Dialogue January-March, 2012, Volume 13 No. 3


A Review of the SCO's Conflict-Preventive Role in Afghanistan's Peripheral Region


Mandana Tishehyar


The access to security and stability has special strategic significance in recent times, particularly for fast growing and emerging economies. Eurasia sits atop of the heartland of the world, has seen rapid developments threaten the bases of the stable governments and made the security achievement more difficult in recent years. As a result, some security concerns are growing in the region. Regarding these realities, Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as the most powerful and united regional mechanism in the Eurasia region is trying to play an important role to improve the collective security framework in this region.

This article seeks to explore the implications of the SCO’s engagement with regional security issues, especially in Afghanistan and its periphery as the most important security subject in the Eurasia region. The author tries to understand what practical problems such an expanded organization could help to solve, what opportunities it could realize, and how the SCO’s engagement in Afghanistan’s issue is a function of favorable political developments in both regional and global levels.

Key Words: Afghanistan, Central Asia, SCO, NATO, Energy, Security.


The access to security and stability has special strategic significance in recent times, particularly for fast growing and emerging economies. Eurasia Sits atop of the heartland of the world, has seen rapid developments threaten the bases of the stable governments and made the security achievement more difficult in recent years. As a result, some security concerns are growing in the region. The struggles for access to the Eurasia resources, especially in the field of energy, are taking place in a climate of serious competitions that threaten peace in the region. On the other hand, regional security issues including inter-ethnic and inter-religious tensions have provided a favorable atmosphere for different actors to further their agenda. Such a kind of circumstances requires concerted regional efforts to deal with these deeply interlinked security issues.

Regarding to these realities, it seems that Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as the most powerful and united regional mechanism in the Eurasia region can play an important role to improve the collective security framework in this region. It seems that there are three tasks of particular importance for SCO strategic planners:

First, guaranteeing the access to the energy security is one of the most important issues in the SCO’s agenda.

Second, regional stability, especially in the turbulent ethno-religious regions, is a serious issue. The SCO countries view the claims for autonomy and participation in the politico-economic power of the central governments by ethnic and religious minorities as a direct threat to their territorial integrity. The fact that potential future energy transportation routes from the resource-rich Caspian basin will have to cross unstable regions raises more concerns about this problem.

And third, the SCO great powers such as China and Russia promote a multipolar world order in their foreign policy strategy. (Rozoff, May 22, 2009) As a result, in spite of some competing interests in the strategic perceptions of the SCO countries, the situation is favourable for a regional cooperation in different dimensions.

Today, the SCO is the sole institution with the potential to become a nucleus of a broader regional cooperation regime in Eurasia. Strengthening of regional cooperation mechanisms, rather than against the outside powerful players such as the United States and the European Union, has provided a very reasonable means for absorbing geopolitical tensions and creating a new framework of cooperation.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization has the elements to serve as an effective forum for such efforts. The organization occupies territory from the Arctic to the Indian Ocean and from Kaliningrad to Shanghai, its six full members account for 60 per cent of the land mass of Eurasia and its population is a third of the world’s. With observer states included, its members account for half of the human race and take in a stretch of Eurasia from the South China Sea to the Baltic Sea and from the Persian Gulf to the Bay of Bengal. It may become the second political pole of the world after the United Nations.

In the world where Globalism is characterized by networks of connections that span multi-continental distances, the SCO, based on its traditional Silk Road, providing an economic and cultural link between ancient Eurasian territories, could present a new kind of regional cooperation and interrelations in different economic, political, cultural and strategic aspects.

This article seeks to explore the implications of the SCO’s engagement with regional security issues, especially in Afghanistan and its periphery as the most important security subject in the Eurasia region. The author tries to understand what practical problems such an expanded organization could help to solve, what opportunities it could realize, and how the SCO’s engagement in Afghanistan is a function of favorable political developments in both regional and global levels. The idea that how closely energy politics and Afghanistan’s geopolitics are interrelated in the SCO region and how important the organization is for the access to security, particularly with regard to its multi-ethno-religious feature also will be examined.

