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Afghanistan and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization

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Afghanistan and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization

Why is the Afghan government pursuing full membership in the SCO, and what would that step mean for the grouping?

Afghanistan and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization

Heads of state pose for a photo at the 2018 SCO summit.

Credit: Russian Presidential Press and Information Office

Since 2015, Afghanistan has been striving to get full membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), with no success as of yet. It is still an observer state in the SCO, despite Pakistan and India gaining full membership in July 2017.

The SCO contact group on Afghanistan met in Tajikistan July 14 to discuss the Afghan issue, including Uzbekistan’s newly proposed Plan of Practical Measures to Promote the Socioeconomic Restoration of Afghanistan. Recently, the Afghan deputy foreign minister met with his Tajik counterpart and both agreed that the SCO, which aims to fight against terrorism and extremism in the region, is a “good mechanism” to address the current security situation in Afghanistan.

Why is the Afghan government pursuing full membership in the SCO, and what would that step mean for the grouping?

Afghanistan and the SCO

Afghanistan has been engaged with the SCO for over 15 years. It signed a protocol establishing the SCO-Afghanistan contact group in 2005; however, its “activity was suspended in 2009.” In 2012, Afghanistan became an observer in the SCO when then-Afghan President Hamid Karzai visited China. In 2015, Afghanistan signed a protocol on counterterrorism with the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure of the SCO; the same year Kabul applied for full membership in the group.

In 2016, then-Afghan Chief Executive Officer Dr. Abdullah Abdullah also requested full membership in the SCO. In 2017, Deputy Foreign Minister Hekmat Khalil Karzai renewed Afghanistan’s request for full membership, while Chinese President Xi Jinping  proposed the resumption of the SCO-Afghanistan contact group to “facilitate peace and stability in Afghanistan.” Since then, the contact group is has been meeting annually.

In 2018, Afghanistan signed a protocol on conducting consultations on “political issues and the fight against terrorism, extremism and illicit drug trafficking, as well as involving Afghanistan in the regional economic cooperation processes.” In 2019, Afghan Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani once again “continue[d] requesting” full membership at the SCO ambassadorial meeting and asked member countries for support in this regard.

Afghanistan has been seeking full SCO membership since 2015 for three main reasons.

First, since Ashraf Ghani became president in 2014, he has viewed the continued conflict in Afghanistan as a regional affair, where Pakistan is alleged to be involved in an “undeclared war of aggression” against Afghanistan. This view hasn’t changed; in March 2021 Ghani “once again called on Pakistan to end the undeclared war in Afghanistan.” There is a consensus in Kabul that to end the ongoing conflict, regional cooperation is needed. In that sense, membership in the SCO will not only help Afghanistan to build regional consensus, but will also persuade the SCO to be more proactively engaged in Afghanistan.

Second, the SCO’s goals are mostly in line with what those of the Afghan government under Ghani, whether fighting terrorism, extremism, and illegal drugs or pursuing the economic cooperation and regional connectivity envisioned in the SCO Charter and Afghan developmental plans and National Priority Programs. Full SCO membership will likely increase Afghanistan’s security and economic cooperation with the SCO region, as both are fighting for the same destiny – a region free from terrorism, extremism, and drug trafficking and linked together with more connectivity.

Third, seeking membership in the SCO, which counts China and Russia as members, is also in line with the Afghan government’s newly coined foreign policy of “multi-alignment neutrality.” This new contour in Afghan foreign policy comes as the United States is withdrawing from the country. The Afghan government wants to build its ties with regional countries to somehow fill the power vacuum left behind by the U.S. withdrawal – not necessarily through a military presence, but through enhanced military, security, and economic assistance).

The Case for Afghanistan’s Membership

There are several reasons why Afghanistan makes a natural candidate for the SCO.

