20.07.2021 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

The SCO Devises a ‘Regional Approach’ to Afghanistan


Even though the US withdrawal from Afghanistan was expected to make the Afghan war less ‘international’, this has been far from the case. Contrary to the projections, even ‘civil war’ in Afghanistan has an international dimension, not because some international actors are militarily involved in it, but mainly because the fallout could destabilise the whole region around Afghanistan i.e., South (Pakistan), West (Iran), Central (Russia and Central Asian states) and East (China) Asia. What also adds to the internationality of the ‘civil war’ in Afghanistan is the presence of many transnational jihadi networks, including the IS-K, al-Qaeda and the East Turkestan Movement (ETIM) (terrorist organizations, banned in Russia). The Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) (that is banned in Russia as well), which mainly targets Pakistan, is also based in Afghanistan. Many Baloch separatist groups, too, are known to have established themselves in Afghanistan and use it to launch their attacks inside Pakistani cities. Therefore, the fact that most of these concerned states, including Afghanistan itself and Iran, are either permanent members of the SCO or enjoy an observer status, makes the SCO the most suitable multi-lateral platform to facilitate a political settlement in Afghanistan.

In a SCO recent meeting in Dushanbe, which was held against the backdrop of a hasty US withdrawal from Afghanistan and how it has perpetrated a serious crisis, China’s foreign minister laid out what can be called the ‘master plan’ for facilitating a negotiated transition in Afghanistan from twenty years of war to at least a relatively stable government, one that enjoys the confidence not only of all the warring parties, namely Kabul and the Taliban (organization banned in Russia), but also the concerned regional states. As China’s Wang Yi said:

1: The US cannot simply walk away. It has a responsibility to end the crisis it had started in 2001.

2: There is an utmost need to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a safe heaven for transnational terror networks. Every effort needs to be made “to prevent the “three forces” of terrorism, separatism and extremism from infiltrating and spreading into the surrounding areas of Afghanistan.”

3: A destabilising fallout can be prevented only if the SCO members “leverage their respective advantages to make joint efforts for mediation, and urge all Afghan factions to clarify the road map and timetable for reconciliation, so as to lay a solid foundation for a broad, inclusive political structure in Afghanistan.”

4: Members states need to adopt a multilateral approach so that no one state can impose, or try to impose, a political settlement that serves its interests at the expense of other states, or the people of Afghanistan themselves.

5: The SCO must activate itself to help re-build Afghanistan.

While the blueprint for Afghanistan brings together the tension that the US’ “irresponsible” withdrawal has caused, what is evident is that the SCO, Asia’s most powerful regional platform, is not averse to the Taliban’s return to political power. On the contrary, the SCO’s emphasis on mainstreaming the Taliban emphasises the need to recognise the Taliban as a legitimate political movement. Not doing so, the SCO has implied, could further push the Taliban into a retrogressive mode, compelling them to buttress their position vis-à-vis internal, regional and international pressure with help from other transnational jihadi networks. By integrating the Afghan Taliban into mainstream politics, however, the currently available space for these networks can be considerably reduced.

As some recent reports have shown, Afghanistan continues to be a ‘safe heaven’ for many such groups. As such, even though the Trump administration had removed the ETIM from its list of terror groups because it does not exist or have a high level of operational capability, a recent UN Security Council report confirmed that ETIM not only exists and operates in Afghanistan but is also pursuing a “transnational agenda.” According to the report, ETIM is among the “foremost” foreign terror groups operating in Afghanistan. The report says ETIM is situated mainly in Badakhshan, Kunduz and Takhar provinces and that Abdul Haq (Memet Amin Memet) remains the group’s leader. The report goes on to say approximately 500 ETIM fighters operate in the north and northeast of Afghanistan, primarily in Raghistan and Warduj districts, Badakhshan, with financing based in Raghistan. Those northern areas connect with China through the narrow Wakhan Corridor, a potential passageway for Xinjiang-bound militants.

However, even though there are real security concerns that have put Russia, China and other SCO members on the alert, the SCO has still offered a road-map that is radically different from the approach the US followed in last two decades of its presence in Afghanistan. The SCO has clearly refrained, at least until now, from making any commitments regarding deploying its military in Afghanistan, or secure military bases with help from Kabul, to establish (read: impose) peace on Afghanistan by militarily suppressing warring factions.

While the Taliban continue to bring more and more Afghan territory under their control, it remains that the group is more sensitive to the pressure being generated by the SCO than it ever was to the Trump’s “maximum pressure.” In other words, even though they continue to implement their plan to re-establish an Islamic Emirates, they are not, as their representative recently said in an interview, completely averse to talking with Kabul and/or regional stakeholders.

A lot of this has geo-strategic underpinnings. Even for the Taliban, coming into power would not cancel out the need to rebuild Afghanistan, especially through integrating it with existing regional connectivity programmes, including the BRI and the EEU. In the absence of a strong domestic economy, the Taliban’s major route to rebuilding goes through these platforms, which inevitably requires good relations with the member states, which in turn means paying head to their sensitivities vis-à-vis transnational terror networks currently present in Afghanistan.

In other words, even though the Taliban may be able to establish their rule militarily, they are unlikely to be able to consolidate themselves politically and economically without political recognition/legitimacy and economic support from these states. The SCO’s five point plan offers just the same, which the Taliban can ignore only at their own peril.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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