Region Reluctant to Commit to Afghan Security

Members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization recognize the importance of a stable Afghanistan but won’t help ensure it.

After American and NATO forces pull out of Afghanistan in 2014, what role will other actors in the region play in the country? Greater powers as China, India and Russia have much more at stake in Afghanistan than the United States does while neighboring Central Asian republics and Pakistan are unlikely to be able to avoid being affected by renewed civil war there. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) may be reluctant to interfere military but could boost development aid and political support for the civilian government in Kabul.

Last week in Astana, Kazakhstan, President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan formally requested observer status for his country in the SCO. Both India and Pakistan, which previously filed membership applications, reiterated their desire to become part of the organization. Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari said that he expected his country to be “put on a fast track” to join.

In the clearest sign yet that the neighboring states may be willing to do more in Afghanistan, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev wrote in The Moscow Times that it “is possible that the SCO will assume responsibility for many issues in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of coalition forces in 2014.” He argued that extremism, separatism and terrorism are threats that all members of the SCO must cope with.

We believe that the prosperity of Central Asia and the surrounding states can only be achieved through a strong, independent and stable Afghanistan.

If that’s so, will the SCO step up the plate and take over from NATO? At The Enterprise Blog, Daniel Vajdic notes the similarities in purpose between the cooperation organization and the early Atlantic alliance which, in the words of its first secretary general, was to “keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.”

The SCO conversely is an association of likeminded autocracies whose raison d’être, from Moscow’s perspective, is to keep the Americans out of Central Asia, the Russians in, and the Chinese down in terms of their overall regional influence.

The Diplomat‘s Richard Weitz is skeptical though as coordination in terms of policy among the various member states of the SCO is very limited. “By world standards, none of the SCO economic mechanisms could be considered ‘serious’ instruments, and so far at least, SCO members have allocated limited resources to them, further constraining their potential.” Furthermore, instead of admitting new member states, “the organization has resorted to proliferating new categories of external association, producing a confusing mixture of members, observers, guests and dialogue partners.”

The SCO governments argue that they need more time to establish the rules and procedures needed to govern new members. In reality, the existing SCO members have proved unable to overcome their differences over which countries should receive membership or observer status.

As Weitz sees it, the SCO is useful only in Central Asia as it provides China and Russia with an institutional arena in which to manage their disputes and smaller states with a platform that isn’t dominated by Russia such as the Collective Security Treaty Organization which also includes Armenia and Belarus. If Beijing and Moscow resume their historical rivalry for Eurasia however, the organization “will almost certainly be doomed to irrelevance.”

Greater power involvement in Afghanistan, particularly from India which stands only to lose from the resurgence of Pakistani affiliated Islamists in the Hindu Kush, could benefit the country as its isolation in the prewar years was part of what allowed extremism to flourish. Both India and Russia have invested in reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan but an institutional regional approach still seems more wishful thinking than an imminent reality.

Especially when it comes to Chinese involvement, Afghanistan faces a conundrum — as long as great powers like China won’t commit to its security, America cannot leave without risking a return of the Taliban but great powers like China have very little reason to commit as long as the Americans are there to protect their enterprises. It’s a classic catch-22.

Either the SCO matures far more quickly than is likely as a regional security guarantor to ensure Afghanistan’s territorial integrity and the survival of its democratic government or the latter could succumb to the influence of just one of the interested parties, India for instance, and once again find its country the battleground of great power struggles.