A Review of the SCO’s Missions and Functions

When the Shanghai Five was formed in 1996, its primary objective was to boost border security and reduce troop levels along China’s frontiers with former Soviet republics through a variety of confidence building measures. Initially the grouping looked a little tentative. To this end, Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan set up an intergovernmental structure to settle territorial disputes and to coordinate action on common threats such as terrorism, separatism, and extremism. (Rashid, 2002)

In June 2001 the group admitted Uzbekistan, renamed itself the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and broadened its objectives to include interregional economic cooperation, trade, and investment. In 2004 the six member states established a permanent secretariat in Beijing and a regional antiterrorism center in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent. Mongolia was granted observer status in 2004, followed by Iran, India, and Pakistan in 2005. (Pabst, 2009)

Later on it became clear that the foremost objective of the two key members—China and Russia—was to secure their strategic interests and to insulate the region from the negative influences of the Afghanistan and Pakistan-inspired religious extremism and terrorism.

Since 2002 some SCO countries have held joint antiterrorist exercises along their shared borders. More significant, in 2007 units from all six members participated in a collective military exercise that started in the Chinese northwestern Xinjiang region and ended in the Russian Urals. The SCO has not only forged links with CSTO2, but it also has set up the SCO–Afghanistan Contact Group for the purpose of building joint counteraction against terrorism, illegal circulation of narcotics and organized crime. (Singh Roy, May 29, 2009)

Gradually it became a powerful grouping which has acquired a regional anti-terrorism structure and has sufficient resources to fight terrorism, separatism and extremism in Eurasia. It has created a joint mechanism to counter threats to regional peace, stability and security and to strengthen cooperation in fighting drug trafficking and illegal migration. (Narain Roy, September 15, 2007)

However, a careful analysis of developments within the SCO indicates that over the years its focus has shifted from settling border issues to security and now to economic cooperation.3 Of equal geopolitical significance is SCO’s project to form a body charged with defining a common energy policy, to upgrade political relations to reflect the growing strategic importance of the organization, and to create closer links with other transregional economic and political bodies such as the UN, the EU, the World Customs Organization, the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and the Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEC). (Dushanbe Declaration of Heads of SCO Member States, August 28, 2008) It has also gained observer status in the UN General Assembly.

In fact, since 2004, the SCO’s influence and role has been growing in the Central Asian region and its activities are significant in terms of making the international community take notice of this regional grouping.

It can be said that the SCO has emerged as an important factor in the Eurasian security architecture. Today, the SCO has expanded to include South and West Asian countries within its fold. While the SCO represents a major development in the strategic landscape of the Central Asian region, the inclusion of India, Iran and Pakistan as observer states in the SCO mechanism suggests that it is gradually expanding into the wider region. In the next steps it is expected that Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Belarus will become dialogue partners of the SCO. It would therefore be appropriate to rename it as the ‘Asian Cooperation Organization’, if it wishes to emerge as a significant Asian multilateral body seeking to play a greater role in the Asian Region.

The SCO’s Security Concerns Regarding the Afghanistan Problem

Afghanistan has always drawn special attention during the SCO summit meetings. As mentioned before, the SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group was formed in November 2005 for the purpose of building cooperation between the SCO and Afghanistan on issues of mutual interest. Afterward, the special attention on Afghanistan under the auspices of the SCO to discuss the issues of joint counteraction against terrorism, illegal circulation of narcotics and organized crime was proposed by the member states.

It can be evaluated that the SCO as an organization will focus its activities mainly on problems of terrorism and narcotic control. At the same time, Afghanistan directly influences security of the Central Asian states. Obviously, the unstable situation in Afghanistan is worrisome for the SCO members. Regional countries have greater stakes in Afghanistan because of their vested security interests.

Strategically, the SCO’s position about NATO’s presence in Afghanistan is apparent. The SCO reiterated at its 2011 summit in Astana that Afghanistan be built into an independent, neutral, peaceful and prosperous country. It is noticeable that the SCO summit’s joint declaration in 2005, also in Astana, explicitly called on the West to set a deadline for its military presence in Central Asia. (Cheng, August 6, 2011)

Presence in Central Asia and Afghanistan is a part of U.S. general strategy on global security. In the decade after the fall of the Soviet Union and especially after the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. has built up its political, economic and military influence in this region in an overt way. It can be assumed the U.S. will no longer resort to military means, but use political, economic and humane methods after withdrawal from Afghanistan to manifest its influence over Afghanistan and Central Asia. (Cheng, August 6, 2011)

Definitely, the developments in Afghanistan in the coming decade will have direct bearing on SCO member states in terms of peace, stability and development. However, the SCO is indeed a multi-functional, regional international organization, of which security cooperation and economic cooperation are its two main drivers. (Mingwen, August 11, 2011) But it has no military forces and will not be able to build them in the short or medium term. In this sense, it is unrealistic for the SCO to replace the United States and NATO for its peacekeeping in Afghanistan.

