The 18th Council of Heads of State (CHS), SCO summit took place in Qingdao, in eastern China’s Shandong Province, on 9th and 10th June, 2018. President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani left for summit with high level of Afghan delegation to attend the summit. Given the structure of the organization the Council of Heads of State (CHS) is the superior decision making body of the SCO which meets once in a year. Some questions arise that what will Afghanistan get from the regular participation in all format of summits of the SCO? To what extent will the organization be able to address the list of matters of Afghanistan? Afghanistan’s short term and long term expectations? These and similar questions will be addressed.
SCO at a Glimpse
Afghanistan has been an avid joiner and promoter of regional cooperation, especially since the wake of the 2014 Western troops drawdown. One of the most important, much talked about organizations in this respect has been the Shanghai Cooperation Organization; an observer state in the organization since 2012, Afghanistan has generally been very keen to join it as a full member. While some obvious arguments in favor of joining the SCO are widely cited in relevant circles, there is insufficient understanding and critical assessment of the implications of Afghanistan’s membership in the SCO for all involved sides, of the nature of SCO as a regional organization as such, and of how this instance promotes or problematizes the broader regional cooperation. It is to fill some of these gaps in Afghanistan-SCO relationship, and to encourage a more substantive academic inquiry, that the present work has been undertaken.
The SCO is a product of Sino-Russian border negotiations, which were later joined by three Central Asian republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan,- all of whom shared borders with China; the negotiations led to the agreement to form an organization aimed at resolution of long-standing border disputes and other security issues of mutual concern (Yuan 2010).
The SCO, also focusing on “confidence-building” among its members, initially arrived at an agreement in April 1996 on the military sector in border areas, which was subsequently followed by the 1997 “Agreement on Mutual Reduction of Armed Forces in the border areas” signed in Moscow (ibid, 860). As Yuan argues, all the founding members of the SCO agreed on a common approach which was to combat terrorism, extremism and separatism. The SCO is concerned about the instability in Afghanistan; the sharing of common border with SCO members Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and China make them vulnerable to the threats of terrorism, drug trafficking and other major and minor concerns spreading from Afghanistan. This consideration provides the basic rationale for SCO to engage along with the U.S/ NATO forces in the stabilization of Afghanistan (Khan 2009).
Afghanistan’s Gravitation toward SCO and Regional Solution
Since how long Afghanistan is the special attention of SCO and its precursor as well? Afghanistan over the past has actively participated at the SCO summits and since obtaining the observer status in the organization, started efforts for gaining full-fledge membership.
The Twelfth SCO summit took place in Beijing, China and gave special attention to discussing the situations in Afghanistan. The former Afghan President Hamid Karzai took part and emphasized the importance of SCO for Afghanistan. Karzai has stated that “Afghanistan belongs to the region where also lies the SCO. Afghanistan has no other ways, and can’t be outside the region,” (in Anand 2012). Vinod Anand mentioned in his work the statement of former Indian external affairs minister S.M. Krishna, who stated in the Eleventh SCO Astana summit that the organization “could play an important role in stabilizing Afghanistan after the drawdown of foreign troops” (ibid 2012). According to Xinhua Chinese news agency’s report, the Chinese president Hu Jintao announced following the 2012 SCO Beijing summit “The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) has decided to grant Afghanistan observer status, and accept Turkey as a dialogue partner”. In addition, the Summit declared to make progress in term of trade, education, transportation, information technology and agreed to cooperate in economic integration.
Andrei Akulov notes that the security situation of Afghanistan has direct impact on the security situation of the region (2012). He pointed out that in 2012 the two SCO giants, Russia and China conducted naval exercises aiming to deter the perceived threats being posed to the region. The organization was concerned due the escalation of situation; thus, Akulov stressed “expanding the SCO mandate is reflected in adoption of an ambitious action plan for Afghanistan” (ibid).
The SCO thirteenth Summit was held in Bishkek and one of the main issues covered was the NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan. The summit was chaired by Kyrgyz president Almazbek Atambayev who expressed his concern about the situation in Afghanistan in post-NATO withdrawal. Atambayev determined to call upon a meeting regarding the situation in Afghanistan. “Atambayev stated that Bishkek will host an international conference on the situation in Afghanistan on October 10, 2013. The conference will be attended by prominent experts and will serve as yet another opportunity to jointly search for solutions, exchange ideas and concerns” (Sabyrbekov 2013). Arslan Sabyrbekov reiterates, the summit emphasized on “joint actions in the fight against terrorism, extremism, separatism, illegal drug trafficking and other transnational threats” (2013).
The Fifteenth SCO summit had determined to grant India, Pakistan and Iran full membership. But Richard Weitz stressed that “Afghanistan, not new members, will determine SCO’s relevance” (WPR 2015). Regarding the importance of Afghanistan for the SCO, Weitz further emphasized “the group’s future relevance will be determined by its ability to effectively address the continuing economic and security problems of neighboring Afghanistan” (ibid 2015). The 2015 SCO summit in comparison to previous was a bit different. Taking into consideration the economic and security situations in Afghanistan, President Ashraf Ghani stressed the economic development and security maintenance. Indeed, the new face of terrorism the so called Islamic State (IS) had risen. In addition, President Ghani put more importance in the regional countries to cooperate in tackling the terrorism. However, to counter the expansion of terrorism, there is need for collective action, which comes through practical steps to be taken by regional organization (News, Daily Outlook 2015). The report describes, the regional states have a significant role in bringing Afghan government and the Taliban on the same page to put an end to the long-lasting war.
