The hasty and chaotic U.S. troops withdrawal from Afghanistan expedited the Taliban’s return to power in Kabul reviving the old fears that conflict and terrorism will spill over to neighboring countries. Washington’s pullout has also raised questions about who will fill the power vacuum in Afghanistan and keep terrorism and insurgency at bay in Central Asia. As different actors are joining the regional power game seeking to shape Afghanistan’s future, one regional grouping – the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) – has been eyed to play a bigger role in coordinating its members’ responses.
At the latest SCO summit held in July 2021 in Tajikistan, its eight permanent members – China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan – committed to building consensus and pooling effort toward resolving the situation in Afghanistan in ways that serve mutual interests of Kabul and its neighbors. The SCO has also pledged to reinvigorate its regional anti-terrorism institutions to prevent the spread of the “three evil forces” of terrorism, separatism and extremism into the territories surrounding Afghanistan. Notwithstanding these pledges, the SCO’s internal divisions and mistrust among its members will prevent the organization from fulfilling its role as a vehicle for multilateral cooperation and a contributor to peace and reconstruction in Afghanistan. At best, the SCO will offer a limited diplomatic platform for coordinating its members’ counterterrorism responses. At worse, it will become a tool for legitimizing the Taliban rule in Afghanistan.
The SCO in the Central Asian Security Landscape
According to some experts from the region, the SCO is in a good position to address the multiple agendas of Afghanistan. With its roots in the “Shanghai Five” forum created in response to the Afghan civil war and border delimitation issues that emerged in the wake of the Soviet Union’s dissolution, the SCO has always been sensitive to security risks emanating from Afghanistan. In the 1990s and early 2000s, these risks were high. The bloody Civil War in Tajikistan (1992-97), which had complex and manifold sources, was fueled, in part, by groups that found safe haven in Afghanistan. Operating out of bases in Tajikistan and Taliban-controlled areas of Northern Afghanistan, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) carried out raids into southern Kyrgyzstan in 1999 and 2000. While the IMU suffered heavy losses during the American-led invasion of Afghanistan, its offshoot group – the Islamic Jihad Union – claimed a series of terrorist attacks in Uzbekistan in 2004.
To tackle the threats of terrorism and extremism in the region, the SCO created the Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure (RATS) with headquarters in Tashkent in Uzbekistan. It has conducted regular counterterrorism drills involving the counterterrorism cadres of the Central Asian republics, China, and Russia. In 2005, the SCO established the SCO-Afghanistan contact group, which went defunct in 2009 but was revitalized in 2015. Beijing has sought to use the contact group for addressing the post-US challenges in Afghanistan’s relations with its neighbors.
Security concerns provide a unifying agenda for the SCO members. Today, all but one of Afghanistan’s neighbors belong to this group, where Iran holds observer status. In addition, Russia, China, and Iran have been eager to utilize the regional grouping as a counterweight to the Western presence in the region. These shared goals along with the existing frameworks and structures for coordinating counterterrorism activities among its members make the SCO a logical choice for serving as a springboard for the deepened counterterrorism cooperation.
Divisions and Mistrust Within the SCO
The prospects for deeper counterterrorism cooperation under the auspices of the SCO will be, however, dampened by divergent interests and deep-seated mistrust among its members. First, despite the common interest in addressing the cross-border threats emanating from Afghanistan, the SCO members have pursued varied political goals through this organization. Moscow, for example, has emphasized the SCO's security aspects, while Beijing has tried to broaden the SCO mandate to include development and humanitarian issues. It has also used the forum in support of its aims stemming from the broader Belt and Road Initiative. The autocratic Central Asian governments have relied on the SCO as a tool of authoritarian resistance. The addition of India and Pakistan as permanent members of the SCO has further broadened the fault lines within the organization. New Delhi has refused to take part in counterterrorism exercises where Chinese and Pakistani troops participate in multilateral combat drills.
Second, in Moscow’s geopolitical imagination, Central Asia is still viewed as Russia’s “soft underbelly.” Therefore, Russia has sought to demonstrate to other regional players, including China, that it continues to serve as the only viable guarantor of security in the region. Russia has preferred the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) to the SCO as a security vehicle for handling the developments in Afghanistan. Yet, the CSTO has faced many challenges in recent years. Its utility to the member states has been questioned as the organization missed its chance to prove itself as a reliable provider of security by ignoring the Karabakh war between Armenia and Azerbaijan and, more recently, the Tajik-Kyrgyz border clashes. The deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan presents a major test for the CSTO which needs to be re-vitalized through better security coordination, external border control, and intelligence sharing.
Third, the international consequences of the Taliban rule remain uncertain. The Taliban leadership has tried to assure its neighbors that it will contain civil strife and terrorism within the borders of Afghanistan. If the Taliban fulfills its promise of not abetting international terrorism, the exigency for enhanced counterterrorism cooperation will peter out.
Aware of these obstacles, the SCO members have always supplemented the multilateral channels of cooperation with the bilateral ties. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s recent tour of Central Asia illuminates this approach. He began the visit at the SCO summit in Tajikistan, stopped for a regional conference in Uzbekistan, and completed the tour in Turkmenistan. At each location, he held bilateral meetings with the senior officials to discuss the Afghanistan issue among other concerns.
To conclude, despite the necessary prerequisites to serve as a vehicle for coordinating multilateral responses to the unfolding situation in Afghanistan, the SCO has been crippled by divergent national interests and mistrust among members. All SCO members, for their own geopolitical reasons, will eventually recognize the Taliban, if the latter fulfils its promise of containing the conflict within the Afghan borders. The SCO foundational principle of “non-interference in domestic affairs” will shield the Taliban from criticisms by its members regarding the brutal nature of its political rule. Yet, the Taliban’s renewed repression of the Afghan people will only sharpen grievances within the population, becoming a powerful source of violent resistance and terrorist recruitment for years to come.
The views expressed here are the author’s and do not reflect the position of the U.S. Department of Defense, the National War College, or National Defense University.