The debate about who will fill the geopolitical vacuum left by the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan has been the talk of the town. There are heightened expectations for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, an important regional cooperation group established in Central Asia after the Cold War.
While views diverge on the role the SCO should play, there are two main threads. One is that the SCO should play an active role in the stabilization and reconstruction of Afghanistan; the other is that the SCO should not and cannot play a prominent role, as doing so would imperil its own development.
So, how should we understand the role of SCO? Expectations are valid, as the SCO has inherent advantages for Afghanistan compared with other international cooperation mechanisms:
First, Afghanistan is surrounded geographically almost exclusively by SCO member states (China, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan) and observers (Iran). As Afghanistan’s neighbors, they have a greater geographical advantage in dealing with changes in the situation in Afghanistan on one hand, and on the other are keenly aware of the danger and consequences wrought by spillover effects of the conflict and unrest in Afghanistan. So they pay extra attention to the situation.
Second, for both Afghanistan as a SCO observer country and for SCO members as stakeholders, maintaining the future security and stability of the country serves the common interests and basic consensus of all parties.
Finally, after a long period of expansion and institutionalization, the SCO has formed a sophisticated dialogue and cooperation mechanism, spanning areas such as counterterrorism, political dialogue and strategic mutual trust in Central Asia. It has gained experience and international credibility.
That said, the SCO still faces an equally serious set of innate deficiencies with regard to Afghanistan:
First, unlike a military-political organization, such as NATO, the SCO does not have a common military. Except for limited joint counter-terrorism exercises, its members do not have the capability to conduct joint military operations, rendering the SCO unable to conduct direct military intervention as NATO does in crises.
Second, most of the SCO member states are developing countries with limited economic development and foreign aid capacity, and they lack the resources, willingness and experience to deliver large-scale humanitarian aid and national reconstruction, which can easily lead to a situation of deliberation without decision.
Finally, there are still some differences within the SCO on the issue of Afghanistan. For example, India and Pakistan have diametrically different positions and demands regarding the Afghan Taliban, and both are worried that the other will use Afghanistan to endanger its own security, which would have a negative impact on SCO’s ability to act collectively on the Afghan issue.
The author believes it is not appropriate to compare SCO with NATO — a traditional military-political organization — because of disparate goals, functions and historical backgrounds. Yet, despite some serious challenges, the SCO can still play a major role, within its capacity, on the Afghanistan issue.
First, the SCO can promote political reconciliation in Afghanistan by taking advantage of its proximity. This will forestall the escalation of political differences into violent conflicts, while helping the new Afghan government integrate into the international community expeditiously as it improves its domestic governance.
Second, SCO members can share and exchange information on transnational terrorist activities in Afghanistan through the permanent counterterrorism mechanism within the SCO framework. And it can take advantage of geographical proximity to prevent a cross-border spillover of terrorists from Afghanistan and deny refuge to global transnational terrorists.
Finally, the SCO can help the new Afghan government enhance its counterterrorism capabilities through regional cooperation mechanisms, such as training police and law enforcement officers and providing equipment assistance to help the new Afghan government maintain domestic stability and fulfill its counterterrorism commitments to the international community.
In sum, the current crisis in Afghanistan is both a serious challenge and an important opportunity for the SCO, a maturing mechanism 30 years in the making. If the SCO fails to play its due role in Afghanistan, a country surrounded by SCO member states, it is likely to invite skeptics in the international community about its credibility and ability to participate in international affairs.
However, if the SCO can actively take part in the resolution of the Afghan crisis without contravening the original purpose of its establishment, it can effectively transform itself and play a greater role in the future security, stability and development of the region.