Although Afghanistan's problem has been listed on the SCO’s political agenda since the early period of the "Shanghai Five" grouping in the mid-1990s, it has not fully played its potential role in the issue. A war-ridden, tense, drug-trafficking, and chaotic Afghanistan is not in the interests of the SCO. As a result, the SCO knows clearly that helping to solve Afghanistan’s problems will not only benefit the Afghan people, but also will have positive impact on the SCO members.

Today, the SCO’s strong economies have the potential to contribute to the reconstruction of Afghanistan. It has contributed in a major way in the past few years but its activities have been hampered due to the deteriorating security situation within Afghanistan and constant efforts of extremist groups. The SCO has emphasized the importance of regional cooperation because this can help in addressing trans-border issues, developing commercial and economic opportunity and ending cross-border infiltration and terrorism.

The main focus of SCO in Afghanistan is in three areas: counter terrorism, drug trafficking and provision of infrastructure to rebuild Afghanistan. As a result, during recent years, the SCO members and observers have contributed to the reconstruction process in Afghanistan at the bilateral level.

With the SCO’s increasing influence in the past five years within the Eurasian region, it is likely to play an important role in the future as well. The SCO’s geographical proximity to Afghanistan particularly, with the Central Asian countries, will necessitate that neighboring countries engage Afghanistan bilaterally as well as through the SCO in specific areas like controlling drugs and terrorism. In view of these realities, the SCO is also urging regional countries such as India, Iran and Pakistan to engage more on Afghanistan issues.

The membership of India, Iran and Pakistan would complete the line-up of regional countries that have serious interest in establishing a reasonable and representative government in Kabul. With the addition of these countries, the SCO will be a very promising forum for discussing the post-western troops-withdrawal scenario in Afghanistan. These countries also are interested in the plans to upgrade Afghanistan’s status from Special SCO Invitee to Observer. (Dikshit, June 14, 2011) Afghanistan’s major area of interest also would be a closer involvement with the SCO’s Regional Anti-Terrorism Centre (RATC) based at Tashkent.

The Opportunities of the SCO’s Security Cooperation in Afghanistan’s Peripheral Region

There is no doubt that the SCO is partly a vehicle for the permanent members and observers to justify and legitimize their own interests in the Eurasia region. It seems that there is a need to realize the benefits involved with increasing engagement across the East Asia/Central Asia/and South Asia regions. Undoubtedly, greater interdependence could raise the costs of conflicts among the Eurasian states. Any development promoting increased regional dialogue about trade and other issues may have conflict-preventive effect in this conflict prone region.

The move of the SCO into the trade sphere and its engagement with Iran, India, Afghanistan and Pakistan is a sign of the growing trading ties within Eurasia that has consolidated itself in the post-Cold War period. In fact, the trade between the SCO members in this region has a long history. Through the Kuchan, Roman, and Persian empires trade have been conducted from the Indian Ocean stretching as an arc from the Rimland of the Indus basin to the Heartland of Central Asia. (Starr, 2005) What today stretches up north of the Pamir mountains, into the Fergana Valley, to Khorgos in the East and the Caspian in the West was a zone of strong economic interaction which may presently see its economic revival.

During Soviet time cross-border interactions and trade between Central Asia, Afghanistan, China, and Iran were minimal. In addition, before Deng Xiaoping’s leadership in the 1970s and the opening up of the Chinese economy, China’s foreign trade was similarly limited and the same applied to the period of Nehruvian socialism in India. A century of almost constant instability and conflict in Afghanistan, more than 60 years of conflict between India and Pakistan, and border disputes in the entire SCO region have had been detrimental for these economies.

