The 21st summit of the SCO comes a month after the Taliban took over Kabul. A week ago, the group announced an interim government that was full of hardline, sanctioned terrorists with bounties on their head.
This summit meeting is, therefore, naturally focusing on Afghanistan. Five of the member-states—China, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan share borders with Afghanistan. Russia and India are major stakeholders in Afghan peace and stability. But on the eve of the summit both Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping announced their inability to attend the meeting in person but would be addressing it online. So did Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi.
In a wide-ranging interview with Aditi Bhaduri, Parviz Mullojanov, a political scientist and historian from Tajikistan, who is currently a visiting researcher at EHESS Paris, explained the reasons as to why regional countries are unable to find common ground on Afghanistan.
Mullojanov points out that SCO inherently has no single unified aim and suffers from an identity crisis. China, the major member views the organisation as an instrument for expanding its geo-political ambitions, first and foremost its Belt and Road Initiative. But Russia, on the other hand viewed it more as a regional endeavour to collectively battle extremism, separatism and terrorism in the region and wanted to contain Chinese economic expansion in the region within the framework of the SCO. Central Asian countries, on the other hand, viewed it as a way of receiving increased Chinese investments and loans to tide over the economic crisis. The entry of India and Pakistan has further compounded the SCO's inability to forge common position and perspectives as both have differing perspectives in the region.
Finding a solution to Afghanistan's crisis would be difficult according to Mullojanov. He comes out strongly against Pakistan's role in the region, which he says, by abetting the Taliban, has effectually helped create a fundamentalist state bang in the centre of the region.
Moreover, China sees itself as capable of controlling the Taliban and is concluding deals with it, whereas Russia is beginning to worry about the Taliban in the region, says the analyst. Because of such divergences, Mullajanov feels that both Putin and Xi kept away from the summit.
Explaining Tajikistan's strong anti-Taliban position, Mullojanov says it is based on sound and more complete knowledge and information about Afghanistan, especially in the districts bordering with Tajikistan where, according to him, Jihadists from Central Asia abound in the ranks of the Taliban. This gives a clear indication that the Taliban have not changed over the years.
Asked if Tajikistan would militarily help the National Resistance Front in Afghanistan if it kept up its resistance to the Taliban, the expert said this could be possible only if a major power or a bloc would help the NRF economically and militarily as Tajikistan did not have the resources to go alone.
How would you evaluate the work of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) till now in advancing regional security?
Mullojanov: One of the main problems of the SCO is its permanent crisis of identity. This problem has existed since the beginning of the organisation's creation. The SCO's status from the very beginning has
been an undefined one - it is neither a military bloc (like for example NATO), or an open regular security meeting (like ASEAN), but occupies an interim position.
Apart from this, the objectives and mission of the SCO from its inception were not well defined; correspondingly each of its member-state interpreted them differently, based on their own
interests. Thus, for China the SCO was one of the main instruments in advancing its geo-political projects, first of all the "One Belt – One Road" initial.
Russia, traditionally, sees the main SCO mission to be in the sphere of regional security - mainly in the fight against the manifestation of the "three evils" (in the SCO terminology): terrorism, extremism, separatism. Besides, wary of the consolidation of China's economic hegemony in the post-Soviet [Central] Asia, Russia is endeavouring to contain the realisation of economic projects within the SCO framework.
For the post-Soviet republics of Central Asia, their main interest in SCO membership lies on n the economic sphere - for them it is a way to receive additional investments and loans to tide over the economic crisis.
The further expansion of the SCO and the induction of new members has further intensified the "crisis of identity". The entry of India and Pakistan as member-states, with both having divergent views on issues of regional security and development, has further complicated the decision-making process within the SCO.
Of course, within SCO itself the activity of the organisation is viewed entirely positively. Thus, the SCO leadership annually reports on hundreds of prevented terrorist attacks, arrested extremists and terrorists, and so on.
However, in reality, the security situation in the region is deteriorating with every passing year, there has been an increase in the numbers and influence of the extremists underground, increased propaganda activities and so on.
