What role can India play to decide on the Afghan future at the SCO meeting?

July 15, 2021 11:21 AM

A formal body ‘the SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group’ was created in 2005 that prompted the SCO to organize a special conference on Afghanistan in Moscow in 2009 with the participation of the UN Secretary-General, the US EU, NATO, OSCE, CSTO, and OIC representatives.

S JaishankarIndia supports the SCO’s efforts to face the challenges posed by terrorism and supports the idea of strengthening Afghan defence forces.

By P. Stobdan, 

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) was ostensibly created in 2001 to mitigate the threat to Central Asia emanating from Afghanistan. Even prior to 9/11, the terrorists groups based in Afghanistan-Pakistan region such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), Hizb-u-Tehrir (HUT) strived to topple the Central Asian regimes and create Muslim Caliphates in the region.

In fact, the SCO’s entire focus has been to maintain regional stability while creating a Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS) in 2002 in Tashkent.

A formal body ‘the SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group’ was created in 2005 that prompted the SCO to organize a special conference on Afghanistan in Moscow in 2009 with the participation of the UN Secretary-General, the US EU, NATO, OSCE, CSTO, and OIC representatives.

But the Contact Group on Afghanistan soon ceased to exist following the shift of security focus to West Asia (Syria and Iraq) especially to deal with the ISIS phenomenon.

With security challenges swinging away from West Asia to Afghanistan again especially after the US drawdown, the SCO would once again be gearing up to deal with the Afghan spillover into Central Asia.

Nevertheless, much of the issues relating SCO’s expansion and its joint military exercises since 2012 have been linked to pre-empting threats emanating from Afghanistan.

In fact, it was at the SCO 2012 Beijing summit, the Chinese President Hu Jintao announced observer status for Afghanistan. The Bishkek summit in 2013 discussed the probable impact of the US/NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Clearly, it was Afghanistan and not the entry of India and Pakistan that was to determine SCO’s actual relevance.

But for clever Russians and Central Asians, they found it easier to deal with terrorism more directly with Pakistan than Afghanistan. Pakistan and the Taliban conveniently cooperated with the Eurasian states to hand over the Chechen, Uzbek, Dagestani terrorists based in Afghanistan.

As for Afghanistan, despite being an Observer, the relevance and expectations from SCO couldn’t be judged. Kabul remained less enthusiastic about joining the Eurasian body perhaps also because of the American policy priority to have held over the country. Kabul preferred not to join the Eurasian geopolitics – an area of US-China-Russia competition.

However, in the changing regional security environment especially since the wake of the 2014 Western troops’ drawdown, Afghanistan’s outlook towards the SCO also underwent a change. The influential Afghan circles also started to argue in favour of joining the SCO as a full member.

From Afghanistan point of view, the never-ending rivalry between two South Asian states Pakistan and India caused a problem, that it would also explore leveraging its position in the SCO to regulate Central and South Asian regional politics as such its entry into the SCO would entail a desirable outcome for Afghanistan.

Since then Afghanistan viewed the SCO as an alternative avenue to find a regional solution that took President Ashraf Ghani to attend the 2018 SCO summit in Qingdao along with a high-level Afghan delegation.

On its part, the Chinese-led SCO has started laying the ground for developing both economic and security cooperation with Afghanistan.

When President Ghani sought cooperation from the regional countries for combating terrorism, Russia and China started to lay emphasis on the regional states playing a significant role in bringing the Afghan government and the Taliban on the peace negotiation. Russia even built contact with the Taliban.

At the Tashkent summit in 2016, the SCO discussed expanding economic cooperation with Afghanistan and to transform the country into a regional trade and transit hub while supplying electricity and promoting railway connectivity.

Clearly by 2016, Afghanistan started to feature more in the SCO’s scheme of things while taking into consideration its close regional geographical proximity and the economic interdependence with Central Asia, China and South Asia.

There has been a spurt in academic articulation among Central Asians to talk about the shared historical, ethnic, and cultural commonality between Afghanistan and Central Asia, therefore, needs to foster closer regional integration. Russia and China pushed for an SCO-driven solution for the Afghan problem. Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan sought closer engagement with Afghanistan including with the Taliban.

Revival of the Afghanistan Contact Group

The SCO revived its Afghanistan Contact Group after a gap of nine years in October 2017 in a meeting held at the level of deputy foreign ministers in Moscow in October 2017.

The revival came against the backdrop of Russia’s changed Afghan policy in the midst of its strike against ISIS in Syria. Moscow saw the increasing ISIS presence in Afghanistan rather than the Taliban posing a bigger threat to Central Asia.

The SCO playing a “bigger role in Afghanistan’s peace and reconciliation process” came in the light of China protecting its Belt and Road Initiative BRI and CPEC projects passing through the vicinity of Afghanistan. China quickly extended its railway links with Afghanistan’s Mazar-e-Sharif through the Uzbek railway line.

At the diplomatic front, both Russia and China started to take a view in favour of the Taliban joining the reconciliation process and recognized Pakistan’s role in the regional counter-terrorism efforts. Moreover, the SCO also started looking at the Afghan issue as a subset of its regional security complex. China particularly hedged its own bets by formulating a sub-regional security grouping, the Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism (QCCM) involving Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Tajikistan with an eye to curb the Uyghur militancy.

