SCO begins in Dushanbe: How this eight-member body can help shape Afghanistan's future

·6 min read

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is expected to raise the issue of terrorism in the presence of Pakistan PM Imran Khan while addressing the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Summit on 17 September and virtually join the summit of heads of state via video link.

Minister of External Affairs S Jaishankar is representing India at the SCO summit in person, which is being held in a hybrid format at the Tajikistan capital of Dushanbe.

This is the fourth such summit where India will be participating as a full-fledged member of the SCO, and it assumes a special significance in light of the rapidly evolving situation in the war-torn land of Afghanistan following the Taliban takeover.

But first let's look at what the SCO is, its members and its goals.

What is the SCO?

The SCO is a Eurasian political, economic, and security alliance, the creation of which was announced on 15 June 2001 in Shanghai, China by the leaders of China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.

Since then, the organisation has expanded its membership to eight states when India and Pakistan joined SCO as full members on 9 June 2017 at a summit in Astana, Kazakhstan.

The SCO also currently has four observer states, two being very important in the current world scenario -- Afghanistan and Iran.

The SCO is primarily centered on security-related concerns, often describing the main threats it confronts as being terrorism, separatism and extremism.

Over the past few years, the organisation's activities have expanded to include increased military cooperation, intelligence sharing, and counterterrorism.

Afghanistan seeks SCO membership

Afghanistan has been engaged with the SCO for over 15 years. In 2012, Afghanistan became an observer in the SCO when then-Afghan president Hamid Karzai visited China. In 2015, Kabul applied for full membership in the group.

Kabul seeks to be a member of the SCO as it believes that it is a natural candidate.

Geographically, Afghanistan is a part of the SCO region. It is a direct neighbor to four SCO member states -- China, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan -- and has very close historical and economic relations with the other four: Russia (a former Afghan neighbour in the Soviet era), India, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan. Despite not having direct borders with the latter four countries, they are still considered as close neighbours in Afghan foreign policy.

All eyes on Afghanistan

The SCO member nations will help Afghanistan build a peaceful and prosperous state, read a statement released by the SCO Secretariat on 26 August.

"The SCO member states reaffirm their commitment to help Afghanistan build a peaceful, stable and prosperous country free from terrorism, warfare and drugs," the statement said.

According to the statement, the member nations called for strict observance of the norms of international law and liabilities under bilateral and multilateral agreements. They called for ensuring the security of Afghanistan's population and foreign nationals staying in that country, missions of foreign states and international organisations.

The SCO member nations expressed their readiness "to take part in international efforts toward Afghanistan's stabilisation and development, with the United Nations playing the central coordinating role," the statement added.

Looking at the current situation in Afghanistan, China has been appearing to get cosy with the Taliban.

The Asian giant's senior leaders are laying diplomatic groundwork with the militant group. China hosted a delegation led by the head of the Taliban's political office, Adbul Ghani Baradar, for talks in Tianjin in July with Foreign Minister Wang Yi.

As Fan Hongda, a professor of Middle Eastern politics at Shanghai International Studies University, noted, "The Taliban has become a political force that can't be ignored in Afghanistan." As of now, it seems that both countries will enjoy transactional diplomacy, with the Taliban having the pledge of possible backing from their richest neighbour.

"China is our most important partner and represents a fundamental and extraordinary opportunity for us," Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in a recent interview with the Italian newspaper La Repubblica. "It is ready to invest and rebuild our country."

Much is at stake for China, with potential investments in Afghanistan and the sweeping "Belt and Road" initiative to build roads, ports and other infrastructure to extend Chinese influence across Central and South Asia. The program has avoided Afghanistan because of the war; taking a gamble on the Taliban could change that. Chinese companies are also eyeing an opening to resume stalled projects like the Mes Aynak copper mine, which has languished since the deal was signed in 2008.

Russia, in the meantime, has also been looking to get on side with the Taliban.

Russia was one of the first countries to take a positive stance on the Taliban takeover, with Russia's special envoy to Afghanistan having said Moscow saw "encouraging" signs from the Taliban in terms of including a government that includes other political forces and praising the Taliban's ability to "effectively ensure law and order".

However, Moscow's ties with the Taliban-ruled Afghanistan are not without perils.

The Russian ambassador to India Nikolay Kudashev said his country was 'definitely' concerned about the possible export of terrorism to Russia from Afghanistan. "As far as the phenomena of terror are concerned, we do share our concerns with India. There is a danger of terror being spread to the Russian territory and the territory of Kashmir. This is a matter of common concern," he was quoted as saying, according to news agency PTI.

Pakistan and Afghanistan share a unique relationship, as former Afghan leader Hamid Karzai once described the two countries as "inseparable brothers".

The country has long coveted a situation in Afghanistan where a Pakistan-friendly government is in power and that situation has arisen with the Taliban's rise.

The Taliban has been tacitly supported by Pakistan.

Pakistan sees Afghanistan as a strategic partner in its conflict with India and has therefore been willing to embrace the powers that be in Kabul. A vast majority within the Pakistan administration seem to accept the Taliban either as a valuable ally to Islamabad or a necessary evil to preserve control in the region.

What can the SCO do?

The Afghanistan debacle presents an opportunity for the SCO to play a constructive role in meeting the region's burgeoning security challenge. Providing humanitarian relief, tending to refugees, facilitating an inclusive dialogue and national reconciliation constitute immediate and long-term goals in which the organisation can fill a role.

The SCO can also pressure the Taliban to share power with other domestic actors and refrain from providing sanctuary to foreign terror organisations. It can suspend Afghanistan's observer status, curtail border traffic or withhold recognition, investments and aid, should Kabul be found wanting.

The SCO, can also help mediate between the Taliban and the US and encourage them to discuss vital issues and reach an agreement.

With inputs from agencies

Also See: 'Don't want to turn the clock back': Taliban allows women to study, but conditions apply

Afghanistan teeters on brink of universal poverty; 97% population could be affected by mid-2022: UN

Afghanistan-origin Indian abducted at gunpoint in Kabul, MEA’s ‘immediate intervention’ sought

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