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Crisis in Afghanistan turns the spotlight on Central Asia

The Central Asian republics can influence events on the ground in Afghanistan in a way Nato never could, except with brute military force 

August 27, 2021 / 03:08 PM IST

Recent events in Afghanistan demonstrate that as in the case of individuals, fate or destiny plays a role in determining the importance or relevance of institutions and organisations. With the humiliation of the most powerful nation on earth, the United States, Islamabad’s triumph in Kabul and Beijing’s slow ascent into the driving seat in Afghanistan, the most important regional organisation in South and Central Asia is destined to be the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).

Iran will soon become a full member of the SCO, Russia having prevailed upon Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to lift their veto on Tehran’s full membership. Iran is currently an observer in the SCO. Full membership requires a consensus within the organisation.

Once Iran has full access to the rights and privileges of the currently eight-member SCO, the major countries which consistently opposed Washington’s presence in Kabul for 20 years — Russia, China and Iran — will have an institutional framework to co-ordinate what they now want to do in Afghanistan. At present, Afghanistan is an observer in the SCO.

A major advantage for the SCO, which will be dominated by the triumvirate of Russia, China and Iran on all matters relating to Afghanistan, is that the four ‘…stans’ which are most critical to what happens in Kabul ethnically, strategically and diplomatically, are all members of the SCO: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. This was an advantage which the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Nato), whose co-ordinates with the US presence in Kabul was similar to what will be between the SCO and Afghanistan in future, woefully lacked.

The Central Asian republics — the SCO’s four plus Turkmenistan — can influence events on the ground in Afghanistan in a way Nato never could, except with brute military force. Nato was made up of countries which had nothing to do with the Afghans. They were people from faraway lands, who not only looked different from the Afghans, but also thought, lived and acted differently.

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The Central Asian ‘…stans,’ on the other hand, are Afghanistan’s blood brothers. Literally, they all shed their blood for one another, tragically, often against one another too. But in the end, they have more in common among themselves than different and divergent, as was the case between the US-led Nato and Afghans. More than anything else, Central Asia’s ties with Moscow have not frayed, despite Washington’s determined efforts to undermine those ties since the break-up of the Soviet Union made these ‘…stans’ into independent republics 20 years ago.

Not that everything is going to be rosy in these bilateral and plurilateral relationships. Afghanistan shares borders with three of the five Central Asian republics and with China, Iran and Pakistan. Depending on how Taliban-controlled Afghanistan shapes up, these borders could be a blessing or a curse. The August 26 terrorist bombing in Kabul airport’s vicinity is a pointer to what may lie ahead.

Such a scenario only enhances the importance of the SCO as a potential lynchpin of stability in South and Central Asia. Even as a stable and peaceful Afghanistan holds out the prospect of prosperity and access to its huge mineral wealth and other resources, Kandahar, as a fountainhead of terrorism yet again, poses an existential threat to all of Afghanistan’s bordering countries.

From its birth in 2001, the SCO’s focus has been on regional security, the threat to member states from neighbourhood terrorism, the dangers of ethnic separatism and, most important of all, a spill over of religious extremism across borders. Later on, regional development became another priority. Fate and destiny have, therefore, now willed that the SCO takes the reins — where Nato had questionable success — of determining the course of events not only in Central Asia and upper South Asia, but well beyond.

A fortnight ago, Russia and China held what are speculated to have been one of their largest joint military exercises in China's Ningxia region, populated by Muslim Huis, Uyghurs and restive Tibetans. Simultaneously, Russian troops exercised with the Tajik and Uzbek military barely 20 km from Tajikistan’s border with Afghanistan. At the beginning of August, Russia and Uzbekistan conducted joint military exercises near Uzbekistan’s Afghan border.

All of which suggest that Russia knew what the US did not anticipate: the fall of Kabul to the Taliban and preparedness for any eventuality threatening Moscow’s vital security interests in Central Asia. If conditions go from bad to worse in Afghanistan and spill over into Central Asia, the Moscow-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) could be at hand to assist a ‘coalition of the willing’ within the SCO to attempt stability in the region. The CSTO had its nucleus as a military alliance among the ‘Former Soviet Union’ (FSU) in 1992 and metamorphosed into the present CSTO — a Russian-led Nato clone of sorts — in 2002 after the US invasion of Afghanistan.

The litmus test for India will come when Afghanistan’s next government, dominated by the Taliban, pushes to upgrade its observer status in the SCO to become a full member. If India opposes Afghanistan’s full membership on the facile ground that Kabul and Islamabad could team up, along with China, to make India a whipping boy inside the SCO, New Delhi could be further marginalised in Afghan developments post-the Ashraf Ghani rule. On the other hand, if the Narendra Modi government thinks creatively and puts its vital interests forward, instead of ideology, it could work to India’s advantage.

K P Nayar has extensively covered West Asia and reported from Washington as a foreign correspondent for 15 years.

Views are personal and do not represent the stand of this publication.
KP Nayar has extensively covered West Asia and reported from Washington as a foreign correspondent for 15 years. Views are personal.

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