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Curing Afghanistan’s Chronic Instability with the SCO

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Afghanistan stands at a crucial juncture, where there is an opportunity to emerge from the abyss of corruption, instability, and sustained conflict after the US withdrawal. With the formation of a Taliban government and the lofty claims of change associated with it, there is much to be addressed in order to ensure a positive ending to the Afghan story. In that light, Afghanistan will be suffering from two vectors of instability unless remedial action is taken on the regional and global levels. A mindset of narrow self-interests and a strategic vacuum after the US withdrawal can plague any prospects of Afghanistan’s ability to move towards normalization and prosperity.

Chronic Instability.     History shows that Afghanistan has witnessed prioritization of self-interest, tribal interests, or the use of warlords and ‘big men’ as proxies for furthering external interests over the national interest. This was observed with the coup of 1973 led by Daud Shah against King Zahir Shah. Ever since, in the last six decades, faction after faction has worked to serve either its own interests or the perceived interests of external powers. That is the life that the past three generations of Afghan people have known: the repeating plot of instability, chaos, and neglect of national interest.

Stability or any form of a united front in the history of Afghanistan has been due to the banding together of ‘big men’. Warlords and influential Afghans have functioned as local lords with soldiers loyal only to them. The Afghan Army also consisted of Generals that were essentially warlords in modern military uniform. When the Taliban offensive picked up pace, the Afghan government also relied on the political and military support of big names like Dostum and Masoud to give it a fighting chance, as the Afghan Army may have lacked the essential unity and purpose that other nation-state armies possess. 

The power held by influential Afghans and their ability to unleash unrest at the snap of a finger was also observed in the time before the unity government of Afghanistan in September, 2014. The relative peace at this time and the Taliban’s ascension to power this year seemed to have been made possible after consultation with and agreements between figures such as Hekmatyar, Abdullah Abdullah and Karzai. Yet, they have not been made part of the interim government and there is a lack of disruption from their end.

The silence from these and other such key figures of Afghan politics is unlike previous instances in Afghanistan’s history, and indicates that the Taliban could have consolidated power with them through another incentive. Another possibility is that these men are waiting to see if promises are kept, or they could be biding their time for an opportune moment to take a stand. Regardless of what was agreed between them and the Taliban, allegiances and aligned interests can always change at the drop of a hat. Therefore, a regional, concerted, and collective approach would be required to avoid or atleast minimize any spoilers for stability and prosperity.

Floating in a Strategic Vacuum.         Moving forward, the hasty American pullout from Afghanistan that ended its longest war ever did not do any favours to the repeated cycle of insecurity and instability. The gruesome and saddening scenes that came out of it should and could have been avoided, but they were not surprising. A lack of care for the global south and treatment of allies as disposable entities is a common feature in US foreign engagements. With that said, there is more to the picture of US withdrawal from Afghanistan.

America’s departure from Afghanistan has left a vacuum that indicates a larger retraction from the region. In a speech defending the withdrawal, President Biden stated that “This decision about Afghanistan is not just about Afghanistan. It is about ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries.”

A shift from a decades’ long foreign policy can also be observed practically with the removal of the Patriot antimissile batteries from its Middle Eastern allies as well. The US does retain bases and soldiers in those countries, but the degree and intensity of military posturing has changed. This larger power vacuum in the region creates fertile ground for a tussle for influence, with the potential of creating spill over instability for Afghanistan’s neighbors. A regional consensus and subsequent actions could avoid that possibility.

Utilization of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.       The Afghan Taliban face a famine of legitimacy and economic support. As terrible as that is, it can be an opportunity if seen through a pragmatic lens. Through various statements, the Taliban have shown themselves to be desirous of state legitimacy and economic support.

A regional approach for the stability and prosperity of Afghanistan allows for an outcome that is greater than the sum of its parts; working in conjunction with regional states will have a larger impact factor than individual state efforts. The JCPOA (Iran Nuclear Deal) serves as an example of how collective and concerted efforts can be fruitful. The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, provides that option for the countries surrounding Afghanistan. This approach was rightfully echoed by heads of state at the SCO Summit in September 2021, in Dushanbe, Tajikistan.

An Active SCO.           SCO, as the most relevant regional body, should act to propel the region towards prosperity and stability. That involves actively working with the Taliban government, monitoring progress, and ensuring follow-through for sustained progress on the determined goals and objectives of the SCO as well as those of the international community. The following measures can be taken in this regard:

  • SCO states, through a joint agreement under the auspices of the organization, could work with the Taliban for an inclusive government. The Taliban could be given joint recognition from the SCO member states, which could be conditional on the formation of a government that represents the complex ethnic composition of Afghanistan.
  • The roadmap economic humanitarian assistance can be ingrained in the same agreement.
  • SCO states can establish a mutually agreed upon joint mechanism of monitoring whether the Taliban are living up to their claim of not allowing any terrorist entities to operate from their territory. A more in-depth form of intelligence sharing can also be included to help both the SCO states and Afghanistan deal with terrorist outfits.
  • The SCO can use its platform for directing economic investment and shaping a more pragmatic approach towards Afghanistan from the global community so that a humanitarian crisis and economic collapse can be averted.

The multi-faceted approach suggested above to work pragmatically with the new reality in Afghanistan could provide the damage control needed at this critical time. It will also create a conducive environment for the new Afghan government to effectively deal with its plethora of woes. Let it be an Afghan Owned, Afghan Led, and regionally buttressed process.