By Gaurav Dixit
The 2018 summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) will be held in the coastal city of Qingdao in East China's Shandong province in June.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said the SCO summit in Qingdao is going to be "a new milestone in the history of the SCO." Participants are expected to work on a five-year outline for implementation of the Treaty on Long-term Good Neighborliness, Friendship and Cooperation, and on some resolutions or documents concerning security, economic, cultural and environmental cooperation. With renewed Chinese and Russian interest in Central Asia and Afghanistan, and both India and Pakistan becoming SCO members, the summit is expected to provide a framework for the organization’s renewed engagement in Afghanistan.
Within the SCO, the SCO Contact group is a dedicated group handling the Afghanistan problem. A protocol to establish the SCO-Afghanistan contact group was adopted by the SCO in Astana in 2005 and the group met till 2011, after which it stopped meeting.
The SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group, at the level of deputy foreign ministers, met after seven years in Moscow on 11 October 2017. Delegates stressed the importance of supporting the Afghanistan government and peoples’ efforts to settle the conflict through political consultations and dialogue.
There are great expectations about the SCO’s role in Afghanistan; however, it has not come close to fulfilling the international community’s expectations that it is willing to seriously handle the Afghan problem. Currently, there are glaring divergences in the manner that individual SCO member countries perceive the insurgency crisis in Afghanistan. It has repeatedly reiterated its position to support local and international efforts aimed at initiating a political dialogue between Afghanistan's authorities and the insurgent groups. However, it has taken a different approach to the different warring factions.
Russia and Pakistan have been critical of the Islamic State in Afghanistan, while taking a softer stand against the Taliban. Russia, China and Pakistan are working towards building a new axis in Afghanistan to accommodate the Taliban as a tool against the Islamic State. Russia and China, like Pakistan, are taking a relatively benign view of the Taliban, which is in direct conflict with the views expressed by the newly inducted other member, India. The notion of the ‘Good-Taliban, Bad-Taliban’ promoted by Pakistan, has also been accepted by most SCO members.
They have agreed to adopt a flexible approach to remove certain members of the Taliban from the UN sanctions lists as part of their efforts to foster a peaceful dialogue between Kabul and the Taliban. India, however, has always insisted that it is up to the government of Afghanistan to decide whom to engage in direct talks. India, having taken a divergent view from China and Russia on engaging the Taliban as part of the peace process, maintains that there is no good or bad Taliban.
Secondly, for India, fighting terrorism jointly with Pakistan is a no-go, considering that New Delhi regards Islamabad as the promoter of terror groups aimed at bleeding India and Afghanistan.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov offered ‘deep appreciation’ to Islamabad for its efforts and sacrifices to combat terrorism, in the same breath with which he criticized the US policy in Afghanistan. The statement was more an outcome of geostrategic interests than a true picture of the ground reality. Russia’s new policy suggests that its growing interest in region can be achieved by blindly acknowledging Pakistan’s effort without underlining its role in the Afghan problem.
Similarly, Pakistan has repeatedly reiterated that it would not accept India’s role as a regional policeman, nor does it accept that India has any role to play in Afghanistan. Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi has said that Pakistan sees "zero" political or military role for India in Afghanistan.
It would be nearly impossible to achieve peace and stability in Afghanistan without engaging India. New Delhi has conveyed its readiness to work closely with SCO members in efforts to bring peace, prosperity and stability in Afghanistan. Any attempt to isolate India from Afghanistan at multilateral levels would only hamper the process.
Finally, SCO members cannot reject the role of the US and the international community in Afghanistan. The Afghan government’s stability is deeply dependent on the international forces. Any alteration in the status quo might completely turn the table in favour of the Taliban, which is rapidly gaining ground in the country. It will only push the attempted peace process to a precarious level.
Therefore, SCO needs to revisit its policy, based on the interests of the region and support international community in their fight against the insurgents. It should help the Afghan government to meet their aspirations, highlighted by Deputy Foreign Minister Hekmat Karzai during the SCO contact group meeting.
He highlighted the important role of SCO in helping Afghanistan achieve its economic potential, as well as its integration with the SCO economies through increased trade, transit, and investment. SCO countries are well placed to help Afghanistan achieve economic growth and integration which, in turn, will open a window for peace and normalcy.
(The author is Associate Research Fellow at the United Service Institution of India, New Delhi. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)