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SCO vs NATO

A fortnightly column on the high politics of the Af-Pak region,the fulcrum of global power play in India’s neighbourhood

Written by C. Raja Mohan |
June 7, 2012 3:41:34 am

SCO vs NATO

For India’s foreign policy radicals,the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation,whose leaders are meeting this week in Beijing,is about an undying dream from the past — building an eastern bloc against the West.

But the SCO,as an eastern collective,is unlikely to measure up to the security challenges that confront it amidst the Western military retreat from Afghanistan.

Last month in Chicago,the US and its NATO allies announced an “irreversible” plan to end Western combat role in Afghanistan by 2013 and withdraw all but a few thousand troops from there by the end of 2014.

The US and NATO have indeed offered financial support to the maintenance of a large Afghan armed force and continue to assist its economic development. No one,though,is betting all those promises will be kept.

With America packing its bags in Afghanistan,shouldn’t the SCO move in? Most players in the region with interest and influence in Afghanistan are all in the SCO.

Russia’s involvement in Afghanistan is more than a century old. China,as the world’s second largest economy and a giant neighbour,is central to Afghanistan’s growth and

future prosperity.

Although Afghanistan is not a member of the SCO,it has been a special invitee to the recent leadership summits and might be inducted as an “observer” this time.

Two SCO members — Uzbekistan and Tajikistan — share long land borders with Afghanistan. Turkmenistan,the third Central Asian nation on the northern frontiers of Afghanistan is not a member of the SCO. China is making amends by inviting it as a special guest for this week’s summit in Beijing.

Iran,Pakistan and India — three other neighbours of Afghanistan are all observers at the SCO. Turkey,the rising power in the Middle East,has long taken an interest in Afghanistan and wants to become a “dialogue partner”.

Divided on kabul

For its part,NATO has signalled a measure of coherence in Chicago. On Afghanistan,the SCO is anything but united. Even a cursory look reveals the multiple fault lines.

Pakistan,which has the greatest influence in Afghanistan,is locked in a confrontation with the US and has blocked Western supply routes into the war zone. Are the SCO members rallying behind Islamabad? Hardly.

Russia and the Central Asian states have undercut Pakistan’s leverage with the West by helping the US by developing the alternative Northern Distribution Network to move supplies for the international forces in Afghanistan.

The Central Asian states have just signed a “reverse transit” agreement with Washington that would let the US move out mountains of war equipment accumulated over the last decade.

The tensions between Kabul and Rawalpindi are of course central to the current crisis in Afghanistan. The Pakistan Army’s support to the Taliban and the Haqqani Network undermines the stability of Afghanistan; and Kabul is desperately looking for any international support — whether from the West or the East — to foil Rawalpindi’s plots against it.

China Pact

The most interesting outcome from Beijing this week may not be the collective SCO rhetoric on regional security,but the specific national action that China might announce on Afghanistan.

China appears ready to end its passive approach to Afghanistan. With the West in retreat and Pakistan in chaos,China is veering towards a more direct role in Afghanistan.

Reports from Kabul say the Afghan president,Hamid Karzai,and the Chinese leader,Hu Jintao,will meet on the margins of the SCO summit and issue a declaration on establishing a “Strategic and Cooperative Partnership”.

Official sources in Kabul say the declaration will be the first step towards the drafting of a strategic partnership agreement of the kind that Karzai has signed with many countries including India,the US,Britain,France,Germany and Australia.

Those in New Delhi who see the world in black and white or divide it between West and East might find Afghanistan confusing. Self-preservation at any cost is a major rule in the Great Game.

If the US is unable to moderate Rawalpindi,why not try Pakistan’s “all-weather friend”,China? After all,China will still be around after the Americans are gone.

That there are no permanent friends is the other rule. Looking away from Pakistan,America wants India to play a bigger role in Afghanistan. Even as he tightens the American embrace,Karzai is extending a hand to Beijing. The one missing link is an India-China bilateral dialogue on Afghanistan.

The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation,Delhi

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