At the recent SCO summit in Beijing, Afghanistan was granted the status of an observer. Judging by publications on Afghan websites, the event didn’t go unnoticed for the country’s political establishment. But what exactly does the new status give Kabul and what does it give the Shanghai Cooperation Organization?
Obtaining of the status is definitely a landmark. But not so much for the Afghan political elites (not to say anything about the Afghan streets), as for the United States. Here is why. Afghanistan is the centerpiece of a project that was devised by American expert Frederic Star and is, apparently, being implemented by the United States.
The goal of the project is to gather all Central Asian republics, all of Afghanistan’s neighbors (and India) around it, involving them in restoration of the Afghan economy. In American terms, this is called the Greater Central Asia Project. So Afghanistan in the SCO provides the US with a convenient mechanism for implementing this GCAP.
Actually, all of the above mentioned parties to the project, which Washington carefully monitors, have already got hooked on the Afghan economy. For Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, this is CASA 1000, electricity deliveries to Afghanistan; for Turkmenistan and Pakistan – the TAPI project, a gas pipeline for pumping Turkmen gas to Pakistan and India via Afghanistan; for Uzbekistan and Iran, the construction of a railway from Hairatan to Mazar-e- Sharif and on to Herat.
India has also received a fancy project of developing the huge Hajigak iron ore deposit. Russian geologists that worked in Afghanistan in the Soviet era say the iron content in its ores is very high. India plans to build a railway to Hajigak to transport ore to the Gulf of Persia and on to its plants for processing.
Finally, the United States did not forget about its main opponent in the region, i.e. China. It has been the luckiest, having “won” a tender for the development of the world’s second biggest copper deposit, Ainak (the biggest one is situated in Chile). It is unknown whether someone helped China, but its plan for implementation of the Ainak project is the same that Soviet geologists had. For the project to be profitable, they said, a copper smelter should be built near the mine (30 km from Kabul). It should be powered by electricity from thermal power plants built in the north and using local (Sheberghan) gas. China is going to do the same thing. It has already obtained the right to get access to both gas and oil in the north of Afghanistan – fields that were, again, discovered by Soviet geologists.
Afghanistan will not stay an observer for long. We can easily surmise that it will become a full-fledged SCO member in a year. Having Afghanistan in this capacity is in everyone’s interests. It is in the interests of the United States, if it is going to implement the GCAP; it is in the interests of Central Asian republics to be able to ask Kabul, if necessary, what the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan is doing there; it is in the interests of China and Russia, since they are more interested in US military bases in Afghanistan after 2014. There are none yet, but they will emerge for sure, in compliance with the agreement on strategic cooperation, recently signed by Presidents Hamid Karzai and Barack Obama.
A remarkable point: after the meeting of leaders of SCO member states, Chinese President Hu Jintao and Afghan President Hamid Karzai made statements about the two countries’ relations reaching a new strategic level. The foundation for this higher level will be the agreement on strategic cooperation between Afghanistan and China. This will be the eighth such agreement for Afghanistan – it has already signed them with India, Britain, Italy, Australia, France, the United States and Germany.
Everyone needs Afghanistan to be in the SCO. But what will it get from the organization? Until recently (before Karzai’s glorious visit to Moscow in January 2011), Kabul did its best to dodge the question about the possibility of its accession to the SCO, citing its status of a non-aligned state. What has changed? First of all, it has become obvious that the problem of Afghanistan cannot be resolved without resolving its Pakistani element. So for Kabul, the SCO is also a mechanism for putting pressure on Islamabad. Especially given the new agreement on strategic cooperation with Beijing. If Islamabad is going to listen to anyone, that will be Beijing.
There is another consideration. Turkey joining the SCO as a dialog partner is seen by experts as a “watershed”, meaning that Turkey, being a NATO member, is acceding the organization that is supposed to oppose it. Why not consider the possibility of Afghanistan joining NATO? The political elite in the country doesn’t rule it out.