Geographically, Afghanistan is a part of the SCO region. It is a direct neighbor to four SCO member states –  China, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan – and has very close historical and economic relations with the other four: Russia (a former Afghan neighbor in the Soviet era), India, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan. Despite not having direct borders with the latter four countries, they are still considered as “close neighbors” in Afghan foreign policy.

As a result of these geographic ties, no other country currently outside the SCO has more ethnic, cultural, and historical links with the SCO region. Afghanistan has deep ethnic links with the SCO region. Out of 150 ethnic groups living in the SCO region, around 30 are living in Afghanistan. Mostly these ethnic groups are scattered across the region, but Afghanistan is at the juncture of various ethnicities represented in SCO member states. Therefore, Afghanistan’s membership will have a multiplier effect in the whole SCO region, resulting in a more culturally and ethnically connected region.

At the diplomatic level, Afghanistan has recorded bilateral ties with the formal members of the SCO for centuries, including the newest SCO members, Pakistan and India. In addition, it has also very close relations with SCO observer states, with the exceptions of Mongolia and Belarus, where Afghan diplomatic missions are not present (relations are directed from Afghan embassies in China and Russia, respectively). Still, even in Mongolia and Belarus, Afghanistan has been engaged in the education and economic sectors.

Afghanistan also has very close economic and trade ties with most of the SCO member states. This is backed up by statistics. According to the Afghan Statistical Yearbook, in 2017-2018 more than 87 percent of Afghanistan’s total imports were from SCO countries; and more than 57 percent of Afghanistan’s total exports were destined to SCO member states. In total, more than 60 percent of Afghanistan’s total trade was with the SCO member countries.

Currently, the prospects for Afghanistan’s SCO membership are better than ever before, as U.S. troops are planning to withdraw from Afghan soil based on a deal between the Afghan Taliban and the United States signed in February 2020. The full withdrawal is expected to be completed by the end of August. This will remove the concerns of some of SCO member countries that have been opposing Afghanistan’s entry into the group because of the presence of American troops or Kabul’s close alliance with Washington.

Why the SCO Needs Afghanistan 

Let us not forget that the Afghan Civil War was the main reason behind the formation of the SCO in the first place. This was pointed out by a former experienced Russian ambassador: “One should not forget that the SCO emerged as a response to immediate threats of terrorism and drug trafficking, which came from Afghanistan in the late 1990s. The SCO idea was born from a collective demand for a regional coalition to combat them.”

The Afghan state is a natural ally for the SCO’s efforts. The Afghan government’s fight against terrorism, extremism, and opium cultivation is in line with the SCO’s fight against the “three evils,” which formed the primary motivation for its formation in 2001. Providing Afghanistan full membership in the SCO will assist the group in better achieving its objectives and boost regional integration and connectivity among the SCO region.

Based on a U.N. report last summer, the Taliban have not cut ties with al-Qaida yet, despite pledging to do so in their deal with the United States. The report states that “[r]elations between the Taliban, especially the Haqqani Network… and Al-Qaida remain close, based on friendship, a history of shared struggle, ideological sympathy, and intermarriage. The Taliban regularly consulted with Al-Qaida during negotiations with the United States and offered guarantees that it would honor their historical ties.” Likewise,  the Taliban also have ties with Central Asian and Chinese terrorist and extremist groups that are involved and stationed in Afghanistan. Afghanistan’s membership in the SCO will likely reduce the threats to the region emanating from Afghanistan, considering the high level of violence and presence of foreign fighters. It will also help address the “power vacuum” left behind after the U.S. withdrawal.

The SCO does not want the region to relive the turbulent 1990s, where a civil war in Afghanistan played a role in conflicts and insurgencies throughout the region: the civil war in Tajikistan, a stirring “Intifada” in Kashmir, insurgency in Chechnya, and the rise of extremists and separatists in Xinjiang. Giving full membership to Afghanistan is the first step to assist in stabilizing Afghanistan and the region. Otherwise, it is likely that regional power politics will emerge in the post-U.S. withdrawal period, paving the way for proxy wars and a period of instability in the region.