SCO set to come into focus as China, Russia, Iran inch towards recognising Taliban regime in Afghanistan

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Wednesday’s news that senior Politburo official Nikolai Patrushev has conveyed to his Iranian counterpart Admiral Ali Shamkhani that is set to be admitted as a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) should give the Joe Biden administration pause.

Especially as this news comes in the backdrop of the United States’ drawdown exit from Afghanistan and an expectation that the grouping will play a greater role in the region in the absence of an American presence.

But first let’s look at what the SCO is, its members and its goals:

What is the SCO?

As per the grouping’s website: “The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation is a permanent intergovernmental international organisation, the creation of which was announced on 15 June, 2001, in Shanghai (China) by the Republic of Kazakhstan, the People’s Republic of China, the Kyrgyz Republic, the Russian Federation, the Republic of Tajikistan, and the Republic of Uzbekistan. It was preceded by the Shanghai Five mechanism.”

Who are its members?

The grouping has eight permanent members: China, Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, and India. Of these eight, the two that joined most recently are India and Pakistan (in June 2017).

What are its goals?

  • Strengthening mutual trust and neighbourliness among the member states; promoting their effective cooperation in politics, trade, the economy, research, technology and culture, as well as in education, energy, transport, tourism, environmental protection, and other areas
  • Making joint efforts to maintain and ensure peace, security and stability in the region
  • Moving towards the establishment of a democratic, fair and rational new international political and economic order
  • What does that mean? In essence, the SCO is a Eurasian group that is seen as a counterbalance to NATO.

    Why is this important? The SCO also currently has four observer states. Of these, two states are of particular interest to the Biden administration for quite different reasons: Iran and Afghanistan.

    Iran takes it slow, China extends olive branch

    As mentioned above, Iran is on its way to becoming a full member of the SCO. This even as the Biden administration is attempting, seemingly without much success, to pressure Iran to rejoin the JCPOA.

    Iran, which shares a 900-kilometre border with Afghanistan, already seems keen to achieve peaceful coexistence with the Sunni Taliban, with its new President Ebrahim Rasi seemingly taking pleasure rubbing salt in the wound of the Americans by saying the US military “defeat” in Afghanistan was a chance to bring peace to the country.

    Meanwhile, as events continue to unfold in Afghanistan at a rapid pace, the Chinese seem to be operating with two old maxims in mind: “You can choose your friends but not your neighbours” and “never let a good crisis go to waste”.

    Continuing to make overtures to the Taliban while stopping short of openly recognising the government, Beijing on Wednesday said it will decide on extending diplomatic recognition to the Taliban in Afghanistan only after the formation of the government in the country, which it hoped would be “open, inclusive and broadly representative”.

    “China’s position on the Afghan issue is consistent and clear,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told a media briefing here answering a question when will China accord diplomatic recognition to the Taliban insurgents, which has taken control of Afghanistan. “If we have to recognise a government, the first thing is that we will need to wait until the government is formed,” he said. “We hope there will be an open, inclusive and broadly representative regime in Afghanistan. Only after that, we will come to the question of diplomatic recognition,” he said.

    To be fair, China, which itself shares a rugged 76-kilometre border with Afghanistan, made its position clear on Monday itself after the Taliban seized control of the country, saying it is “ready to deepen “friendly and cooperative” relations.

    One big reason for Beijing to keep an eye on Afghanistan is its age-old worry that the country will become a hub for the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a separatist outfit aligned to Al Qaeda which is waging an insurgency in Xinjiang.

    Beijing also has a trillion dollars worth of reasons to keep its eye on the ball: China has been eying large-scale investments in Afghanistan as the country has the world’s largest unexploited reserves of copper, coal, iron, gas, cobalt, mercury, gold, lithium and thorium. In 2011, the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) won a $400 million bid to drill three oil fields for 25 years, containing roughly 87 million barrels of oil. Chinese firms have also gained rights to mine copper at Mes Aynak in Logar province.

    The Chinese are aware that war is an expensive proposition. Given that turmoil in Afghanistan could be extremely bad for its business, Beijing could well be adopting the carrot and the stick approach with the Taliban.

    India casts watchful eye

    For India, the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan brings its own set of headaches.

    A security analyst, who did not wish to be named, told New Indian Express that China would like assert its influence on West Asia through Afghanistan by bringing the war-torn country into the scheme of things in connection with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which India remains adamantly opposed to.

    Also in the forefront of New Delhi’s mind is the fate of its much-touted Chabahar Port project in eastern Iran –  jointly built by India, Afghanistan and Iran, crucial to New Delhi’s interests for its vital geostrategic location and long seen as a counterweight to the Chinese-backed Gwadar port in Pakistan (the Kohinoor of its Belt and Road initiative) – which could be sidelined or simply made irrelevant by “changing circumstances”.

