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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 24 New Delhi June 6, 2015

SCO’s Role in Afghanistan: Prospects and Challenges

Saturday 6 June 2015


by Raj Kumar Sharma

President of Afghanistan Ashraf Ghani had to delay his recent visit to India by a few hours as the Taliban intensified its spring offensive against the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) in the northern province of Kunduz. In the wake of the US-NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014, there are question-marks over the ability of the ANSF to hold their fort against the Taliban. At the same time, there are expectations of an increased role of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in the war-torn country.

The SCO was formed in 2001 by China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. The official birth of the SCO took place in 2001 but the organisation was preceded by the ‘Shanghai Five’ formed in 1996 at the behest of China and included Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and China. Uzbekistan was not a member of the Shanghai Five. China wanted to use the Shanghai Five to solve its border disputes with other member-states. It signed treaties with these countries to have peaceful borders in 1996 and followed these by signing a treaty next year to reduce the military force along the border areas. Uzbekistan was added as a new member to the Shanghai Five in 2001 and it was renamed as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. The main aim of the Organisation has been to tackle three evils, namely, terrorism, separatism and religious extremism in the member-states. It also aims to hedge against US hegemony and a unipolar world order.1 At the first meeting of the SCO in June 2001, the member-countries signed a convention on combating terrorism, separatism and extremism.

Evolution of SCO as a Regional Security Apparatus

The regional security architecture in Central Asia underwent a change in 2001 itself, when the US launched its ‘War on Terror’ in Afghanistan in October 2001. The SCO had condemned the September 9/11 attacks on the US and extended support to its operations against terrorism in Afghanistan. The SCO was institutionally underdeveloped at that time and was not interested in giving any practical help to the US. However, its members engaged with the US on bilateral basis to help its anti-terrorism operations. Uzbekistan offered its Karshi-Khanabad airbase and Kyrgyzstan gave the services of the Manas airbase to the US. Tajikistan too had provided its territory to the US for the latter’s operations. These Central Asian countries saw US presence on their territory as a security against terrorist groups in Central Asia like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and Hizb-ut-Tahrir and Taliban in Afghanistan.2

However, Russia and China wanted to hedge against the US presence in Central Asia and the SCO established a Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS) in 2004 with its headquarters at Tashkent to coordinate the activities of the member-states in dealing with the three evils. It seeks to handle areas like extradition and information exchange about terrorists and disrupting their funding sources. It also coordinates exercises conducted by the security forces of member-states.3 The 2004 Astana Declaration of the SCO said that the fight against the three evils was the top priority for the SCO and it will also focus on efforts to tackle illegal drug trafficking in the region. Mongolia was accorded the observer status in the SCO at the 2004 summit.4 In the same year, the SCO secretariat was established in Beijing as the main permanent executive body of the Organisation.5

The 2005 events in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan brought the role of the US under the scanner in Central Asia, as it was seen as supporting the ‘colour revolutions’ in the post-Soviet space to promote democracy and human rights. This raised alarm-bells in Beijing as well, as it feared that the Uyghur problem could be externally exploited.6 Hence, China and Russia used the SCO as a platform to counter American presence in Central Asia. In 2005 at the Astana summit, the SCO asked the US to set a deadline by which it would withdraw its military assets from the region.7 In addition, Uzbekistan also asked the US to vacate the Karshi-Khanabad airbase in 2005, which was vacated by the US in November 2005. These developments came as a boon for the SCO which was struggling to assert itself in Central Asia due to active American presence. Russia and China were also worried about the NATO’s ‘eastward expansion’, as it would have brought the US in their backyard. The 2005 events gave Russia and China a new opportunity to rally the Central Asian states against the US. By this time; the SCO’s organisational structure was in shape as its secretariat had been set up and its anti-terrorism centre was also operational. This allowed the grouping to go for formal expansion in 2005 as it included India, Pakistan and Iran as observers; this further boosted the SCO’s reach in South Asia and the Middle-East.

The new found confidence of the SCO as an organisation was visible in its 2006 conference held at Shanghai when all the four observers attended the meeting. In addition, represen-tatives from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and Afghanistan joined as the guests of the host country. This conference marked the start of the economic agenda of the SCO. The member-states signed agreements on the SCO Business Council and establishment of the SCO Interbank Association to support regional economic cooperation. An agreement was also signed to hold joint anti-terror actions in the territories of member-states.8 The Bishkek conference in 2007 led to increased security cooperation among the SCO members. An agreement was signed to ensure international information security to counter the use of information for anti-state activities. The member-states agreed that stability and security in the Central Asian region depended on the strength of the states which can be guaranteed by regional organisations like the SCO.9 At the 2008 Dushanbe conference, the SCO agreed to consider permanent membership for its observers. At the 2009 Yekaterinburg summit, the SCO Counter-Terrorism Convention was signed by the member-states, and this cemented the legal framework for counter-terrorism interaction within the SCO. Sri Lanka and Belarus were given dialogue partner status in the SCO at this summit.

