The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation�s Special Conference
on Afghanistan, held in Moscow on 27 March, marks a new stage in the
international community�s relations with this beleaguered country. It reflected
the growing clout of Russia and China, the founders of the SCO, which includes
Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and four observers -- India,
Iran, Pakistan and Mongolia.
In attendance for the first time were top US and NATO
officials, including US Deputy Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian
Affairs Patrick Moon and NATO Deputy Secretary General Martin Howard, as well
as UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and Secretary General of the Organisation
for Security and Cooperation in Europe Mark Perrin de Brichambaut. Among the 36
countries participating were representatives from the G8, the European Union
and the Organisation of the Islamic Conference. The unanimously adopted Joint
Action Plan underlined the SCO�s importance �for practical interaction between
Afghanistan and its neighbouring states in combating terrorism, drug
trafficking and organised crime.�
The Moscow Declaration upstaged the UN Conference on
Afghanistan held four days later, coming down hard on Pakistan with a
call for more effective means to combat terrorism, including denying
sanctuaries to the resistance. Coming just over a month after Kyrgyzstan
announced the closing of the US airbase on its territory, the conference
reiterated the SCO�s position that it is opposed to the expansion of US
military interests in Central Asia, but is willing to expand cooperation with
the US and NATO in Afghanistan, short of sending troops. Interestingly, Obama
announced a shift in US policy emphasis on the same day as the SCO summit,
promising greater consultation with Afghanistan�s neighbours.
It also declared support for the efforts of the Karzai
government, which is openly criticised as weak and corrupt by US officials.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexei Borodavkin warned against creating a
power vacuum in Afghanistan in the run-up to the presidential elections later
this year. Russia also came out against negotiating with the Taliban.
The Russians believe that Afghan drug trafficking is the
most serious threat to the security of Russia and Central Asia. Russia�s
anti-drug chief, Viktor Ivanov, last week called the coalition�s anti-drug
policy a fiasco, noting that opium production in Afghanistan had soared since
the deployment of US and NATO troops in the country. Afghan narcotics, he said,
kill 30,000 people in Russia every year, twice as many as the Soviet Union lost
during its decade-long military intervention in Afghanistan. The Action Plan
calls for joint SCO-Afghan operations in combating drug trafficking and
organised crime, including training of drug agencies, combating laundering of
drug money and improving border controls.
The plan reads like a roadmap for bringing Afghanistan into
the SCO fold, a move which India�s envoy approved of. The idea of Afghanistan
joining the SCO would clearly be anathema to the US, however, and Obama�s
proposal to create a NATO-dominated Contact Group with Afghanistan is clearly a
way to contain the growing influence of the SCO. But with NATO allies reluctant
to back Obama�s surge strategy, major concessions will have to be made,
affecting virtually all US foreign policy.
Russia has approved rail transit of non-military supplies to
Afghanistan, and suggested this could include military cargo as well, though
such approval is surely conditional on US actions affecting Russia, primarily
its plans for missile bases in Eastern Europe and its campaign against Iran.
Russian analyst Alexander Lukin says cooperation with the SCO offers the US and
NATO an acceptable format to bring Iran into the dialogue. Iranian Deputy
Foreign Minister Mehdi Akhundzadeh sat across the table from the US envoy at
the Moscow Conference.
Iran is a dilemma for the SCO. Just as Georgia is being put
on hold in NATO, Iran�s application to join the SCO was put off again. �The
admission of new members to the SCO should strengthen the organisation, but not
cause new problems,� SCO Secretary General Bolat Nurgaliyev said last month.
Full membership would provide Tehran with a mutual assistance guarantee similar
to that provided NATO members. Just as NATO�s expansion plans brought the world
perilously close to war last summer over Georgia, so would a US-Israeli attack
on Iran if it were a full member. This will be addressed at the next SCO summit
which will be held in Yekaterinburg, Russia, in June.
In 2003, Iran indicated to the Bush administration that it
was no friend of the Taliban and was willing to cooperate in stabilising the
situation in Afghanistan, but its overtures were spurned and the invasion of
Iraq put paid to any such plans. The hysterical campaign against Iran since has
only made the US/NATO occupation of Afghanistan harder -- there are reports
that Iran may even be burying the hatchet with the Taliban. But its enthusiasm
for the SCO and continued support from China and Russia in its standoff with
the West make this possibility unlikely.
Iran is also suffering from the exploding drug trafficking
from Afghanistan that the US invasion facilitated, plus a surge of Afghan
refugees. Russia is no doubt delighted with Iranian Police Chief Esmaeel
Ahmadi-Moghadam�s announcement last week that Iran was ready to train Afghan
police. The Germans have botched this and the Iranians could hardly do worse.
