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India may need to discover Russia-led CSTO to protect its interests in Afghanistan

The Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) to take on the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (Photo: IANS)

The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), of which India, Pakistan, Russia, China and most Central Asian Republics are members, has made its first statement since the Taliban seized Kabul on August 15. Former President Ashraf Ghani fled the country after he was deposed. The US mounted a chaotic and undignified exit from Afghanistan, drawing comparisons with the “Saigon moment” when panic- stricken Americans simply fled to avoid a clash with the advancing North Vietnamese forces.

Released by Secretary General Vladimir Norov,  the SCO statement  called for the responsible formation of a legitimate government in Afghanistan through an inclusive and peaceful dialogue. It added that the new government should take into consideration the interests of all social, political, ethnic and religious groups of the country.

It should also strictly adhere to all norms of international law as well as to all bilateral and multilateral agreements. This was necessary for ensuring the safety and security of Afghanistan's population and that of all foreign nationals and diplomatic representatives and establishments of foreign governments and international organizations.

Its sound diplomatic stance notwithstanding, can the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation really play a role in resolving the Afghan crisis overcoming the deep divisions among its key members states on bilateral issues? 

Recently, the former Secretary General of the Organisation – Rasheed Alimov hinted at this point, suggesting that the SCO also needs to reach out to the UN and the Russia led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).

"The growing activities of terrorist organizations in Afghanistan and potential threats to regional stability create the need for the SCO to take cooperation with the UN and the CSTO," he said.

Obviously Alimov was referring to the complexity of the Afghan situation where no single organisation has the heft to single-handedly pull all the strings. Different countries, groups , and organisations have their nodes of influence, but would be unable to change the big picture alone.

While Pakistan has mentored the Taliban and is involved in the group's decision-making process, both Russia and China have closely engaged with the group and are favourably inclined towards it, in no small part because it prevailed upon the US to withdraw. For Moscow, Beijing as well as Tehran, a key strategic objective has thus been achieved.

Just days before the fall of Kabul a Taliban delegation had visited Beijing and met foreign minister Wang Yi, while after the fall of Kabul, the Russian Ambassador Dmitry Zhirnov was effusive about the Taliban's disciplined control of the city. The other members – of whom Uzbekistan and Tajikistan share a border with Afghanistan – are waiting and watching. Amongst them Uzbekistan has been engaging closely with the Taliban for a while.

In spite of the “positives”, however, all are worried–caught unaware by the lightning speed with which the Afghan government collapsed and the Taliban gained control of almost the entire country except the Panjshir valley.

 "It [the SCO] can only make some cosmetic gestures, like adopting a statement or holding a conference," says Maj. Gen. (Retd) B.K. Sharma, the Director of USI, India's oldest military think-tank, and who has intimate knowledge of Central Asia and Afghanistan. "The contradictions between members, especially India and Pakistan, will stall any meaningful response." 

While the India-Pakistan rivalry in Afghanistan seems to have run its course at least for now in what is perceived to be a win for Pakistan with the Taliban back in Kabul, there are yet other not so obvious fault lines within the organisation. "Russia's alignment with China  is only tactical," continues Sharma, "In the long-term Russia would not want Afghanistan to be part of any larger strategic space of China." Or for that matter Central Asia, which is part of Russia's traditional sphere of influence.  

While terrorism is a common concern for all the member-states, the much-acclaimed Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS) was unable to predict the turn of events, points out Sharma.

Yet, the SCO may have, in hindsight, not been totally ineffective in Afghanistan.

"The result of the US withdrawal itself is due to the SCO," says Phunchok Stobdan, a Senior Fellow at Delhi Policy Group, and author, "The Afghan Conflict & India in 1998". "It was because of the pressure the Russians and Chinese exerted. We have to now watch and see how the Great Game is played out. Earlier Afghanistan was important to defeat the USSR, which the US, together with Pakistan succeeded in doing….now it's between the US and China. Will China fill in the post-US space?"

The other member states also have varied positions – for instance, while Uzbekistan has refused to accept Afghan refugees, with even former Mujahideen leader Rashid Dostum said to have moved to Turkey, Tajikistan is ready to host 100,000 refugees. 

With India's current standoff with China on its eastern borders and its membership of the Quad, the most cohesive grouping within the SCO may be that of the Central Asian countries and Russia is the CSTO. The CSTO is deeply engaged with Central Asia and Afghanistan, but excludes China, signalling Moscow’s intent to disallow Beijing to play an overwhelming role in the Russian backyard. Given Russia and India’s common interests in Central Asia, the Russians are likely to favour India’s deeper engagement with the CSTO. 

Yet, the SCO, as seen in its Monday statement can have a restraining effect on the Taliban, eager as the latter is to gain international legitimacy; as well as on Pakistan in fomenting terror in the region.  It can also serve as a platform for India to reach out to the Taliban should it need to and yet not want to be seen doing so unilaterally. 

Finally, as Bishkek-based political analyst Nima Khorammi, wrote in an article before Kabul fell to the Taliban:“SCO-led approach towards Afghanistan seems to present the only viable option for ensuring a relative degree of predictability and normalcy in Afghan state’s behaviour regardless of which group emerges as the main power broker in the post-US Afghanistan”.

Also Read: 

Taliban victory inflames Central Asian frontline, worries Russia

Why is Taliban spurning Turkey's embrace of Afghanistan?

Why are Central Asian countries so spooked by the turmoil in Afghanistan?