The 2010 summit at Tashkent approved the procedure on admitting new members to the SCO. In addition to the three evils and drug trafficking, the SCO members agreed to cooperate in areas of weapons smuggling, illegal migration and other transnational crimes. The 2011 Astana conference commemorated the 10th anniversary of the SCO. A counter-narcotics strategy 2011-2016 and its Action Plan were approved for the member-states to tackle drug trafficking in the region. At the Beijing conference in 2012, the SCO states resolved that no member-state will join any alliance or group of countries that targets other SCO states. The issues between member-states will be addressed through diplomatic and political means consistent with the international law. They also agreed to take real steps for establishment of nuclear-weapon-free zone in Central Asia.They also stood united against weaponisation of outer space. At the 2013 meeting in Cholpon Ata, the SCO states agreed to enhance mutual cooperation in economic, trade, investment, finance, trans-portation, telecommunications, agriculture, and innovation. The SCO members agreed to continue their cooperation against terrorism, separatism, extremism, illegal trafficking in narcotic drugs, psychotropic substances and their precursors, trans-boundary organised crime and in the field of ensuring international information security at the Dushanbe summit in 2014.10

At every annual SCO meeting, an attempt is made to integrate the Central Asian countries into a closely knit network. Military exercises have also been conducted by the SCO. In 2003, the SCO military exercises were held in two phases, one in Kazakhstan and the second in China. Russia and China also started conducting ‘Peace Mission’ counter-terrorism exercises in 2005. These exercises were also conducted in 2007, 2009, 2010, 2013 and 2014. The other SCO members too participate in these exercises.

SCO and Afghanistan: Interactions in the Past

The stability and security of Afghanistan has linkages with the SCO states as it shares borders with three SCO members (Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and China). China alleges that more than thousand Uighur separatists have been trained in Afghanistan.11 The political instability and radicalisation in Afghanistan has spillover effects on the Central Asian Republics which was evident during the Tajikistan civil war. Afghanistan is world’s largest poppy producer that finds users in Central Asia and is also transported to end-use markets in Russia and Europe through Central Asia. Afghan drugs are also illegally sent to China. The Central Asian region is the soft underbelly of Russia and any destabilisation and radicalisation of the region will pose a security threat to Russia itself. Hence, stability in Afghanistan has direct implications for the SCO states. At the 2013 Cholpon Ata summit, the SCO leaders agreed that peace and stability in Central Asia depended on development of the situation in Afghanistan.

The SCO has been making efforts to deal with the security situation in Afghanistan; however, it has by and large depended on the US-NATO alliance to take a lead in ensuring the Afghan security situation. To increase mutual cooperation between the SCO and Afghanistan, a protocol on establishment of an SCO-Afghanistan contact group was adopted by the SCO in Astana in 2005. The protocol sought to enhance cooperation between the two sides on issues of mutual interest.12 Afghanistan has been attending the SCO’s annual summits since 2005, whenever it has been invited to do so by the SCO. At the SCO’s Bishkek summit in 2007, former Afghan President Hamid Karzai had urged the SCO states to focus on the fight against drugs and even come up with a regional plan to tackle this menace, as drugs posed a threat to peace and stability in Afghanistan.13 The Russian President had called for creating a ‘belt of counter-narcotics security’ around Afghanistan and hunting down the financial roots of drug trade in the region.14 In 2009, a special conference focusing on Afghanistan was held in Moscow under the aegis of the SCO. The SCO and Afghanistan signed a plan of action to combat terrorism, illicit drug trafficking and organised crime. It was agreed to establish a regional anti-drug centre and a specialised training centre for the training of officers of the relevant SCO authorities in this regard. The two sides also agreed to strengthen anti-terrorism efforts by focusing on border control, joint operations to counter terrorist threats and involving Afghanis-tan in a phased manner in the SCO’s counter-terrorism framework.15

The Moscow conference on Afghanistan was organised four days prior to the US-backed Afghanistan conference in the Hague. The Moscow conference focused on areas of mutual concern between the SCO and Afghanistan while the Hague conference had a broader and all-comprehensive agenda. At the 2011 Astana summit of the SCO, the member-states identified the unresolved situation in Afghanistan as a key threat to regional stability in Central Asia. They also agreed that it is impossible to solve the Afghan crisis by military means and efforts need to be directed towards solving the socio-economic problems in the country.