The disintegration of the Soviet Union, and China and Indian integration into the world economy have, however, significantly altered the opportunities for cross-border trade in Greater Central Asia and with its neighbors. Trade potential between China, Afghanistan, India, Pakistan and Iran, the five Central Asian nations, and all the way to Western Europe is considerable. A major driver for this is growing energy needs in India, Pakistan, China and enormous energy supplies in the Caspian, the Middle East, Central Asia and Russia have also led to significant complementarities between the SCO economies. (Norling & Swanstrom, September 2007)

However, it is important to consider that to date, trade, energy and economic matters are mostly settled bilaterally on the sidelines of the heads of state’s summits and the regional coordination aspect is often neglected. Paradoxically, the bulk of these deals seem to be between SCO members and observers. This indicates that a greater regional dialogue including not only China, Russia and Central Asia, but also its neighbors in South Asia is long overdue. Even if the economies of the current SCO members are already complementary, the inclusion of Iran, India, Afghanistan and Pakistan into a greater dialogue would increase the ability to discuss matters of concern south of the former Soviet border. With the further improvement of the Multilateral Trade and Development Program, the establishment of a permanent body, and greater interaction with its observers, SCO promises to fill perhaps one of the most important functions in Eurasia—rehabilitation of infrastructure, increased interaction in the business and banking sectors, energy cooperation and bridging the South and Central Asia divide. (Norling & Swanstrom, September 2007)

From this perspective, SCO can play an important role in confidence-building and conflict prevention in Eurasia. For the first time since partition of British India in 1947 into India and Pakistan (India, Pakistan and Bangladesh in 1971) the basic interdependence between India on the one hand, and the states of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Central Asia, China and Southeast Asia on the other, seems to be restored.

The conflict between India and Pakistan can also be reduced under the SCO’s cooperation initiatives. This makes it even more important to include Afghanistan into the regional economy, not least for the former post-Soviet states. If this could be achieved, it would mean increased access to ports in Pakistan at Gwadar and in Iran at Bandar Abbas and Chah Bahar for Central Asia giving important outlets for products to the world market.

On the other hand, as the successful restoration and reconstruction of Afghan society and infrastructure is a key component in a dynamic South and Central Asian market, Afghanistan needs to be further integrated into the SCO structure. There has been increasing talk in Europe and the United States about the possibility and even necessity of a dialogue between the SCO and NATO. Common approaches to combating terrorism and normalizing the situation in Afghanistan could well become the basis for a broader cooperation with NATO. The SCO is particularly valuable here because some of its member-states and observer countries carry a great deal of weight with individual Afghan ethnic groups (specifically: Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Iran, Pakistan, and India). These influential external players could motivate those groups inside Afghanistan to join internal conflict resolution talks. (Lukin, July 21, 2011)

The Future Perspective of the SCO’s Conflict-Preventive Role in Afghanistan’s Peripheral Region

While it is attractive to explain the objectives of the SCO countries in terms of balance of power alone, this often neglects the fact that the organization is more than an expression of power politics. Increased interactions across Eurasia in all directions increases the potentials of the SCO states to find new markets and Afghanistan will find itself in the middle of this trade network. This is not to say that these growing arrangements in Eurasia do not cause challenges to Western interests. But the benefits should also be recognized. The increased interdependence and regional cooperation in Eurasia will raise the costs of conflicts and provide a climate encouraging to cross-border interactions, which in the end will benefit Western firms as well.

During recent years the diversity of interests of the member countries has prepared a suitable ground for SCO to maintain its neutrality in the regional competitions between the Eurasian powerful rivals. For instance, while the Astana summit in 2005 was important for its declaration asking the United States to provide a time frame for the withdrawal of its military forces from SCO territories, the Dushanbe summit in 2008 was held against the backdrop of Georgian crisis and speculations about the start of a ‘new cold war’ between Russia and the US.

Since the six SCO members do not share a common ideology directly aimed against the West, there is no reason to be overly concerned about the organization, which is clearly not a transformed version of the Warsaw Pact. In fact, cooperation in the SCO has discarded Cold War thinking, providing a good example of coexistence among nations of different religions and cultures. (Cornell, 2003) Member states include believers of Taoism, Buddhism, Eastern Orthodox Christianity, Hinduism and Islam.

Based on the new structure of the international system, there is no rerun of the nineteenth- or twentieth-century ‘‘Great Game’’ among empires. Nowadays, sovereignty and legitimacy are not monopolized by states but are widely—although of course unequally—distributed among a wide range of actors, including multinational corporations, religious groups, non-governmental activists and regional and international organizations operating at all layers of the complex matrix of 21st-century power. (Khanna, September 12, 2008).

