With the Taliban now ruling in Afghanistan, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in neighbouring Tajikistan assumes significance, as the events in that country affect the entire region. SCO member states include Afghanistan’s Central Asian neighbours –Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, as well as regional powers— China, Russia, India and Pakistan. Iran and Afghanistan both have observer status in the group. Though Iran is likely to be made a full member this year, there will be no representation from Afghanistan, where the Taliban is busy in in-fighting and coming to grips with governance.
The SCO is China and Russia’s attempt to build a Eurasian political, economic and security alliance in the lines of NATO, but has so far not lived up to that ambition. But now when the stakes are high and an unstable Afghanistan is a threat to all member states, can the regional stakeholders be able to unify and stabilise Afghanistan, something that the US and its NATO allies failed to do? That is a question for which there are no easy answers considering that no foreign power so far has had any success. Pakistan, China, Iran and Russia are all trying, so is the international community as a whole. But it is a tall ask, with the Taliban a divided house and minorities, women and a large section of the urban Afghan population in no mood to accept the austere, medieval interpretation of the sharia which is now in place in Afghanistan.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi is not travelling to Dushanbe but will address the summit in virtual form on Friday. Chinese President Xi Jinping is expected to do the same, while Russia’s Vladimir Putin switched to a virtual meeting as he is self-isolating after an aide tested positive for Covid-19. Pakistan’s Imran Khan is attending in person. Foreign minister Subramanyam Jaishankar will also travel to Dushanbe for discussions and talks with his counterparts. The MEA spokesman Arindam Bagchi did not announce the minister’s bilateral meetings to questions about whether a meeting was scheduled with his Chinese counterpart.
"It will be useful at this point to know how each member views events unfolding in Afghanistan,’’ a senior official said. Jaishankar’s engagement in Dushanbe will give him a clear idea of the position of various member states in Afghanistan. Most Central Asian Republics are heavily under Russian influence and support a secular ideology and facing threats from Islamic terror groups now on a high and celebrating the Taliban’s victory. India and many of these countries will find common ground in Afghanistan. Tajikistan’s government is opposed to the Taliban as Tajiks form the second largest minority in Afghanistan and worry about the wellbeing of Tajiks in a Pashtun set-up dominated by Pashtuns.
With competing interests on the table at the SCO, it is unlikely that a clear plan of action on Afghanistan can be worked out. The resolution adopted at the end of the SCO meet will definitely call for an inclusive government, respecting the rights of all minorities and of women and the need not to allow the use of Afghan territory for attacks on any other country.
This is something every member state can agree on, as fears of Islamic groups like the ISI-K, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan(TTP), the Al Qaeda, Lashkar-i-Taibya, Jaish-e-Mohammad the Islamic Movement of East Turkestan (IMET), the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) as well as the Islamic Movement of Tajikistan(IMT) threatens the entire region. These radical terror outfits have all being rejuvenated by the Taliban’s stunning victory in Afghanistan. The regrouping of India-centric groups like the Jaish and Lashkar will have several security implications for India, especially in Kashmir. With the help of Pakistan, China and Russia had reached out to the Taliban and established a line to them over the last few years, waiting for the time when the American’s leave Afghanistan. But now it seems that the Doha Taliban leadership do not call the shots. Concerns of terror exports through the porous borders are now very real. Russia has already reached out to India for a coordinated approach. China too in the wants a stable Afghanistan, without that President Xi Jinping’s hopes of the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative getting a boost with Afghanistan part of the China-Pakistan-Economic Corridor will go for a toss. Terror groups can also destabilise governments in Central Asia where China is now investing heavily on infrastructure.
Though Islamabad is jubilant at gaining strategic depth in Afghanistan with the return of the Taliban fears of a blowback of the TTP in Pakistan is very real. There has already been a major increase in terror strikes in that country. After the Taliban released thousands of prisoners from jail, around 800 TTP militants are free. As the Taliban was gaining ground in Afghanistan, even before reaching Kabul, terror stiles by the TTP as well as the Balochistan Liberation Army were gaining momentum in Pakistan’s tribal belt. Almost 170 terrorist attacks were reported from the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan province. Whether the Taliban is in any position to control the terror groups that are operating from its soil is hard to tell. Despite this Islamabad will pitch for the Taliban. In a recent interview to CNN, Prime Minister Imran Khan said, ``…we should incentivise them because this current government in Afghanistan clearly feels that without international aid and help they will not be able to stop this crisis. We [...] should push them in the right direction." That will certainly be Pakistan’s line in the SCO. While India will talk of terror threats emanating from Afghanistan, it is unlikely to directly criticise the Taliban.