Furthermore, the strategy and activities of Pakistan in regional security may be viewed as being exclusively counter-productive – the support to the Taliban has resulted in the creation of a fundamentalist state in the middle of the region, which has significantly worsened the security situation in the entire region.
The activities [of SCO] in economic cooperation are somewhat better, but majority of the implemented projects reflect the interests of the People's Republic of China and similarly financed by Chinese loans. Consequently, from such a perspective the SCO basically remains overwhelmingly a Chinese geo-political project.
How do you see the absence of the heads of Russia – President Vladimir Putin, and China - President Xi Jinping - at the Dushanbe summit of the SCO?
Mullojanov: The official reason stated by the Russian Foreign Ministry is that [President] Putin is in quarantine. Some experts believe, that because of this the Chinese leadership also decided not to attend the SCO summit.
A number of experts also assume that the refusal of Russian and Chinese [leadership] to absent themselves is based on the differences related to Afghanistan. Perhaps China is not pleased with the fact that Tajikistan is so actively supporting the anti-Taliban resistance in Afghanistan. Such a response, in particular, could have been caused by Dushanbe's refusal to invite a delegation of the new Afghan government to the summit. Therefore, the absence is also a kind of demonstration of dissatisfaction and a pressure tactic on those who disagree.
In my view, the main reason is that Moscow and Beijing decided to take 'time out' and hold back from making any concrete statements on Afghanistan. It is possible that their positions on Afghanistan are increasingly diverging - the PRC considers itself to already have entered into agreements with the Taliban and can in the future control them. Moscow, on the other hand, is increasingly becoming wary and distrustful of the Taliban government. Therefore, possibly, two major members of the SCO decided to postpone a meeting till a unified position on Afghanistan is worked out.
Does such an absence of leaders at the summit point to a failure of the SCO?
Mullojanov: No, in my opinion this [absence] is evidence of an internal crisis within the organisation and increasing disagreement between its main member-states, that is Russia and China. On the other hand, without China and Russia, the summit itself largely lost its meaning and content.
We can say that the SCO is facing a number of new challenges that will need to be addressed as soon as possible in order to further preserve and develop this organization.
Can the SCO play any role in helping to resolve the crisis in Afghanistan?
Mullojanov: This is possible only if member-states can work out a unified position and strategy regarding Afghanistan.
Moreover, this policy should take into account not only the interests of the new Taliban government, but also the entire population of the country.
But herein lies the problem. Even if the SCO, under Beijing's pressure, is able to work out a unified position regarding Afghanistan, then it will only reflect Beijing's position, which today is entering into deals with the Taliban.
But deals with the Taliban do not guarantee the creation of a stable government, which will have the support of the majority of its own people of Afghanistan. Accordingly, the question of settlement of the Afghan conflict does not arise in this case.
What drives Tajikistan's rigid anti- Taliban position?
Mullojanov: First of all, the fact that the Tajik government is well aware of the situation in the northern regions of Afghanistan. Fact is that since Soviet times Tajik society has established good ties with Afghanistan,
both at the government level, at the level of the special services, as well as with the expert and academic community. That is, the Tajik government has the most complete picture of the situation in the bordering regions - this means first and foremost about the numbers of Central Asian jihadists within the ranks of the Taliban, about their support by the leaders of the organisation, etc.
Therefore, the Tajik government on the whole do not believe that the Taliban have reformed and considers the organisation to potentially represent a threat to the stability of the region. In this regard for the Tajik government (as opposed to society in general) issues of ethnic unity are of secondary significance; historical and political interests come first.
If the National Resistance Front in Afghanistan continues its resistance to the Taliban will Tajikistan be prepared to extend military aid to it?
Mullojanov: Tajikistan does not possess sufficient economic and military resources for this. Therefore, such a possibility will arise only if any major geopolitical player, or a group of countries decides to provide such support to the anti-Taliban resistance.
In that case, Tajikistan can play the role of intermediary and local coordinator of such assistance for resistance groups in Afghanistan - as it did once in the 1990s.