Beijing also initiated the China-Afghanistan-Pakistan foreign ministers’ dialogue mechanism to get the Afghan Taliban to join the reconciliation process. Afghanistan has also pledged closer cooperation on the Belt and Road Initiative. President Ghani cherishes Afghanistan’s friendship with China.

Against this, the first meeting of the Contact Group was held at the level of deputy foreign ministers in Moscow on 11 October 2017. The second Contact Group meeting was held in May 2018 in Beijing and the third in Bishkek in 2019 discussed the draft roadmap for further actions. Since then the SCO Contact Group began to show interest in helping the Afghan peace process especially after the Afghan peace negotiation got accelerated in 2019.

Significantly, the SCO Secretariat held a roundtable discussion on Afghanistan on 9 January 2019 in which the Secretary-General Vladimir Norov detailed the Contact Group’s key assessment and its future agenda. He observed that the Afghan society is more radicalized and there is an increased trend of radical elements concentrating in Afghanistan’s Northern provinces with a view to establishing a bridgehead to penetrate into Central Asia like they did in the Batken area in the 1990s. The SCO noted that over 65 percent of the revenue source of terrorists is being generated from drugs.

Against the US troops’ withdrawal, the SCO seems determined to uphold Afghanistan’s sovereignty.

Most importantly, the SCO is beginning to take a view that Afghanistan is not a source of threats but a space of opportunities – to encourage Afghanistan’s involvement in regional transport connectivity in line with the SCO ‘Greater Eurasian’ partnership initiative, the BRI, and in consonance with the national strategies of the member states.

It is against this Tashkent is hosting an International Conference “Central and South Asia: Regional Connectivity, Challenges and Opportunities” on 15-16 July in which the Prime Minister of Pakistan Imran Khan, India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, President Ghani of Afghanistan, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi among others will be gathering.

India has been actively participating in the SCO activities after becoming full members of the SCO in 2017. Delhi was quick to join the first SCO-Contact Group on Afghanistan in October 2017 where it expressed its willingness to work closely with the SCO member States in efforts to bring peace, prosperity and stability in Afghanistan.

New Delhi would be quite clear about its position of opposing engagement with terrorist groups that are seeking to oust the legitimate Afghan Government, and it is possible India’s stance on Afghanistan in the SCO to be at odds with that of others.

To what extent India can play a role to formulate a regional consensus on Afghanistan’s future under the SCO would be an important issue. India supports the SCO’s efforts to face the challenges posed by terrorism and supports the idea of strengthening Afghan defence forces. For that New Delhi has been deeply engaged with Russia, Iran, and other regional countries.

As for the other Central Asian members and Russia, they have sufficient mechanisms in place under the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) to counter the threats along the Afghanistan-Central Asia borders.

India obviously cannot afford to play a spoiler role. Its approach has to be within the format of Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace and reconciliation. From an Indian perspective, ISIS can easily be dealt with militarily, but any attempt at legitimizing the Taliban would risk having a reverberating impact on the entire region of South and Central Asia. Moreover, India’s position is that Pakistan is the main source of terrorism and has links with all the terrorist organisations. And, if the Taliban comes to power, Islamabad will foment several unregulated interests in the SCO to off-balance Indian interests in the region.

In a situation that remains in flux today and with Pakistan in, any plan to create a Northern-Alliances-type counter group for countering the Taliban is unlikely to fructify.

For India, Afghanistan gravitating towards the SCO would be a positive development but Afghanistan becoming the bridge between Central Asia and South Asia would remain as a slogan as long as Pakistan does not play a constructive role.

Jaishanker’s discussion in Dushanbe and in Tashkent with Sergei Lavrov and Wang Yi would be critical to find a common imperative to work together in a collaborative manner in Afghanistan – in the spirit of sharing labour.

The challenge for India is to separate its strategic agenda from exploring new economic opportunities in Afghanistan that are linked with Central Asia. The prospective areas could be in manufacturing, transportation, and construction. India could make an initiative for creating a cartel of dry-fruit supply-consumption chains to integrate Central Asian production centers with Afghanistan for onward supply towards India and the world market. Separately, India needs to engage in rebuilding the Afghan agriculture and irrigation sectors.

In order not to get isolated on the Afghan issue within the SCO-Contact Group, India should find greater understanding with Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan (KUT), and Russia. The KUT can form a more reliable partner for India within the SCO.

India should be working with KUT within the RATS to regulate the body and to work out mechanisms/arrangements between the member states including Afghanistan to arrange (a) bilateral extradition agreements, (b) take stock of the radical extremists and terrorists operating actively in the region including in the FATA/Waziristan areas, (c) gathering hard intelligence on their activities, (d) identify the sources of terror-financing and take jointly work towards blocking these channels, (e) to jointly cooperate in de-radicalization progammes through Islamic-Sufi clergy both in India, Afghanistan, and Central Asia.

(The author served in Central Asia and currently on the Advisory Council of Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs.Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of the Financial Express Online.)

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