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Qishloq Ovozi

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (left) shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin during their meeting at the SCO summit in Ufa on July 10.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) added its first two new members at a summit on July 10 -- India and Pakistan. Some of the leaders at the summit were pleased to point out that the member states of their organization now accounted for nearly half the world's population.

Since 2001, the SCO's members have been China, Russia, and Central Asian states Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. In theory, the six states were all equal within the framework of the SCO.

The inclusion of India and Pakistan into the SCO does boost the group's international profile, but it could come at expense of the Central Asian members.

To discuss this possibility, RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, organized a panel discussion.

Azatlyk Director Muhammad Tahir moderated the discussion. Participating were noted Central Asian authorities Alex Cooley, author of several books, including Base Politics -- Democratic Change And The U.S. Military Overseas and Great Games, Local Rules: The New Great Power Contest For Central Asia. (I'll mention here that Dr. Cooley was recently appointed director of Columbia University's Harriman Institute -- Hooray! I remember the place well.) Also participating was Joshua Kucera, who has written about the security situation in Central Asia, and other areas, for EurasiaNet for many years now. I was happy to join those two peers in the discussion.

When he arrived in Ufa, Russia, for the SCO summit, Uzbek President Islam Karimov immediately met with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Karimov told the press he wanted to know more about why India and Pakistan were being admitted to the SCO. The other Central Asian presidents avoided making such comments, but that must have been on their minds also.

Cooley started by saying Central Asian members of the SCO have "had a great say" in the affairs of the organization but "now with the addition of India and Pakistan I think there's a fear among some of the Central Asian countries that some of their voice and some of their decision-making will also be lost."
Kucera agreed, pointing out: "With India and Pakistan, now there's four huge countries, nuclear powers, and four relatively poor and small and not-so-powerful Central Asian countries, so I think that there's legitimate concern that [Central Asian members] would be outweighed in SCO decision-making."

The combined population of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan is approximately 62 million. China and India, of course, have more than 1 billion people each; Pakistan almost 200 million; and Russia some 140 million. It is easy to see why the Central Asians could be worried about their role in the SCO.

Part of the problem for the Central Asians is that the two first-among-equals in the organization are often acting in their own interests inside the SCO.

It was noted that China used the SCO as a vehicle to gain economic influence in Central Asia. China was practically nonexistent as a trade partner for the Central Asian states prior to 2001, but now it is a leading -- if not the leading -- trade partner for all the Central Asian states, in large part due to SCO agreements.

"For Russia, this [SCO] has been a vehicle to try and push back against Western influence," Cooley said, arguing that it suits the Kremlin to have India and Pakistan as fellow members in the SCO.

Kucera noted that the timing was good for Russia.

"Russia really has been talking up the SCO a lot since the crisis with Ukraine and the fallout with the West, and it was interesting that in the last Peace Mission exercises last year the Russian contingent was much larger than it had been."

The SCO held five Peace Mission joint military exercises in the first 10 years of the organization's existence, but Russia sensed the SCO with China was taking on a greater security role in Central Asia, a role that the Kremlin preferred to reserve for itself via the Collective Security Treaty Organization. And although there was a Peace Mission exercise last year, Russia has been showing less enthusiasm for these drills since 2010.

The panelists discussed the divergence of interests between Russia and China within the SCO, saying that had worked against genuine unity in the organization and noting the differences in opinion between Russia and China often ignored the interests of the Central Asian members.

Cooley said that even the addition of the new members, who won't officially be admitted until 2016, demonstrated Russia and China were working together with different goals in mind.

"The Russians have wanted India in for a while as a kind of internal balancer to China, to sort of try and dilute Chinese influence. So they get that. Of course, they come in with Pakistan. That's a package deal and Pakistan is more and more an economic client of China's, as well as a security partner."

Kucera suggested that while the Kremlin often used the SCO as a way of showing the West that Russia cannot be isolated, "China is much less interested in that kind of showy gesture and is actually trying to accomplish things in Central Asia." But many of China's ideas of deeper regional cooperation, particularly economic cooperation, had been blocked by Russia, Kucera noted.

The panel discussed China's moves outside the SCO, for example Beijing's recent One Belt, One Road strategy that would connect Eurasian countries through land and sea trade routes. The idea came after Russia had rejected China's attempts to use the SCO as a basis for opening up trade routes between Europe and Asia.

