By Dr Greg Austin.
Why Is Hamid Karzai, the leader of strife torn Afghanistan, taking time to go to Tashkent in Uzbekistan this week?
What will the Presidents of Russia and China say to him when the three of them meet? To answer this question, you need to know about the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). This regional grouping, now only three years old officially, just opened its headquarters in Beijing at the beginning of this month. It brings together, China, Russia, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. The SCO Heads of State are meeting in Tashkent this week, and Karzai is attending as an observer.
The geographical centre of the SCO in Central Asia is an area of groaning economic dislocation, of human rights abuse and radical Islamist militancy. Nevertheless, the SCO mobilizes, potentially at least, the entire territory and national power of both Russia and China. This is nothing to snigger at, as most Western commentators do. No other regional grouping, except perhaps the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the EU, dispose of such great potential as a regional grouping. As Khalil Hasan wrote in a Pakistan newspaper in 2002, 'The six countries that constitute the SCO cover 30 million square kilometres - 60 per cent of continental Europe and Asia - and have a combined population of 1.5 billion - about one quarter of the world population. From a strategic perspective, a Sino-Russian axis is a formidable combination. Central Asia added to it makes the alliance a serious contender for power and influence in the evolving global scenario.' If Pakistan, in response to its expression of interest in joining the SCO, were invited to join, then the window presented by the SCO on global order will be even bigger because of Pakistan's size, its military power (especially nuclear), and its geopolitical position relative to both India and the rest of the Muslim world.
Karzai is going to Tashkent because Afghanistan's long term economic future may well hinge on its joining the SCO. There can be no security for Afghanistan's borders, without peaceful economic development of the border regions in neighbouring countries. But Karzai may also be going to Tashkent because he knows that the US/UK/NATO political-military solution for his country is not working. The assessments of the current situation being offered by specialists who should and who do know are very bleak. The Western commitment is weakening in the face of competing pressures.
The promise made that the UK would never walk away from Afghanistan again is now proving hollow because the UK and its allies have no answers. They cannot find a way to deal effectively with the currently dominant political forces in the country: the Taliban and the regional military commanders. Russia and China have no answers right now either, but they have much more potential through the SCO, possibly expanded to include Pakistan, to support Afghanistan's long term development than NATO, the EU or its member states. The SCO stands out considerably from other, earlier variants of regional cooperation in Central Asia for one main reason: the richer regions of Russia and China can act in combination as the locomotive of development the poorer regions of Central Asia plus and Afghanistan. The weakness of earlier forms of regional cooperation in Central Asia was that they lacked this one crucial ingredient for success: a powerful economy (or economies) around which the weaker states could 'integrate'. It also needs to be borne in mind that the SCO is a very new organization having only been established in June 2001. So it should not be tarred with the same brush of failure that has been evident in other, earlier efforts at regional cooperation. The best contribution the EU and NATO can probably make to the future of Afghanistan is to promote the vigorous and effective development of the SCO, with Pakistan and Afghanistan in it. This would be a project of one to decades for sure, but there may be no other answer for the long term security and prosperity of Afghanistan.
Greg Austin is Research Director of the Foreign Policy Centre (www.fpc.org.uk)To view a full list of Dr Austin's publication's please click on the link below
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