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SCO: towards a high-profile role in Afghanistan

Vladimir Radyuhin

Analysts link the shift in America’s position, in favour of sharing its responsibility for Afghanistan’s security with the SCO, to the failure of the U.S.-led military operation.

The Special Conference on Afghanistan, held in Moscow last Friday, reflected the growing clout of Russia and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation in the region. The conference was organised by the SCO, which comprises six full members — Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan — and four observers, India, Iran, Pakistan and Mongolia. It was remarkable for a broad range of participants from outside the organisation. They included U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon; Secretary-General of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe Mark Perrin de Brichambaut; U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs Patrick Moon; and NATO Deputy Secretary-General Martin Howard. There were also representatives from the Group of Eight countries, the European Union and the Organisation of the Islamic Conference. Afghanistan was represented by Foreign Minister Rangin Dagdar Spanta. Altogether, 36 countries sent their Foreign Ministers and other officials to the conference.

It was for the first time the SCO drew so much attention from the world, said Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s special envoy Satinder Lambah, who underlined the non-confrontational character of the conference, describing it as a smooth operation. It was also for the first time that senior officials from the U.S. and NATO were invited to an SCO meeting. Moreover, they formally recognised the SCO as a major player in efforts to bring peace and stability to Afghanistan.

A unanimously adopted joint declaration said: “The participants also noted that the SCO was one of the appropriate fora for a wide dialogue with participation of partners on the Afghanistan-related issues in the context of joint efforts of the international community and Afghanistan and for practical interaction between Afghanistan and its neighbouring states in combating terrorism, drug trafficking and organised crime.”

This marked a volte-face of the U.S. view of the SCO as a hostile bloc and rival in Central Asia. The SCO is a subject that seems to make a lot of Americans’ blood boil, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Evan Feigenbaum admitted in a speech in September 2007. Last Friday, his successor, Mr. Patrick Moon, was all praise for the SCO’s efforts in Afghanistan. “These are positive steps and we will look at where we might be able to contribute,” he said of a joint action plan adopted by the SCO and Afghanistan at the Moscow conference.

The plan sets the stage for the SCO playing a high-profile role in Afghanistan. Russia and other SCO members have long argued that Afghanistan’s neighbours should have a stronger role in dealing with the grave security threats emanating from that country. Afghan drug traffic has become the most serious threat to the security of Russia and countries of Central Asia. The efforts being taken to fight this evil are insufficient, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told the conference, calling on the U.S.-NATO coalition forces to step up anti-narcotics efforts.

Russia’s anti-drug chief Viktor Ivanov last week called the coalition anti-drug policy a fiasco, noting that opium production in Afghanistan had soared 44 times since the deployment of U.S. and NATO troops in the country. Afghan narcotics, he said, killed 30,000 people in Russia every year, twice as many as the Soviet Union lost during its 15-year-long military intervention in Afghanistan.

The SCO-Afghanistan Action Plan calls for joint operations in combating terrorism, drug trafficking and organised crime; for involving Afghanistan, in a phased manner, in the SCO-wide collaboration in fighting terrorism in the region; and for inviting relevant Afghan bodies to take part in joint law-enforcement exercises by the SCO. It also provides for stepping up the training of drug agencies, combating laundering of drug money and improving border controls. These measures should help to set up anti-narcotics, anti-terrorism and anti-laundering security belts around Afghanistan. The plan reads like a road map for bringing Afghanistan into the SCO fold.

Interestingly, India’s envoy, in his address, directly appealed for granting SCO membership to Afghanistan. “Afghanistan’s membership of SAARC and other groups such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation will renew and reinforce Afghanistan’s linkages with the countries of the region,” he said. Afghanistan joined SAARC in 2007, but it is neither a member nor observer in the SCO, though it is part of the SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group established in November 2005 to provide a mechanism for SCO member-states to jointly contribute to reconstruction and stability in Afghanistan. Afghan President Hamid Karzai attended all SCO summits in recent years.

The idea of Afghanistan joining the SCO would be anathema to the U.S., and President Barack Obama’s proposal to create a NATO-dominated contact group with Afghanistan as part of his new strategy for the region is seen as an attempt to dilute the influence of the SCO, even as he has invited its members to the new group. However, at the Moscow conference the U.S. envoy joined the other delegates in vowing support for the SCO-Afghanistan Action Plan. The declaration said the participants in the Moscow conference “expressed the intent to explore the possibility of aiding [the] implementation of the Action Plan.”

Analysts linked the dramatic shift in Washington’s position, in favour of sharing its responsibility for Afghanistan’s security with the SCO, to the failure of the U.S.-led military operation. The U.S. and other NATO countries have already secured transit routes across Russia and the Central Asian states for non-military supplies to their forces in Afghanistan, and Moscow suggested it could allow shipment of military cargoes as well.

Alexander Lukin, a leading Russian expert on the region, says cooperation with the SCO offers the U.S. and NATO an acceptable format to somehow bring Iran into the dialogue. Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Mehdi Akhundzadeh sat across the table with the U.S. envoy at the Moscow conference. The Sunday Times described it as a historic meeting of the old enemies. A U.S. official told reporters at the conference that Afghanistan was a very productive area for engagement with Iran.

The documents adopted at the conference declared support for the efforts of the Karzai government, which has recently fallen out of favour with the U.S. and NATO. Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Alexei Borodavkin warned against creating a power vacuum in Afghanistan in the run-up to the presidential elections later this year. Russia also came out against appeasing the Taliban.

Commendable efforts to achieve national reconciliation must not be supplanted with attempts to strike a deal with the terrorist leaders, the Russian diplomat said.

The Moscow conference was held four days before the broader United Nations conference on Afghanistan on March 31, and the two events complement, rather than duplicate, each other. While the Moscow meet concentrated on the threats of drugs and terrorism to Afghanistan’s neighbour, The Hague conference will discuss Mr. Obama’s new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The Moscow conference call for adopting a comprehensive approach to Afghanistan was consonant with Mr. Obama’s new emphasis on diplomacy, economic assistance, the building of a strong Afghan army and security forces and on shutting down the Pakistani safe haven for extremists. If anything, the Moscow Declaration came harder on Pakistan demanding that it find effective means to combat terrorism, including denying sanctuaries and dismantling the extremist and terrorist network and ideological centres.

The Moscow conference was a diplomatic coup for Russia and the SCO. Coming just over a month after Kyrgyzstan decided to shut a major U.S. airbase, the Afghanistan conference reiterated the SCO’s position that while it is opposed to the expansion of U.S. military interests in Central Asia, it is willing to expand cooperation with the U.S. and NATO in Afghanistan, even as none of the SCO members is prepared to send troops to Afghanistan. The conference reinforced the SCO as the leading regional security force. It will also strengthen the voice of Afghanistan’s neighbours, including India and Iran, at The Hague meet.

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