Shanghai Cooperation Organization Stymies US in Afghanistan

With NATO, led by the United States, attempting to negotiate its way out of its longest-ever war, the process, though easier than fighting, has not been smooth. The US does want to get out but it wants an Afghanistan that its competitors (i.e., Russia and China) cannot dominate, and thus complete their ascendancy over almost the entire Eurasian heartland with virtually no US major military presence blocking their way.

This is exactly what the US rivals aim to achieve -- to drive the US out of the region, bring Afghanistan into their own fold, and build the new Silk Road of regional connectivity. The US, which has led the NATO coalition in an endless and debilitating struggle that has taken the lives of 3,500-odd coalition troops in addition to thousands of Afghan civilian and military casualties with no end in sight, appears to have little choice. Washington is negotiating from a position of fatigued weakness.

While China and Russia do have their own separate connections with the Taliban in Afghanistan and they are certainly in deep talks with the rebels about Afghanistan’s future, including the question of how to cope with the threat of the Islamic State, which seeks a regional caliphate, they have also made sure the eight-member Shanghai Cooperation Organization, occasionally dubbed the “Asian NATO,” gets to play a significant role for a stable (aka a US-free) Afghanistan.

Afghanistan already has observer status in the SCO, whose member states, besides China and Russia, are India, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Three other countries besides Afghanistan – Belarus, Iran and Mongolia – hold Observer status.

The recently held SCO summit in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, paid special attention to the Afghan war. The joint declaration issued thereafter referred to Afghanistan in a way that made sure that the SCO’s future is deeply linked to the Afghan issue.

“The member states believe that one of the key factors of preserving and enhancing security and stability in the SCO space is a prompt settlement of the situation in Afghanistan,”reads the joint declaration.

Significantly enough, while the SCO declaration made it clear that it supports a “political dialogue and an inclusive peace process conducted and led by Afghans themselves,” it made no direct reference to the ongoing process of dialogue between the US and the Taliban, making instead a reference to the necessity of the inclusion of the United Nations in the process, utilization of multilateral forums such as the SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group and the Moscow initiative.

Needless to say, the US has no presence in any capacity in these multilateral forums. It is the preference for A UN presence in the process, a demand that seems to suggest that a bilateral agreement between the US and the Taliban may not provide a lasting basis for peace in Afghanistan. Conversely, a multilateral and an international agreement may do.

The SCO is, as is evident, a potential player in Afghanistan that doesn’t stand in an alliance with the US even though the US is itself in the middle of finding its way out of the country. It can also mean that the SCO has little to no confidence in the US’s stated intentions of ending the war through dialogue. As an example of the US’s desperation to get out, Afghan-born US diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad has been negotiating with the Taliban for months without even including the Afghanistan government in the talks.

For Afghanistan itself, the SCO is an extremely fruitful source of postwar reconstruction and development. Indeed, as it has been observed, the SCO could be a potential springboard for Afghanistan to participate in regional integration and improve connectivity with neighbouring countries.

Whereas there could hardly be any doubt about the crucial role that regional countries can play in mitigating the seemingly endless crisis, now almost 18 years in duration, the reason the SCO continues to stand apart from the US peace process is the on-going ‘dry season’ of relations between the US and China i.e., the trade war initiated by US President Donald Trump, and a series of other confrontations – sanctions the US has imposed on Russia the Iran crisis that has blown up as a result of Washington’s voiding the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the JCPOA), nuclear treaty negotiated by former President Obama’s administration, and Russia’s backing to the Assad regime in Syria.

China, in fact, made sure that the ongoing trade war received adequate attention in the joint declaration, leading all the countries to jointly condemn the US “protectionism” and call for a “rule-based” and a “multipolar world order.”

Perhaps one reason why the SCO members, particularly China and Russia, have little to no confidence in the US-led peace process, especially under the Trump administration, is the way this administration has mismanaged the JCPOA with Tehran. What if the US makes an agreement with the Taliban/Afghanistan and then unilaterally ends the agreement at some point?

These concerns throw some light on why the SCO has expressed its preference for a peace process through the UN rather than any one actor. Importantly enough, the SCO doesn’t just want the UN to play a secondary and mediator role; it wants it to play a “central coordinating role” to end the war and put Afghanistan on the path to peace and development.

What all this means is that the path the SCO has chartered is meant to make sure that the US continues to lose its grip on Afghanistan in particular and on the region in general. In the spirit of “multipolar world order,” the SCO aims to make sure that the war ends and that it happens in a way that leaves the US with no tentacles to influence the post-exit scenario.

Salman Rafi Sheikh is a Pakistan-based academic and a longtime Asia Sentinel contributor.