And there was also the matter of the SCO's incredibly vague agenda. The organization was founded as the Shanghai Five in 1996 (Uzbekistan was not a member) as a way to build confidence along the Sino-CIS border by withdrawing assets away from the border area.

Even then, China was working with an ulterior motive since Beijing was anxious to reposition its military in the east, opposite Japan, South Korea, and their ally the United States, and especially with an eye toward Taiwan. The Shanghai Five freed up forces previously kept along what had been the Sino-Soviet border.

But the Shanghai Five moved from being about confidence-building to being about economic cooperation and by 2000 had already refocused on security as the primary binding force of the group. That changed and currently the SCO's agenda is not entirely clear.

As the SCO moves forward, there is even less chance the now eight members will be able to agree on a common direction or purpose and the Central Asians are likely just going along for the ride.

The discussion covered many other aspects of the recent SCO expansion and the SCO's role both regionally and internationally. Listen here to an audio recording of the roundtable:

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Local pro-government paramilitary groups are retreating in almost all areas of Afghanistan's Faryab Province.

The situation in Afghanistan's northern Faryab Province, which borders Turkmenistan, has become critical. Militants who started attacks in the province in early July have seized more than 100 villages in little over a week.

On July 15, the chief of the Faryab Provincial Council, Sayed Abdul Baki Hashami, told RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, that local pro-government paramilitary groups are retreating in almost all areas of Faryab and that the provincial capital, Maymana, is in danger of falling to militants.

Hashami said these local pro-government forces, which he called the "People's Resistance Front," are the province's only defense against enemy forces in Faryab. Despite government promises to launch an operation in the province to repel the militants, he said, there are no signs on the ground of that happening.

"They [the government] continue to say every day that we have sent forces and will start a [military] operation," he said, adding that the only help local militia forces have received came from the Directorate of National Security and it was "only their support that has allowed the People's Resistance Forces to hold ground."

"We don't have a government in Faryab" at the moment, Hashami said. He added that district centers are still under the control of pro-government fighters but "outside district centers, most areas are under Taliban control."

Hashami mentioned that militia forces had been fighting militants in Faryab's Almar district for two weeks, and he credited lawmaker Fathullah Qaysary for coming to the area a few days earlier with supplies of ammunition. Hashami said Qaysary saved the militiamen in Almar from perishing, but he also said pro-government fighters were forced to withdraw, abandoning 32 villages to the Taliban.

'Desperate Situation'

Afghanistan's Tolo TV reported on July 14 that "the Taliban have taken control of 30 villages in Qaysar district, 40 villages in Almar district, and 35 villages in Shirin Tagab district over the past three days."

Hashami said that in Almar, the Taliban and their foreign militant allies burned the homes of anyone suspected of belonging to or helping pro-government fighters.

Hashami said people in the province are "in a desperate situation" and blamed a lack of government support. "I've been telling the government dozens of times that these areas are going to fall to the Taliban and the situation is deteriorating. I told the interior minister, the defense minister, and the presidential administration," Baki said.

Afghanistan's vice president, Abdul Rashid Dostum, has reportedly cut short medical treatment in Turkey to return to Afghanistan. In comments to Azatlyk on July 15, Dostum spokesman Sultan Fayzi confirmed that Dostum would soon travel from Kabul to Faryab.

Fayzi said Dostum was "planning on meeting with the president, and after this meeting he is planning to travel to Faryab to observe the situation on the ground."

Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek warlord from the days of the Afghan civil war, was based in northern Afghanistan with a stronghold in Mazar-i Sharif. Fayzi said Dostum's presence in the north would encourage those resisting the Taliban, but he added that the deputy defense minister and the commander of Afghanistan's air force were already in Faryab.

Fayzi also said reinforcements, including helicopter gunships, would be sent to Faryab, and he vowed that the Taliban would be driven out of the province.

Fayzi and Hashami referred to the militants in Faryab as "Taliban," but other officials and military and paramilitary commanders in north Afghanistan have made frequent reference to "foreign fighters" operating there.

The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) contacted RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, known locally as Ozodlik, and claimed that the IMU was in command of operations in northern Afghanistan, including in Faryab Province.

It was impossible to independently verify that claim, but Afghan officials have previously suggested the same.

-- Written by Bruce Pannier with contributions from RFE/RL's Turkmen Service Director Muhammad Tahir and RFE/RL's Uzbek Service Director Alisher Sidikov

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About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.

Bruce Pannier
Bruce Pannier

Content draws on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad.

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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