On October 11, 2017, Moscow hosted a meeting of the SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group at the level of deputy foreign ministers.
The Contact Group was established in 2005 in order to develop recommendations and proposals on counteracting terrorism and the drug threat and to assist Kabul with economic affairs and reconciliation within the country.
Although the format was not frozen, no consultations were held after 2009. The reason was the pressure Washington put on Afghanistan’s authorities. However, after the bulk of the US troops were withdrawn from Afghanistan in 2014 and the aid programs and financing were cut down, the country began looking for new partners. In 2015, Kabul applied for admission to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. And last summer, when Russia initiated resumption of contacts in the SCO-Afghanistan format, the Afghan party was engaging readily.
At the SCO summit in Astana in June 2017, it was decided that the group’s activities should be adjusted due to the Organization’s expansion. At the Moscow meeting, which was chaired by Russian Deputy Foreign Minister I. Morgulov, the participants exchanged opinions on the ways to fight the security challenges and threats in the region, to support Afghanistan in its efforts to restore a peaceful, stable and prosperous country. The participants unanimously emphasized the need to further deepen interaction between the SCO and Afghanistan within the advisory mechanism in order to achieve the stated goals.
One of the key topics discussed at the event was movement of ISIS militants (ISIS is an organization prohibited in Russia) from Syria and Iraq to Afghanistan and on to Central Asia and the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Area of China. The problem worries both Russia and China. Representatives of Iran and Turkmenistan, which are not SCO members, but are interested in resolving the issue, also took part in the discussion.
Afghanistan, in its turn, continues to actively seek membership in the SCO. The country’s Deputy Foreign Minister Hekmat Karzai said at the meeting that other countries should support Afghanistan’s full membership in the SCO and that his the country should become a permanent co-chair of the Contact Group.
Zamir Kabulov, head of the 2nd Asian department of the Russian Foreign Ministry, said that Russia supported Afghanistan’s efforts to join the SCO. The country has to work hard to achieve this goal, but Russia is willing to support it along the way, he said. “We proposed to more actively unlock the potential of interaction between the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure of the SCO and Afghanistan, and Afghanistan accepted our proposal and expressed readiness to work actively to achieve this,” said Bakhtiyor Khakimov, the Russian President’s envoy for SCO affairs. Kabul is willing to participate in transport infrastructure projects, and develop cooperation with the SCO in education and personnel training, the diplomat said. “The Russian party suggested taking advantage of the opportunities of the SCO University and establishing contacts with the SCO Youth Council,” Khakimov added.
Meanwhile, Afghanistan is reported to be witnessing a real low-intensity war between several forces: the government of the Islamic Republic supported by the US troops on the one hand and the Taliban and ISIS forces competing with it, on the other.
John Sopko, US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, recently released a report on the situation in the country as of October-November 2017. The government of Afghanistan controls 56.8% of the country’s territory, 231 districts out of 407. Militants control 13.3% of the territory, or 54 districts. The remaining 122 districts are disputed territory, where it is unclear who gets the upper hand. “Control” means that the government or militants have full and unchallenged power in an area. Districts where the power keeps shifting were classified as disputed territory.
According to Sopko, militants have footholds in the provinces of Urozgan and Helmand in the southern part of Afghanistan (in this area, the government troops control only a narrow strip along the Kandagar-Herat highway and around big cities), and in the province of Kunduz in the north. Some militant bases are scattered in the mountainous and hard-to-access areas of the country, and it is difficult to oust them therefrom, even with aviation and superior manpower and weapons.
War has been going on like this for many years already, its nature never changing. In a certain sense, the armed conflict has entered a stable phase, when none of the parties is able to win a decisive victory. The government and the Taliban can wage a war like this for many years and even decades to come, until one party runs out of resources.
Apparently, Washington has realized the failure of its policy in Afghanistan and, instead of encouraging a political dialog, decided to increase the number of troops deployed to 16,000 people. This is one of the components of the “new Afghanistan strategy” of President Donald Trump, which also includes mounting political pressure on Pakistan. At the same time, the United States and NATO have turned down any cooperation with Russia and the SCO on the subject of Afghanistan.
What can SCO member states do in these circumstances to settle the Afghan conflict? Let us consider different options. Use of force is out of the question, because the SCO is not a military structure. Besides, such intervention would put the SCO against the United States, which has troops deployed in Afghanistan in accordance with the bilateral security agreement.
Offer of military or military-technical assistance to Afghanistan from the SCO would most probably be rejected. Even if the Afghan government wanted to upgrade its weapons and equipment with the help of Russia, the US strongly opposes the idea. It made an exception only for MI-171 helicopters and free supply of weapons.
Participation in peace talks, attempts to persuade the Taliban to start negotiations with the government and other political initiatives to encourage and promote the process of negotiations have not yielded any result after many years.
In such circumstances, economics could become the focus area. The SCO has already helped Afghanistan to create almost 70,000 jobs in rural areas. On the other hand, investment projects depend on success in the security sphere and the good will of the Afghan government towards investors from the SCO. As long as the US continues instigating war in the country, it will be difficult to make large investments there, and even the Chinese transport initiative, One Belt, One Road, will bypass Afghanistan.
Therefore, the SCO’s entire potential for influencing the situation in Afghanistan may currently not be enough to resolve its complicated problems. We can state that the country is very dependent on the US, which hinders development of its partnership with the SCO.
Whose strategy – that of Trump or the SCO – will be preferred by Afghanistan itself? Obviously, America’s 16-year military presence in the country has not resolved its security problems, but rather escalated them. This is why Kabul now vests big hopes in Moscow and Beijing. All the more so, as the example of Syria has shown the Afghans that Russia is really able to fight international terrorism.