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EU and NATO engagement with the SCO: Afghanistan as a pilot

12 May 2014 - 10:32
Source: Flickr / Shawn Weismiller

Western military forces are finally leaving Afghanistan. However, NATO and the European Union are well aware that the country could once again become a security threat to the West. Having suspended cooperation with Russia because of Ukraine, NATO and the EU have a perfect opportunity to enhance cooperation with the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and in doing so, to remain important actors in Afghanistan’s democratisation process.

Once almost all US and NATO troops leave from Afghanistan, Afghan police and military forces will regain control over security. In all likelihood, in order to fill the vacuum left by the West (the U.S., the EU and NATO), Russia and its central Asian partners (The East) will have to monitor the security environment in the region. Russia, although not directly adjacent to Afghanistan, has a troubled history with the country, not least because of Afghan narcotics and terrorism activities. Afghanistan’s border states, China and the central Asian states of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, are equally affected by these problems. These countries, along with Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, form the six member-states of the SCO (excluding non-aligned Turkmenistan).

The SCO is a regional political, economic and security cooperation organisation, with Mongolia, Iran, Pakistan, India and Afghanistan as observer states. In light of western withdrawal from the region, China and Russia are aiming to reinforce their security posture in Central Asia, and consider the SCO a fitting instrument to do so. However, the SCO lacks the military capacity and financial means for operations in Afghanistan. In April 2013, the heads of the SCO anti-drug agencies formed an international operational command for the annihilation of narcotics production in Afghanistan, but without the commitment of any troops. Furthermore, although the border guard services of SCO aim to improve coordination in this area, the organisation has not yet engaged in collective counter-drugs operations, nor has it trained Afghan counter-narcotics or other law enforcement officers, as NATO and Russia have done. In fact, SCO’s only direct action has been to accept Afghanistan as an observer. SCO members mostly have bilateral cooperation agreements with Afghanistan, rather than engaging with Kabul as a community, and China – due to its economic leverage in Kabul – is at the forefront.

Since 2007, with the mandate of the EU Special Representative for Central Asia, the EU has continually affirmed its commitment to developing appropriate contacts and cooperation with the key players in the region and all relevant regional and international organisations, including the SCO. But is NATO more reluctant to do so?

At its 2005 annual summit, the SCO called for a withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan. But gradually, due to the deteriorating security environment, their negative attitude towards Western military involvement evolved into a positive one and they have begun to seek enhanced cooperation. Accordingly, at the SCO’s Afghanistan Conference in 2009, in a first formal sign of cooperation, NATO and the EU were invited. NATO’s 2009 Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council Security Forum in Kazakhstan was also attended by Bolat Nurgaliev, Secretary-General of the SCO. Although this seemed to be a step forward, NATO Secretary-General De Hoop Scheffer then denied that the Alliance wanted to establish formal relations with the SCO.

All countries – whether in the East or the West – face the same threats from Afghanistan: Taliban and Al Qaeda terrorism, as well as drugs production and trafficking. East-West cooperation is therefore inevitable and essential. However, NATO’s recent suspension of all cooperation with Russia, due to the Ukraine crisis, will have a negative effect on the situation in Afghanistan. NATO-Russia cooperation involved important efforts such as: joint counter-narcotics training of Afghan and central Asian personnel, the establishment of a transit route through Russian and Central Asian territory for (military) goods to/from Afghanistan, as well as a helicopter project which provided for the training of Afghan technicians and the provision of helicopters and spare parts to the Afghan air force.

Russia’s role is important and cannot be replaced if NATO continues to reject cooperation with the SCO and instead emphasises cooperation with individual states. NATO must change this stance and then begin to focus on military cooperation with the SCO. The two organisations could exchange liaison officers in their headquarters to improve coordination or perhaps the military intelligence services of both organisations could share information on opposing forces. Moreover, NATO could invite the SCO to replace Russia in training Afghan and Central Asian law enforcement officers and border guards, as well as Afghan military personnel.

Teamwork is also needed in supplying weapons and maintenance to the Afghan armed forces. Further cooperation could be found in joint demining actions on Afghan territory, since this would not mean permanent deployment of SCO armed forces, only incidental operations. NATO and the SCO could also, in Moscow’s absence, jointly strengthen the border security capacities of the weakest central Asian states. Regarding socioeconomic cooperation in Afghanistan, the EU and the SCO could cooperate in areas such as providing direct relief and assistance (food supplies), encouraging good governance, state-building, police training and reconstruction projects (building schools, hospitals, water wells, roads, railway, bridges, etc.).

The suspension of NATO-Russia cooperation on Afghanistan could be highly detrimental to Afghan, Central Asian, and global security. As such, this security vacuum should be filled by replacing Russia with SCO cooperation in these joint projects before it is too late. This could also lay the foundations for intensified EU/NATO cooperation with the SCO, reduce mutual suspicion and distrust and even improve relations with China – the superpower of the Asia-Pacific region. It is evident that now is the time to develop EU/NATO joint action with the SCO, starting in Afghanistan.

This article was first published on the website of Europe's World. Read the original article here.