If the US were serious about containing the huge heroin problem it created, it
would take their offer seriously.
But Obama will be unlikely to capture this moment, given his
timidity so far in dealing with the mess he was bequeathed. He needs to build a
new coalition and endgame strategy that would avoid the humiliation the US
suffered in Vietnam, and fast. There are many adjustments to be made -- nixing
the Bush-Brzezinski strategy of surrounding Russia with NATO members for
starters. And winding down the campaign against Iran, which will include
reining in Israel. US policymakers who want to reverse the reckless
sabre-rattling of the Bush years can actually take solace in the rise of the
SCO, which was founded in 2001 and whose growing prominence is a direct result
of the Bush years. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and NATO�s
self-proclaimed status as world policeman in the past two decades, Russia and
China were more or less forced to form their own �NATO.� After all, nature
abhors a vacuum.
Ironically, as the attempt to surround Russia sputters, it
is Afghanistan that is now surrounded by SCO members and observers, notably
Iran, anxious to contain drug trafficking. In this context, US-Israel threats
to attack Iran are more and more like the boy who cried �Wolf!� The Bush
Afghanistan/Iran policies is in shambles and there is little indication so far
that much is being done to improve the situation.
Can NATO and the SCO become allies in Afghanistan, or are
they fated to be enemies? Council for Foreign Relations analyst Evan
Feigenbaum, until recently the State Department�s deputy assistant secretary
for South and Central Asia, says the SCO conference �offers an opportunity for
the US to try to turn what are ostensibly common interests [in Afghanistan]
into complementary polices,� but he�s not optimistic. He pointed to the SCO
call in 2005 for a timeline for a US withdrawal from military bases in Central
Asia, which �attracted a lot of notoriety,� and asks just what the SCO could
actually do in Afghanistan. Good question. How can Chinese and Russian support
save the totally discredited Karzai regime? How would their �help� be greeted
by Afghans? Clearly some accommodation with, if not total surrender to the
Taliban is the dead-end the US has reached, and SCO involvement can change
Feigenbaum makes another telling observation: �We really
don�t understand what the SCO is . . . Is it a security group? Is it a trade
bloc? Is it a group of non-democratic countries that have created a kind of
safe zone where the US and Europeans don�t talk to them about human rights and
democracy?� Indeed, there is little uniting the suspicious and uneasy SCO
members other than fear and perhaps loathing of the US and Taliban, and a
desire to staunch the drug smuggling which the US is failing so spectacularly
to deal with. If NATO were to disband or at least retract its claws, the SCO
might well collapse. Expanding it to include, say, Iran, let alone Pakistan and
India, would paralyse it.
The most likely cooperation would be in containing the drug
flow, if the US is indeed serious about this and not part of the problem, as
some analysts -- in the first place, Russian -- contend. The prospects of
establishing a stable, popular political regime opposed to the Taliban is a
fantasy apparently shared by both NATO and the SCO. But Russia and China are
hardly going to have more success in destroying the Taliban than the US. Any attempt
by either Russia or China to contribute to the slaughter now taking place will
only backfire among their own restive Muslim minorities, which all SCO members
It appears that Russia genuinely wants the US to succeed in
bringing Afghanistan to heel. Russia�s ambassador to NATO, Dmitri Rogozin, said
recently, �We want to prevent the virus of extremism from crossing the borders
of Afghanistan and take over other states in the region such as Pakistan. If
NATO failed, it would be Russia and her partners that would have to fight
against the extremists in Afghanistan.� Rogozin proposes using the NATO-Russia
Council to establish a security order stretching �from Vancouver to
Vladivostok. Perhaps NATO could develop into PATO, a Pacific-Atlantic
Whether this is merely Rogozin being flippant is not clear.
Surely such an organisation belongs as part of the UN, which is perhaps what he
meant. In any case, Rogozin is back on the warpath, or rather the peace path,
calling NATO�s month-long war games in Georgia scheduled for 7 May a
�provocation� and calling for them to be cancelled. If they go ahead, Russia
will �take appropriate measures,� one of which already has been taken with the
cancellation of a meeting of Russian and NATO general staff commanders this
week. There are lots more aces up the Russian sleeve, including SCO and Afghan
ones. If Obama persists in Bush-era belligerence, it will only make resolving
the many problems he faces all the more difficult.
Even if he can keep the SCO onside, it is no lifejacket for
NATO in Afghanistan. The best the two �security� organisations can do is to let
it go its own way, �containing� it until it recovers from the trauma of all the
�help� it has been force-fed over the past three decades.
Eric Walberg writes for Al-Ahram Weekly. You can reach him at geocities.com/walberg2002.