Before the addition of India and Pakistan in 2017, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) consisted of China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. The now eight-member SCO also has four observer states, including Afghanistan, and six dialogue partners, including Sri Lanka. Together, they constitute much of Asia’s geography, with a population of over 3.2 billion people.
An observer state itself, Afghanistan directly neighbors five of the SCO member-states, including acceding Iran. China remains Afghanistan’s ancient neighbor with ever-growing ties. India as a near neighbor and Russia as an extended one have maintained deep relations with the Afghan people and legitimate governments. And the SCO space holds sizeable Muslim and co-ethnic populations, who share many cultural and traditional values that further tie the SCO geography as a vast area of numerous intertwined interests, opportunities, and challenges for results-driven win-win cooperation in the SCO region.
Against this backdrop, the foundational purpose of SCO as the largest intergovernmental organization in the world is to strengthen mutual trust and promote good neighborly relations among its member-states. This is to be achieved through gradual but consistent efforts by the SCO member-states to engage in multifaceted cooperation to advance their collective, common interest in the sustainable human and protective security of the SCO space. Parallel to this, the SCO seeks to establish a more democratic and rational world order.
In this light, Uzbekistan, which hosts and chairs the 2022 annual summit of the SCO Heads of State Council on September 15-16, seeks to “raise the potential and authority of the organization, ensure peace and stability in the region, reduce poverty, and ensure food security.”
This is consistent with the call by Chinese President Xi Jinping at the 2018 SCO Summit in Qingdao, urging the expanded membership to move from talk to action: “We need to actively implement the 2019-2021 program of cooperation for combating three evil forces of terrorism, separatism, and extremism.” Xi added that “Countries are increasingly inter-dependent today… confronted with many common threats and challenges that no one can tackle alone. Only by enhancing solidarity and partnership, will we be able to achieve lasting stability and development.”
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi echoed his Chinese counterpart, floating the concept of SECURE to underpin the work of SCO: “S” for security for citizens, “E” for economic development, “C” for connectivity in the region, “U” for unity, “R” for respect of sovereignty, “E” for environmental protection. In the same summit, Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed with his Chinese and Indian counterparts and stressed that “countering terrorism remains the priority for cooperation within the SCO.” Putin underlined that the three-year program of action, adopted at the Qingdao Summit, “envisions holding joint drills and counter-terror operations, streamlining a closer exchange of experience and operational information.”
Much to the dismay of the Afghan people, however, the SCO remained dormant and largely inactive throughout 2019-2021, precisely when the U.S.-led NATO alliance wavered in their commitment to securing sustainable peace in Afghanistan and gradually withdrew their forces from the country. Although this met one of the key demands of some of the SCO member-states, the SCO didn’t choose to fill the widening security gap left behind by the departing NATO forces.
Consequently, over the past year since August 15, 2021, when the Islamic Republic fell, the intertwined challenges of terrorism, radicalism, drugs, and separatism have entrenched in Afghanistan, directly threatening the peace, stability, security, and prosperity of the entire SCO region.
The leadership of the SCO member-states, currently gathering in Samarkand, can no longer afford to neglect what’s been developing in their countries’ immediate and extended neighborhood. The Taliban neither represent the national security interests and culture of the Afghan people nor do they share any common grounds with any of the member-states of SCO as progressive and modern nations that value and meet the basic equal human rights of their citizens, including girls and women. Indeed, without the full participation of women in the societies, polities, and economies of China, India, and Russia, they could have hardly achieved their current status as the giants of “Rising Asia,” now working together to rationalize and democratize the current world order.
Securing Afghanistan on a sustainable basis is one of the key tests of the SCO’s relevance now and in the future, as it seeks to build and maintain continental peace and stability for such much needed projects of connectivity as the Belt and Road Initiative. But with the Taliban sheltering al-Qaida, the Islamic State, the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), and their affiliated regional and global terrorist groups, it is hard to imagine how the converging visions of China, India, and Russia for shared prosperity through connectivity could materialize, if Afghanistan as the “heart of Asia” were not stabilized.
That is why the SCO Samarkand Summit must place the rationalization of the status quo in Afghanistan and the resolution of its lingering 43-year imposed conflicts at the top of its agenda. India, China, and Russia – the latter two as permanent members of the United Nations Security Council – can easily enlist the support of other governments that remain committed to securing Afghanistan to revive the country’s dead peace process. This should enable all Afghan sides, including the Taliban, to reach a sustainable political settlement for forming an inclusive government acceptable to all Afghans and consistent with Afghanistan’s international obligations and the hard-earned gains of the Afghan people over the past 21 years.
At the same time, they must back this necessary outcome by deployment of a multinational U.N. and SCO implementation force to help keep and enforce peace until Afghanistan fully returns to normalcy and becomes a sustainable contributor of peace, stability, and prosperity to the SCO region. Success in this endeavor of common interest across the SCO region will require political will on the part of all SCO member-states to see Afghanistan freed from the claws of terrorism, extremism, endemic poverty and the adverse effects of climate change, which destabilize the whole region.
The Samarkand Summit is an opportunity for the SCO member-states to move from rhetoric to tangible actions under the SCO platform to accomplish their shared mission possible: “a stable, peaceful, democratic, and prosperous Afghanistan” at the heart of the SCO region.