|The Shanghai Cooperation Organization and Afghanistan|
(Paper presented at the 14th meeting of SCO Forum, Beijing 17-18 April 2019)
SCO is the largest regional organisation in terms of its geographical coverage and population. The looming threats from radicalisation, terrorism and separatism pose serious challenges to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the SCO member countries. The rise of the ISIS (banned in the Russian Federation) and its sustained efforts to strike roots in the region compounds these security challenges. All through its summit meetings the SCO has been stressing the need to fight the threats of religious extremism, separatism and terrorism.
Even though war against terror in Afghanistan was launched over seventeen years ago, the situation in Afghanistan remains unstable due to increasing insecurity, and rise in deadly attacks by the extremist and militant groups. Reports of kidnappings, ambushes, killings, rocket attacks and bomb explosions in Afghanistan have been coming almost daily. The year 2018 witnessed an 11 per cent increase in civilian deaths as compared to that in 2017. While the negotiations between the US and Taliban (banned in the Russian Federation) are continuing, the conflict has actually escalated with recurrent deadly attacks killing hundreds of civilians and security personnel. According to latest report (February 2019) of UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), 10.993 civilian casualties (3,804 people including 927 children killed and 7,189 injured) were documented in the year 2018, caused by suicide attacks, IED blasts etc. Another report of UNAMA titled “Increasing Harm to Afghan civilians from the Deliberate and Indiscriminate use of Improved Explosive Devices” documents a sharp increase in 2018 in the killings and maiming of Afghan civilians by suicide bombers and IEDs. It reports that “bombs were designed and placed to detonate among crowds of civilians to kill and maim Afghan men, women and children, destroy livelihoods, disrupt lives and cerate terror among the survivors”. The report identifies the victims as students, players and spectators at cricket and wrestling matches, worshippers at mosques, humanitarian aid workers, journalists, medical personnel, education and civil government staff, civilians, election workers, men and women. Another aspect of the deteriorating situation is that the total opium poppy cultivation area in Afghanistan has been estimated by the latest UN Office on Drugs (UNODC) Afghanistan Opium Survey of 2018, at 263,000 hectares, which is 17 per cent higher than the level of 2014 representing an increase of 39,000 hectares.
So ensuring sustainable security and peace in Afghanistan is a great challenge facing the international community. International community needs to shed its ambivalence and evolve a concerted strategy to curb terrorism and extremism in and around Afghanistan by stopping their sources of funds, arms, logistics and training and ideological motivation. Indian policy has been to help in rebuilding the physical infrastructure in Afghanistan, training and scholarships for human resource and skill development. India sponsors over 1,000 Afghan students annually for their education/training in Indian institutions. India provided few hundred vehicles, some aeroplanes and helicopters, built the new parliament complex, Salma Dam which has a capacity of 42 MW of power besides irrigating 75,000 hectares of farmland , Delaram-Zaranj road, transmission line from Termez to Kabul and over 200 public and private schools, power supply and water supply networks. Hundreds of small and medium development projects have also been started.
In September 2017 India and Afghanistan unveiled ‘The New Development Partnership’ to focus on development priorities of the people and government of Afghanistan.Several important projects have been identified for implementation under the New Development Partnership, including Shahtoot Dam and drinking water project for Kabul city; low-cost housing for returning refugees in Nangarhar province; High Impact Community Development Projects which are spread all over Afghanistan; Road connectivity to Band-e-Amir in Bamiyan Province; water supply network for Charikar city in Parwan province; Establishment of a Gypsum board manufacturing plant in Kabul to promote value added industry; construction of a polyclinic in Mazar-e-Sharif etc. India is the biggest regional donor and fifth largest donor globally having provided an assistance of over 3 billion US dollars since 2001. The reconstruction of collapsed social and economic infrastructure and development of Afghanistan as the transit hub of regional trade and traffic, will help in putting the social and economic situation in Afghanistan back on tracks, though the process is cumbersome and long drawn.
