SCO’s Role in Afghanistan Stability

Afghanistan is once again at a critical point in its history. The chapter of the two-decades-long War on Terror has ended with the takeover of the country by the Taliban and the exit of foreign troops. The American project to install democracy has also failed as the US-backed government machinery collapsed within weeks after the US started the withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The country is about to start another chapter with the Taliban again in the driving seat. At this critical moment, Afghanistan needs international support to manage the post-US withdrawal situation. However, at the same time, the country needs regional pressure, especially from the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), for a genuine conflict resolution.

No Easy Peace

The talks for a  are being held by different political factions of the country. Most of the groups in Afghanistan do look interested in an all-inclusive government, but to make that a success, they all need to bury the past and make major compromises. Looking at the history of Afghanistan, one can see a constant struggle for power.

No government in Afghanistan has remained for a longer period of time since long. Different groups formed different governments but strong opposition to them had mounting pressure on their survival. In the future, the Taliban may be able to form a unity government, but perpetual differences among Afghan groups may hinder its working. The country has seen wars, coups, assassinations, massacres, and displacement of locals in the past decades. Peace in Afghanistan would not be easy to either achieve or maintain.

Two major factors that can further destabilise the country are the anti-Taliban resistance which is gathering in Panjshir valley and adjoining provinces, and the threats posed by the Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP) and other terrorist groups. Heightened tensions between the Taliban and anti-Taliban groups can have a negative impact on the diplomatic arrangements the Taliban have made with different ethnic groups. This also raises the fears of a civil war between opposing sides like in the 1990s. Economic collapse, humanitarian crisis, refugees, increased drugs production, extremist ideologies, and terrorism threats from Afghanistan present a great challenge to the security and stability of the region.

SCO’s Role in Afghanistan

The SCO sees terrorism in Afghanistan as one of the key factors contributing to the instability of the country. The uneasy peace in Afghanistan has given ample freedom to terrorist groups to maneuver and grow. The situation demands an increased responsibility from regional countries, which get affected the most from it, to work for the stabilisation of the country.

Regional countries are making coordinated efforts to bring peace into the war-torn country. The SCO consists of Afghanistan’s neighbours and other important stakeholders. Aligned interests of Pakistan, China, Russia, and other regional countries facilitate SCO’s role in Afghanistan. The withdrawal of NATO from Afghanistan also provides the SCO with more space to make inroads into the country. SCO can fill the vacuum that the US has left. The failure to fill the vacuum in Afghanistan will leave the SCO countries in an undesired regional situation.

China, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Pakistan share immediate borders with Afghanistan. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia have also direct stakes in a peaceful Afghanistan. China, Russia, and Pakistan are actively engaged and working on a political solution in the country. Other countries also share a similar vision regarding the Afghan solution. The platform of SCO can provide their voices and efforts with more credibility and assertiveness. Afghanistan is currently an observer state of the SCO. SCO-Afghan Contact Group was also established in 2005 to increase cooperation between the Islamic Republic and the SCO on issues of mutual interests. This can act as a formal channel between the country and the group.

SCO’s approach to stabilising Afghanistan is different from what NATO had been pursuing. NATO sought a military solution in the country by fighting the Taliban and supporting a government that could neither deliver to Afghans nor defeat the Taliban. SCO’s approach is to make Afghanistan a unified country by bringing all the Afghan stakeholders at one place.

During a recently concluded meeting, the Foreign Ministers of the SCO member states have visioned to see Afghanistan as an independent, neutral, unified, peaceful, democratic, and prosperous state. China provides economic incentives to the Afghan government, while Russia has political and military connections. Pakistan enjoys political ties with different groups in Afghanistan and is the most important trade partner.

SCO’s role can not only be bringing all the parties on one page to form a government acceptable to all, but also making sure that it works. the organization comprises of some major powers that are relevant to Afghanistan and can influence the internal dynamics of the country. Their collective voice from the SCO forum will carry more weight.

Furthermore, SCO’s pressure on Afghan parties to sit and resolve differences should not be taken as interference in the internal matters of the country, but rather a push or support for conflict resolution. SCO Heads of States meeting is scheduled during this month in Tajikistan. The Afghan issue will be the major point on their agenda. The forum should convey a strong and assertive message to all the Afghan warring parties to resolve their differences.

International community’s recognition of a national unity government dominated by the Taliban will also be a key determining factor in the internal dynamics of Afghanistan. Threats of ISKP from Afghanistan also call for increased international efforts to bring an end to the uncertain situation.

The situation in Afghanistan may require urgency but there should be no decisions made in haste as well. Only a unity government with genuine support and participation by all sides will be able to succeed. Major compromises from all sides will ensure the smooth working of the government.

The Taliban don’t have the capacity and resources to govern the county on their own. They need international support for that matter. The support to the future Afghan government can be used as leverage and influence to maintain political stability in Afghanistan. SCO also stands to gain from its involvement in Afghanistan. The impactful role of the SCO in the country will raise its stature as a credible and powerful regional organisation.

Samran Ali

Samran Ali is an Islamabad-based defense analyst. He writes on military capabilities, national security, and defense issues. He tweets at @Samranali6.

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