nearly half the world is directly or indirectly related to this multination grouping.
When the USSR collapsed and the Cold War ended, a new world order emerged in which there was a huge disorder in border management in various regions of Central Asia, Russia and China. Soon, insurgencies also erupted and spread across these regions. Boris Yeltsin, the then president of Russia, along with Chinese leader Jiang Zemin signed a treaty to have a ‘multipolar world order’ along with Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan – all bordering Russia or China.
The main idea was to deepen defense ties. The borderless areas of post-Soviet Eurasia needed a sort of demilitarisation while checking the unwanted activities along the new borders of these five countries. They were called the Shanghai Five. Over the years, Uzbekistan became an addition to the Shanghai Five and, in 2015 in Ufa, archrivals India and Pakistan – both nuclear powered neighbours – got their membership. Iran is the latest entrant, becoming the ninth member of the Shanghai Five’s refurbished avatar, SCO.
When the Taliban took over Afghanistan last year, that strategic geography was seen drifting away. A year later, one has to accept that Afghanistan, against all odds, is still surviving. Though, if left unattended, it will surely become a dangerous ground in South Asia.
The ‘terrorism’ tag hasn’t faded away from the Taliban. Every modern society feels a bit wary about considering them partners which was evident from the members at this SCO summit in the Uzbek city, Samarkand.
After the Taliban took over Afghanistan last year, the question of their legitimacy arose. The US has frozen nine billion dollar funds which has paralysed the Afghan economy. The US is apprehensive that the money could again be used for terrorism and attacks on the US and its citizens.
Afghanistan became a key question for discussion at the SCO summit in Samarkand. However, a section within SCO called the RATS (Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure) has a focus on anti-terror measures and the UN serves as its observer. This caused a complication. Those members of SCO who would have like to see the Taliban at the summit could not invite them because the country’s Prime Minister, Mohammad Hasan Akhund, remains on a UN proscribed terror list.
Rakhmatulla Nurimbetov, Uzbekistan’s national coordinator of the SCO, said at a press conference that “nobody from Afghanistan will be present in this year’s summit because of the events that happened last year … SCO, as a multilateral body, doesn’t support direct links with Afghanistan. However, that does not mean countries individually can’t engage [with the Taliban].” He further went on to say: “Afghanistan not (being) present at the meeting does not mean their issues will not get priority. Countries will elaborate their position on Afghanistan and all issues that were discussed this past year will be discussed.”
But all these Central Asian countries, plus Pakistan and China, believe that Afghanistan should be a part of this large multilateral group. Apprehensions remain as Afghanistan has the history of causing chaos in the region, irrespective of who was at the helm. Thus taming them has become the quintessential need rather than leaving them alone.
The SCO is in a dichotomy vis-à-vis Afghanistan. The war-torn country, looked as a potential terror hub, is at the mercy of the rich and powerful countries. Until and unless Afghanistan is included as a member or even as an observer, the threat remains more palpable to the SCO members.
With India and Pakistan as members of SCO but enemies to each other, SCO has another big hurdle to handle. Pakistan’s Foreign minister Bilawal Bhutto took a rigid stance when it came to talks with India. He totally objected to talks with India as Pakistan believes the abrogation of Article 370 and 35A and the division of Jammu and Kashmir into two union territories has made it difficult for them to speak with India.
Indian PM Narendra Modi indirectly slammed Pakistan for blocking Indian aid and transit rights to Afghanistan. Pakistan’s PM Shehbaz Sharif, stated that ignoring Afghanistan would be a mistake. India on the other reiterated that it stands for the Afghan people and Afghan-led government, hinting that there should be a people’s mandate in choosing the inclusive government in Afghanistan.
Turkey, though still not a member, remains a dialogue partner with significant influence over SCO nations. When talks with India and Turkey came up, PM Modi and Turkey’s Erdogan spoke on Free Trade Agreements. Erdogan, on the other hand, kept the Kashmir issue aside as Turkey is now more concerned about its own economic uplift as it is under the FATF watchdog and going through the grey list cover on accusations of money laundering.
In all, what is learnt from this SCO summit is that this multi-nation body, which aspires to create a substitute to the US hegemony and wants to draft a new world order, is still toeing the line of the US when it comes to Afghanistan. As mentioned, the dichotomy exists, and if it is not diagnosed, it will create problems for the SCO nations. The US may isolate Afghanistan but the neighbours, especially SCO members, will have to take a strong position to include the Taliban government to discuss and solve the larger problems of the future.
The SCO member nations have to have a roadmap on how to counter NATO and balance the order in their own lands. With the growing terrorism of ISIS, ETIM and other groups, SCO has to focus on how to bring them down.
The SCO nations have their own sets of problems. Russia is fighting a war with Ukraine that is backed by the US and China is challenging Taiwan that is backed by the US. India is a partner to both, the US led Indo-Pacific grouping and the Russia-China led SCO. India and Pakistan have their own contentions, especially when it comes to Kashmir, and that deadlock needs to be broken. If this deadlock remains, there would be a vacuum and non-state actors will have a free run.
Shome Basu is a Delhi-based senior journalist.