The future of Afghanistan with guarantees of peace, security and well being of its people hinges upon the success of reconciliation between rival ethnic/regional Afghan political groups and commanders, emergence of a balanced and broad-based stable government representing diverse ethnic, regional and minority interests, the setting up and effective functioning of law enforcement agencies, strengthening the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces, on the speedy implementation of reconstruction of social, economic and education infrastructure, and on elimination of drugs and arms trafficking from Afghanistan. India supports the people and the government of Afghanistan, in their efforts to build a united, sovereign, democratic, peaceful, stable, prosperous and inclusive nation. India supports all efforts for peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan which are inclusive and Afghan-led, Afghan- owned and Afghan-controlled. Intra-Afghan peace and consensus among various Afghan groups/stake holders is the sine qua non for lasting peace and stability.
In its initial year of establishment, the SCO members met in Shanghai in June 2001 and signed Shanghai Convention on Combating Terrorism, Separatism and Extremism on 15 June 2001. This was followed up by the conclusion of the Agreement on Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure, in 2002. RATS was established as a centre to collect, collate and exchange information about terrorist movements, draft counter-terrorism policies and laws and also to maintain relations with the concerned institutions of the member states dealing with extremism, terrorism and separatism. RATS can be turned into an effective institutional mechanism to deepen cooperation between the SCO member countries in dealing with the three evils of terrorism, separatism and extremism , besides drug trafficking, organised crime, cyber crime etc. Each of these has great relevance for Afghanistan.
Soon after the Interim Administration headed by Hamid Karzai was set up in Afghanistan, SCO in its June 2002 meeting held at St. Petersburg formally welcomed “the creation of a new, stable Afghanistan , free of terror, war, drugs and poverty”, and expressed readiness to “facilitate the process of forming broadly representative government in the interest of the entire Afghan people”. The next SCO summit of 2003 held in Moscow was concerned about the threat of drug trafficking from Afghanistan. The member states agreed that “ an international strategy for comprehensive neutralization of the Afghan drugs threat be drawn under the UN aegis”. At this summit, the member states issued a declaration on 17 June 2004 stressing the need to coordinate efforts in the fight against terrorism, extremism and drug trafficking with a view to achieve security, peace and order, and create the necessary conditions for peaceful reconstruction in Afghanistan. At the Astana summit held in 2005, the SCO members reaffirmed their commitment to fight against drug trafficking emanating from Afghanistan. Formal cooperation between Afghanistan and the SCO began in 2005 with the establishment of SACG aimed at fighting terrorism, extremism and drug trafficking . In its Bishkek declaration of 16 August 2007, issued after the SCO summit, the member states expressed “concern over the drug threat emanating from Afghanistan and its negative impact on the Central Asian region”. They called for “conscious strengthening of ‘anti-drug security belt’ around Afghanistan”. Afghanistan was discussed once again at the Dushanbe summit of SCO in August 2008. The member states took note of the “current developments in Afghanistan, increasing volumes of drug trafficking, transnational organised crime, which necessitated the creation of joint mechanisms of assessment, prevention and response to such challenges and threats”.
The SCO organised a special conference on Afghanistan in March 2009 in Mosocw. Besides the SCO member states and observers, the participants included the UN Secretary General, US Deputy Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs and representatives from the EU, NATO , OSCE, CSTO, OIC etc. Such a high level of international participation in effect validated the SCO’s role in Afghanistan. Recognising the challenges in Afghanistan and the region, the conference underscored the importance of sustained international efforts to achieve a stable, peaceful , prosperous and democratic Afghanistan. It emphasised the need for sustained international support to strengthen Afghan security institutions to effectively combat the scourge of terrorism and production and trafficking of drugs. Another joint statement by SCO member states and Afghanistan called for the “adoption of a comprehensive convention on international terrorism as well as the elaboration of regional counter-terrorism legal instruments.”
In all its summit meetings, the SCO member states reiterated their “grave concern over the complicated situation in Afghanistan related to illicit drug trafficking, terrorism and transnational organised crime”. The SCO member states supported “pushing forward the negotiation process in which the United Nations plays a leading role and the Afghan people participate.”The SCO emphasised that “the time-honored history, national origin and traditional religious values of all ethnic groups in Afghanistan should be fully respected.” The declaration issued after the conclusion of the SCO summit at Astana on 10-11 June 2011, reiterated its support for “the development of Afghanistan as an independent, neutral, peaceful and prosperous country”.