    Worse for India, China and Tehran also seem to be getting friendlier, what with Beijing’s planned $400 billion investment in Tehran over the next 25 years. The possibility of Chabahar Port being linked with Gwadar Port in Pakistan – the endpoint of CPEC – would be a possibility New Delhi would not like to contemplate given China’s avowed strategic encirclement strategy known as “String of Pearls.”

    Russia takes pragmatic view

    In the meantime, Russia, which has, shall we say, a colourful history with Afghanistan is looking to get on side with the Taliban as well. Despite the hardline Islamist group tracing its origins back to the war against the Soviets in the 1980s, Russia’s view on the group now is pragmatic. Analysts say the Kremlin wants to protect its interests in Central Asia, where it has several military bases and is keen to avoid instability and potential terrorism spreading through a region on its doorstep.

    A Russian foreign ministry statement Monday said the situation in Kabul “is stabilising” and claimed that the Taliban had started to “restore public order”. Well, quite.

    And ambassador Dmitry Zhirnov said the Taliban, who he was due to meet Tuesday,  was already guarding his embassy and had given Moscow guarantees that the building would be safe.  The militants had assured the Russians that “not a single hair will fall from the heads” of their diplomats, he said. This is a stark contrast to the last time hardliners came to power in Afghanistan in 1992, when Moscow struggled to evacuate its embassy under fire after a disastrous decade-long war.

    Three decades later, the Kremlin has boosted the Taliban’s international credibility by hosting it several times for talks in Moscow, despite the movement being a banned terrorist organisation in Russia. The aim of these talks, say analysts, is to stop the conflict from spilling into neighbouring countries and a terrorism spike in its Central Asian neighbours, where Russia maintains military bases.

    “If we want there to be peace in Central Asia, we need to talk to the Taliban,” said Nikolai Bordyuzha, the former secretary-general of the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO). He commended the Russian embassy for staying open. The Taliban has moved to reassure its northern neighbours that it has no designs on them, despite several Central Asian countries having offered logistical support to Washington’s war effort.

    Ambassador Zhirnov suggested the Taliban had also given Moscow assurances. He said Russia wanted Afghanistan to have peaceful relations with “all the countries in the world” and that “the Taliban had already promised us” this.

    Russia’s dialogue with the Taliban is the fruit of several years of courting. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in July described the Taliban as a “powerful force”, and blamed the Afghan government for faltering progress in talks.  “It is not for nothing that we have been establishing contacts with the Taliban movement for the last seven years,” the Kremlin’s Afghanistan envoy, Zamir Kabulov, told the Ekho Moskvy radio station on Monday.

    This relationship has raised many eyebrows, given that the Taliban has its roots in the anti-Soviet Mujahideen movement from the 1980s. But Alexander Baunov of the Carnegie Moscow Center said Russia now believed the Taliban have changed since the last time it was in power in the 1990s when it gave shelter to Al Qaeda.

    “Moscow does not see this version of the Mujahideen as its enemy,” he said.

    But Russia isn’t taking any chances either. Its foreign ministry has suggested it will not rush into a close relationship with a Taliban government, saying it would monitor the group’s conduct before deciding on recognition.

    And as the Taliban advanced through Afghanistan this summer, Russia staged war games with allies Uzbekistan and Tajikistan on the Afghan border in a show of force. Central Asia expert Arkady Dubnov said Moscow would now look to strengthen its military presence in the region. “To different extents, these countries will be obliged to accept Moscow’s help, but none will want to exchange their sovereignty for their security,” he said.

    What can the SCO do?

    Russian International Affairs Council director-general Andrey Kortunov told China’s Global Times, SCO is in a good position “to address simultaneously (the) security, economic and human development agendas of Afghanistan”. As the country looks to rebuild and recover, the SCO members can provide “support for political stability, implementation of large-scale economic projects and assistance for social capital building”.

    He, however, mentioned fault lines among the SCO members saying that “select SCO states could form project-based coalitions to engage in initiatives of their choice without necessarily trying to involve all of SCO member states”.

    Russia, China and Iran have one more thing in common: none have shuttered their embassies and are in constant contact with the Taliban. The bottom line is that all these countries, for their own geopolitical reasons, could potentially recognise the Taliban in the days to come. Which could bring them in direct conflict with the United States, whose intelligence agencies are already expressing concern about terrorist groups potentially reforming in Afghanistan under the radar.

    At least we live in interesting times.

    With inputs from agencies

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