According to Free Radio report, the Sixteenth SCO summit held in Tashkent was more beneficial for Afghanistan. In comparison to previous summits, the last SCO summit besides security matters discussed economic cooperation. Afghan government says, “SCO summit has granted more progress to Afghanistan, which this country would be converted to trade and transit center in the region” (Radio Free 2016).
According to the Afghan presidential spokesperson Haroon Chakhansori:
“regarding the location of Afghanistan, a lot of progress has been done to convert the country to regional center for trade and electricity, the participants of the summit supported and welcomed the positive position of Afghanistan in the connectivity of the region through rail track, electricity, expansion of trade and reconstruction of Silk Route. Almost all members of the organization have shown green signal in granting full membership to Afghanistan, however, this process take time, the initial process has been started, whenever the administrative process completed, the issue of Afghanistan full membership will be discussed” (Radio Free 2016).
Afghanistan in the perspective of Regional Security Complex Theory (RSCT)
Barry Buzan and Ole Waever define “Regional Security Complex” as “a set of units whose major processes of securitization, desecuritization, or both are so interlinked that their security problems cannot reasonably be analyzed or resolved apart from one another” (2003, 44). Regional Security Complex Theory (RSCT) is beneficial due to the following three causes:
“First it tells us something about the appropriate level of analysis in security studies, second it can organize empirical studies, and, third, theory-based scenarios can be established on the basis of the known possible forms of, and alternatives to, RSCs” (Buzan and Waever 2003, 45).
The RSCT Theory is applicable for the quest of Afghanistan. Because the country has close regional geographical proximity or political interdependence with Central Asia, China and South Asia which some countries from these different regions are members of SCO. Political, geographical, and security are those factors that integrate Afghanistan into the regional security complex. Therefore, by looking to these common shared factors we can say that the security of the region is defined by the security in Afghanistan. There is a direct relationship among the regional states and Afghanistan.
What “Regionalism” can deliver to Afghanistan?
Various scholars have defined the term “regionalism”. Louise Fawcett (2005, 24) defines thus: “our understanding of regions naturally flows into a concept of regionalism as a policy and project whereby states and non-state actors cooperate and coordinate strategy within a given region”. As regards the objectives of “regionalism”, she indicates “the aim of regionalism is to pursue and promote common goals in one or more issue areas” (ibid 24).
Looking to the case of SCO in general and to Central Asia in particular, these states’ basic aims are combating against the well-known three evils of terrorism, separatism, extremism, as well as drug trafficking, confidence building, economic development, education etc…. and more basically the maintenance of a stable status quo. As Fawcett argues regardless the capacity of states, both strong and weak states wish to be in an integrated region because regionalism makes states more capable to protect their status quo.
Based on the above definitions, the SCO conforms to the phenomenon of regionalism, because the member states are in pursuit of common goals (countering the three evils of terrorism, extremism and separatism, pursuing economic development, maintenance of status quo, confidence building etc…) and agenda. One of the significant concerns of the SCO’s agenda is the Afghan problem. Significantly, Afghanistan’s accession to the SCO would complement their agenda and also strengthen approach of regionalism. The regional states, namely the Central Asian five, Russia, China, Iran, Pakistan, India as well as Afghanistan constitute a region within which these states have faced the same challenges such as security and organized crime, and drug trafficking all are either transit route states or consumer destinations. The approach of regionalism fits to the abovementioned states that are locked in similar either trade development or security matters.
Afghanistan locates in a region which is often regarded as an “insulator”. The country historically, ethnically, linguistically and culturally shares common ground with countries in the north. The recent security concern arose in the country has either one way or another concerned the Central Asian region fearing of the prospective negative spillover effects. The Central Asian countries often chose to take abstain involving in the Afghan matters.
However, taking a step back would never be win-win strategy. Their recent constructive involvement in peace, security, economic and in infrastructure development would be a win-win strategy for Central Asia, China, and Afghanistan and in general to the SCO member states. Afghanistan claiming being the bridge between Central Asia and South Asia would remain as a slogan unless the country becomes stable and secure for multinational development projects crossing inside the country. At this stage, Afghanistan must gravitate toward the Central Asia which SCO is a good platform to help in hearing the country’s voice and will contribute to overcoming the prevailed security, economic and political problems.
On the other hand, two new South Asian rival states have become members of the SCO. The two rivals’ proxy war in Afghanistan has caused problems in the already deteriorated situation. Afghanistan can share all those concerns in the organization. On the one hand, Afghanistan will be part of the regionalism. On the other hand, the country can share all concerns within the organization that can help in overcoming all the problems that the country is suffering from. Such move will be a win-win strategy for Afghanistan and the SCO.
*Rahimullah Kakar hold an MA in Politics and Security from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Academy and writes on the Political and Security situations of the Central Asia and South Asia
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