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A nation must think before it acts.
This article is part of a collaboration between the Foreign Policy Research Institute and the Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs.
In recent weeks, observers worldwide have debated whether or not China will fill the multiple ‘vacuums’ that the withdrawal of U.S. troops has left in Afghanistan. Some expect Beijing to fill a “financial vacuum” by investing heavily in the country. Others focus on its role in filling the “political vacuum” by helping to legitimize the Taliban government on the international stage. And others debate whether or not China will step in to fill the “military vacuum” left by the NATO withdrawal, providing security assistance to the new regime. In these discussions, analysts frequently mention the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as a major platform through which China will try to engage with the country.
But in each of these discussions, few say more than one or two sentences about the organization, failing to clearly outline what the organization does (and could do) to help stabilize the country. The SCO’s track record on Afghanistan indicates an answer to these questions: it probably won’t do much.
The SCO could be an ideal forum for the settlement of the Afghanistan issue in theory. All its direct neighbours except Turkmenistan are affiliated with the SCO either as full members (China, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan) or as observer states (Iran). Considering the often porous borders with Afghanistan, the situation in the war-torn country directly affects the domestic stability of many SCO members.
The SCO objectives of combating the ‘three evils’ (terrorism, separatism, and extremism) and drug trafficking, as well as poverty reduction are clearly compatible with the aim of improving the security situation in Afghanistan. Since the SCO was established, just three months before the 9/11 attacks, the situation in Afghanistan has been a major discussion point in the organization from the very first year of its existence. Afghanistan has become more engaged with the SCO over the years, especially since becoming an observer in 2012.
The establishment of an ‘SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group’ (Shanghe zuzhi – Afuhan lianluo zu) in 2005 indicated Afghanistan’s growing importance to the organization. However, as is typical for SCO activities, not much information is available on the workings of the Contact Group, and it did not convene frequently until its supposed ‘revival’ in 2017. It did hold a ‘Special Conference on Afghanistan’ in Moscow in March 2009, where participants adopted a ‘Plan of Action of the SCO and Afghanistan on Combating Terrorism, Drug Smuggling and Organised Crime’.
The action plan included inviting relevant Afghan bodies to take part in joint exercises, seminars and training courses run by member states. Participants agreed to the future establishment of a regional anti-drug centre and a specialized SCO training centre. There was little progress on this until September, when members discussed establishing a counter-terrorism center in Dushanbe.
While anti-drug and anti-terrorism cooperation remains the focus of SCO-Afghanistan collaboration, in recent years, SCO member states have also become increasingly involved in providing support for the reconstruction of Afghanistan. The Chinese view that terrorism and extremism can only be eliminated if deeper socio-economic issues are tackled is also a standard line found in many SCO documents on Afghanistan.
But it remains unclear exactly what the SCO as an organization is doing. At a meeting on the Afghanistan issue in October 2016, then SCO secretary-general Rashid Alimov stated that SCO member states provide assistance such as helping with the “construction of national defence and law enforcement agencies, recovery of the economy, development of transportation networks and energy, and anti-drug and personnel training.” Examples for this are China’s establishment of the China-Afghanistan air corridor, the training of Afghan economists and engineers at Kazakh institutions, or the training of Afghan army cadets in Moscow.
However, all of these initiatives are implemented bilaterally rather than within the framework of the SCO. In fact, the SCO itself serves mainly as a platform for member states to coordinate their individual policies and cooperation with Afghanistan, rather than actively pushing cooperation projects. And at this moment, there is no reason to believe that this will change any time soon.
Two weeks ago, the first SCO heads of state summit took place after the Taliban takeover. Yet, the Dushanbe Declaration on the Twentieth Anniversary of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, once again, is devoid of any concrete plans of action regarding the Afghanistan crisis.
One reason why the SCO – and China as its leading state – are reluctant to become more involved in Afghanistan beyond the issuing of statements and coordination between member states’ activities is the organization’s principle of non-intervention and China’s reluctance to become too involved in rebuilding Afghanistan.
Another reason that the SCO will not fill the vacuum left by the U.S. withdrawal is the fact that military interventions are simply not within the organization’s mandate. While the group’s goals include cooperation on a wide range, including economic, political, security, culture, research, education, tourism, environment protection, and more, military cooperation is not one of them. Thus, commentators expecting the SCO to become somewhat of an ‘Asian NATO’ simply get the function of the Eurasian organization wrong.
The SCO persistently stresses that it is a non-military alliance. Accordingly, when I asked SCO Deputy Secretary-General Wang Kaiwen about the SCO’s ability to help improve an associated state’s internal security situation, he told me that the only thing the SCO could do was to declare its position and to hope that “the country in question can solve its internal problems through proper means.”
Even though the SCO is mentioned frequently as a major platform through which China can “fill the vacuum” left by NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan, the evidence suggests this won’t be the case. So far, the SCO has not officially recognized the Taliban regime and did not invite its representatives to the summit in Dushanbe in mid-September. While it may make statements and provide a platform for neighboring states to coordinate policies, it is unlikely to do much else.
Having said this, its function as a dialogue and coordination platform for its member states should not be trivialized and, depending on what happens, the SCO could act as a legitimization platform for the Taliban regime. Thus, going forward, the most pressing questions will be whether the SCO recognizes Taliban rule in Afghanistan, how it deals with a Taliban-led Afghanistan as an official observer state, and what will happen to the existing Afghanistan-related initiatives. But don’t expect the SCO to take a proactive role in the future of Afghanistan.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.