The 2012 SCO summit supported Afghanistan’s effort to build an independent, neutral, peaceful, prosperous country free of terrorism and drug-related crimes. They also agreed that the national reconciliation process in Afghanistan should be Afghan-led and Afghan-owned. Afghanistan was also made an observer at the 2012 summit and the members-states too agreed to help the Afghan people in their reconstruction efforts. Similar commitments regarding Afghanistan were reiterated by the SCO states at the 2013 and 2014 summits as well.

Potential for SCO’s Role in Afghanistan post-2014

The SCO has been engaging with Afghanistan for more than a decade now and it is being speculated that the Organisation could play an active role in stabilising Afghanistan as the US-NATO forces have withdrawn from the country. While the potential exists for the SCO to help Afghanistan in its reconstruction and rebuilding, it is unlikely to be actively involved in the country. Some agreements and interactions have taken place between the two sides in the past, but nothing concrete has emerged till now. Different SCO members have been providing economic and security assistance to Afghanistan at bilateral level but the SCO has not shown any collective effort to do so. The only direct action the SCO has shown regarding Afghanistan till now came in 2012 when the country was given an observer status in the Organisation. The activities of different SCO members in Afghanistan do not reflect any coordination between them which shows a comprehensive and wider lack of mutual understanding regarding Afghanistan during its transition period after the US-NATO withdrawal.

China is the largest investor in Afghanistan among the SCO members. In 2007, China won the contract for the Aynak copper mine in eastern Afghanistan at an estimated cost of US $ 3 billion. Later in 2011, it also secured US $ 700 million oil and gas exploration rights in Sari Pul and Faryab provinces in northeast Afghanis-tan.16 Russia has no substantial economic engagement with Afghanistan, though it has been providing security assistance to it. It remains a modest economic partner to Afghanistan and has little influence over the internal political processes in the country due to its ‘forgettable experience’ of invading Afghanistan in 1979.17 The rest of the SCO countries—Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan—remain fringe players in Afghanistan and hold no political or economic leverage in the country. Kazakhstan, by virtue of its better economy, has started to provide development assistance to Afghanistan. However, the Central Asian states mainly depend on the US-NATO and Russia-China to decide their Afghan policies.

Even though there are economic and security ties between Afghanistan and the SCO states, a heightened SCO role looks unlikely in Afghanistan. This is mainly due to ‘Russia’s obstructionism’, according to S. Frederick Starr. Russia sees Afghanistan as part of its exclusive zone of influence and its main interest is to get the US-NATO out of this zone.18 The Russian mistrust of China’s dominance in the SCO is another factor why the Organisation is unlikely to play an active role in Afghanistan. Since Russia deals with the Central Asian security issues through the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), it is unlikely that Russia will let the SCO play a role in Afghanistan more high profile than the CSTO after the US-NATO withdrawal. If in a worst case scenario, instability in Afghanistan spins out of control and affects the Central Asian states, the CSTO troops—instead of the SCO—would be used to secure the Central Asian borders with Russia contributing maximum troops. This model has already been used during the Tajik civil war in 1992-97.19

Moreover, the CSTO has a Collective Rapid Reaction Force at its disposal that can be used for emergency deployment. The SCO does not have any such force. Russia has cleared its stand in 2014, when it said that there was no role for the SCO in Afghanistan after the US-NATO withdrawal.20 China, too, would not like to get embroiled in the Afghan conflict directly. China has been meeting the Taliban leaders over the last decade in order to secure its investments in Afghanistan from Taliban attacks and also to convey its security concerns in Xinjiang to the Taliban leadership.21 The Afghan Taliban leadership had visited China and held talks with its leadership in November 2014.22 China’s Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, in his statement included Taliban among various political factions in Afghanistan, thereby implying that China gave recognition to Taliban as a political unit in Afghanistan.23 Russia, on the other hand, remains against talks with the Taliban and has scuttled a proposal by China to create a peace and reconciliation committee in Afghanistan to help bring the Taliban to the negotiation table.24 Hence, the divergent policies of the SCO’s two leading states regarding the Taliban are enough to show that the SCO is unlikely to play an active role in Afghanistan.

Lastly, the SCO lacks institutional mechanisms and financial capacity to increase its role in Afghanistan. Despite making noise about drug trafficking from Afghanistan and its security linkages for the Central Asian states, the SCO has not given any financial or other assistance to Afghanistan to tackle this problem. Russian experts Dmitri Trenin and Alexei Malashenko have highlighted the financial handicap of the SCO as one of the main reasons that would not let the Organisation play a big role in Afghanistan. According to them, “the SCO, whose budget is a mere US $ 4 million, has no chance of playing a significant role within Afghanistan”.25 Lack of political will and capacity mean that the SCO will not have a major and active role in Afghanistan.