With the SCO’s increasing influence in the past years within the Eurasian region, it is expected to play an important role in the future as well. The organization is expected to play an increasingly important role in promoting regional economic development and cultural cooperation as well as guaranteeing regional security. In many respects, chaos in Asia stems from poverty and despair. If these issues are resolved within the SCO on a priority basis, for instance, joint projects are implemented in the energy and economic spheres, then tension in the region would gradually lessen and fall short of the levels where extremist groups could inflame conflicts with armed acts.

The SCO’s geographical proximity to Afghanistan particularly, with the Central Asian countries, will require that neighboring countries engage Afghanistan bilaterally as well as through the SCO in specific areas like controlling drugs and terrorism and energy transportation. It seems that Afghanistan is moving to become a full-fledged observer in the SCO in near future. The organization could play an important role in stabilizing Afghanistan after the drawdown of foreign troops in 2014. (Gvosdev, June 28, 2011) Afghanistan’s problems should be an SCO priority for the coming decade to be dealt with involving actively in pushing for Afghanistan’s domestic reconciliation process and for Afghan government’s dialogue with the Taliban and also avoiding any military involvement by Afghanistan’s neighboring countries. Certainly, the SCO can concentrate on Afghanistan’s economic rebuilding and contribute to improving the Afghanistan situation with economic aid.

The present situation provides SCO-Western cooperation in Afghanistan with the best window of opportunity since 9/11. The U.S.’s gradual military withdrawal from Afghanistan may leave all sides open again to common risks. But if SCO strengthens cooperation with the West in Afghanistan, it will not only help to promote a settlement of problems, but also help to change the "NATO of the East" image of SCO and help to enhance its international status and influence.

Nowadays, the SCO is of strategic significance to both China and Russia. It is also important for Central Asian member states, not only because China is their major investment and trade partner. The SCO also provides them a best platform to conduct independent diplomacy and advance economic growth.

The SCO region is significant for China, India and Russia with respect to dealing with threats to security posed by non-state actors such as terrorists and drug-traffickers. The three could also cooperate with regard to energy resources, transport and investment in the region. However, competition could not be ruled out and hence it was necessary to structure their interaction in terms of ‘cooperative competition’ and well-coordinated trilateral interaction, for example, by each agreeing to specialize in a particular sphere or sector.

For balance of power in the region, Russia would need India and India would require the support of Russia in Central Asia and the AfPak region. The relationship between China and Russia also is a typical one between two great powers - where, pragmatic considerations urge both sides to co-operate. With these regards, the SCO’s international position will continue to be promoted by Russia and China, as it suits their common interest in building a multi-polar international system. At the same time, both states use the organization to balance each other’s political and economic weight in the region.

Energy co-operation could be a foundation from which the region could form an integrated community using the basic framework to promote market efficiency and accelerate liberalization across the region. Besides, more energetic efforts by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in implementing joint economic and energy projects will strengthen security in Central Asia. Creation of the SCO Energy Club in any case can contribute to closer cooperation of energy resources producers, their consumers and transit countries. The realization of idea can transform SCO into a self-sufficient energy system both in global and regional contexts. (Christoffersen, 2004). Thus, a closer involvement of Afghanistan in the SCO’s activities would lead to the strengthening of the proposed CASAREM (Central Asia Regional Energy Market), under which energy exporting countries are planning to get together to provide an energy market to their neighbors.

In addition, the future of SCO would depend firstly on how it addresses the contradictory interests of member states and other regional and extra-regional players in the region. Secondly, how cooperation and mutually advantageous equality would serve as the basis of the relations among member states and states with observer status. Thirdly, the question of expanding the organization would determine the scope and role of the SCO. Fourthly, the SCO’s success in economic co-operation would be conditioned by the fear of smaller SCO members, in that smaller states might fear that their resources would become vulnerable to exploitation by larger members. If the SCO has to emerge as a successful regional organization, it should develop into an effective multilateral organization to address security and economic challenges in the region on the basis of mutually beneficial terms among its members.


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1. Collective Security Treaty Organization
2. There has been greater emphasis on enhancing cooperation in social, cultural, and educational areas.

Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

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