At the Beijing summit of SCO held on 6-7 January 2012, Afghanistan which is a neighbour to most of the SCO states, was admitted as an Observer of the SCO.The common view of members of the SCO regarding Afghanistan is that there cannot be a military solution to the Afghan problem and that the SCO states must help Afghanistan develop economically, politically and with the participation of Afghan people. The SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group was revived when it met at the level of deputy foreign ministers in Moscow on 11 October 2017. The delegates stressed the importance of supporting the Afghanistan government and peoples’ efforts to settle the conflict through political consultations and dialogue. The SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group held another meeting on 28 May 2018, at the level of deputy foreign ministers of the SCO member states and the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, in Beijing. "The leaders of the SCO member states were unanimous in their firm commitment to Afghanistan's sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity and national unity, as well as their invariable support for the Afghan Government and people as they strive to restore their country and strengthen democratic institutions."
As Ambassador Vitaliy Vorobiev of Russian Federation has stated : “One should not forget that the SCO was created as a response to immediate threats of terrorism and drug trafficking from the Afghanistan conflict in the late 1990s. The SCO idea was born from a collective demand for a regional coalition to combat them”. Similar views were expressed by Muratbek Imanaliev, former Secretary General of the SCO during an interview in 2010 in Bishkek : “Afghanistan is the main reason of the cooperation of the member states of the SCO and the problem for all the countries, the only subject of common interest”. According to the Russian Security Council Secretary , Nikolai Patrushev , “first of all, Afghanistan remains the main base of terrorists, including those related to terrorist and extremist organizations whose goal is to destabilize the situation in Central Asia, topple the existing political regimes and create the Muslim Caliphate within its borders. Second, Afghanistan remains the main base for production of raw opium and also the main supplier of heroin and other drugs to global markets via Central Asian states. After the withdrawal of coalition forces, the radicals began to feel confident in a number of provinces in Afghanistan, and in the north of Afghanistan established a bridgehead from which extremists penetrate into the neighbouring countries of Central Asia. The drug trafficking threat has increased”.
In a situation that remains in flux, it is important that we recall certain key fundamentals. Any attempts at peace and reconciliation should not be rushed and should preserve the Constitution process and other gains of the last 18 years. It should also ensure independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Afghanistan. Such process should be based on principles of shunning violence and severing ties with international terror networks; accepting the Afghan Constitution; and honouring the rights of weaker sections of Afghan society, ethnic-religious minorities, women and children. In the current environment we have a situation where while a dialogue process between the US and the Taliban is underway, the latter has also launched fresh offensives. The role of the SCO assumes importance in this context and we need to reflect how we can provide support to a Afghan led and Afghan owned peace and reconciliation.
The SCO member countries including Iran remain concerned over the cross-border movement of extremists, armed militants, refugees, drugs, arms and organised crime from Afghanistan into their countries. Several countries including Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan which have physical borders with Afghanistan , are worried about the spill over of the conflict, terrorism and extremism from Afghanistan to their own territories. It would, therefore, be necessary to let the Kabul Process for Peace and Security in Afghanistan work out the negotiations and dialogue between various stake holders within Afghanistan without any external pressure or inducement. While the peace process should be aimed at engaging and bringing together all the Afghan groups, it should isolate the extremist and terrorist networks which are bent upon recreating the Caliphate/Emirate in Afghanistan, which would be catastrophic for the SCO region, given the past experience of instability and conflict in various Central Asian countries. As such SCO and RATS have a distinctive role to play by working out definite agreements/arrangements between the member states including Afghanistan to (i) negotiate bilateral extradition agreements , (ii) take regular stock of the radical extremists and terrorists operating in the region, and exchange such information (iii) identify the sources of terror-financing and take necessary steps to block these channels ,(iv) to engage and seek cooperation of the Islamic clergy/Ulema for rejecting the hate ideology of the terrorists and extremists in the name of jihad.
 See http://eng.sectsco.org/documents/2002
 See http://eng.sectsco.org/documents/2003
 See http://www.sectsco.org/EN123/show.asp?id=98
 See http://www.sectsco.org/EN123/show.asp?id=100
 See Vitaliy Vorobiev, The SCO as a Rising Master of the Heartland. http://eng.globalaffairs.ru/number/The-SCO-as-a-Rising -Master-of-the-Heartland-15503
 Cited by Jildiz Nicharapova, Bishkek
 See the speech of the Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev, during the tenth meeting of Secretaries of Security of the SCO countries, Moscow April 2015.