However, it has some benefits to offer to Afghanistan. It provides Afghanistan a forum where it can cement its relations with other regional powers. It creates a channel of communication and cooperation where mutual interests can be harmonised. The SCO also facilitates Afghan re-integration into the regional economy which is very important for long-term development of the country.26 Though there are plans for expansion of the SCO in future to induct India and Pakistan as permanent members, this is unlikely to give an impetus to its activities in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, such a move would open a window of opportunity for the SCO members to engage Pakistan and persuade it to use its influence on the Taliban for bringing peace in the country.


Due to the different priorities of the member-states, the SCO is disadvantaged in Afghanistan and would not play an active role in that country. It lacks financial and political mechanisms to actively deal with non-traditional threats there. Military involvement of the SCO is surely not going to happen and if the Taliban emerges again, Russia, Iran, India and China could revert back to their policy of supporting the ‘Northern Alliance’ fighters in place of putting their own boots on the ground. The SCO serves Afghanistan as a channel of communication with its neighbours and also presents regional economic opportunities for Afghanistan. However, Afghanistan would continue to depend on the US-NATO alliance for its security and economic needs in the near future.


1. Chung, Chien-Peng (2009), “China’s Policy towards the SCO and ARF: Implications for the Asia-Pacific Region” in Hsin-Huang Michael Hsiao and Cheng-Yi Lin (eds.), Rise of China: Beijing’s Strategies and Implications for the Asia-Pacific, Routledge: Oxon.

2. Rahimov, Khurshed (2013), “The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and the fights against terrorism in and around Central Asia” in O. Tanrisever (ed.), Afghanistan and Central Asia: NATO’s Role in Regional Security Since 9/11, IOS Press, Ankara.

3. Matveeva, Anna and Antonio Giustozz (2008), “The SCO: a regional organisation in the making“, Online URL:

4. Tashkent Declaration Marks New Phase for SCO, Online URL:

5. SCO Secretariat Website, Online URL: http://www.sectsco. org/EN123/secretariat.asp

6. Dwivedi, Ramakant (2006), “China’s Central Asia Policy in Recent Times”, China and Eurasian Forum Quarterly, Vol 4, No 4.

7. Varadarajan, Siddharth (2005), “Central Asia: China and Russia up the ante“, The Hindu, July 8, Online URL:

8. Full Text of the Joint Communiqué of 2006 SCO Summit, Online URL:

9. SCO leaders sign declaration on security, stability, Online URL:

10. SCO Secretariat Website.

11. Chien-peng Chung (2012), “China’s ‘War on Terror’: September 11 and Uighur Separatism“, Online URL:

12. Rahimov, op. cit.

13. Karzai asks SCO members to focus on fight against drugs, Online URL:

14. Ash Narain Roy (2007), “Shanghai Cooperation Organi-sation—Towards New Dynamism“, Online URL:

15. SCO Secretariat Website,

16. “China seeks strategic advantage in Afghanistan“, URL:

17. Patrick Nopens (2014), “The Impact of the Withdrawal fromAfghanistan on Russia’s Security“, URL:

18. Andrew Scheineson (2009), “The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation“, URL:

19. Anna Matveeva and Antonio Giustozzi (2008), “The SCO: a regional organisation in the making“, Crisis States Working Papers Series No. 2.

20. “No role for SCO in Afghanistan, Russia says“ URL:

21. Elizabeth Wishnick (2014), “Post-2014 Afghanistan Policy and the Limitations of China’s Global Role”, Central Asian Affairs 1 (2014) 133-152.

22. “Afghan Taliban delegation visited China recently“ The News, January 2, 2015, URL:

23. Korybko, Andrew(2015), “Did China Just Recognise The Taliban?“

24. Ahmed Rashid (2014), “Russia and Reconciliation in Afghanistan”, Al Jazeera, Nov. 13, URL:

25. Dmitri Trenin and Alexei Malashenko (2010), “Afghanis-tan—A View from Moscow”, URL: http://carnegieendow

26. S Akiner (2013), “Regional Initiatives to Promote Stability and Development in Afghanistan” in O. Tanrisever (ed.), Afghanistan and Central Asia: NATO’s Role in Regional Security Since 9/11, Amsterdam: IOS Press.

Raj Kumar Sharma is a UGC Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Russian and Central Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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