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SCO Looks To Find Its Way On Afghanistan

Security issues are likely to be high on the agenda as Afghan President Hamid Karzai (second from right) attends this month's SCO summit as an observer. (file photo from the 2012 SCO summit)
As tens of thousands of NATO troops prepare to leave Afghanistan, a moribund Eurasian political and security alliance is looking to prevent militancy from bleeding into its members' territory.

The problem, experts say, is that the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) appears unable to rise to the challenge of becoming the region's go-to security watchdog.

The SCO -- anchored by powerful Russia and China, and rounded out by Central Asian states Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan -- has struggled to find consensus on the Afghan question.

And that hinders its ability to effectively deal with future threats emanating from Afghanistan, according to London-based counterterrorism expert Raffaello Pantucci, because the SCO's charter requires "common consent and agreement" on all its actions.

Originally founded in 1996 as the Shanghai Five, and renamed in 2001 upon the inclusion of Uzbekistan, the SCO's mission is centered on Eurasian security and border defense.

The alliance's role has expanded over the years, particularly in the realm of threats that stem in part from Afghanistan, such as terrorism and drug trafficking.

No Standing Army

But while intent has been stated, the SCO has failed over the years to establish mechanisms and institutions capable of effectively tackling such threats, according to Pantucci.

"There is no standing army," he says. "It is not like the CSTO [Collective Security Treaty Organization], [which] has a formal rapid-reaction force. [The SCO doesn't] have the equipment and infrastructure that can actually respond to problems."

Shashank Joshi, a fellow at London's Royal United Services Institute, agrees. He believes the SCO's effectiveness is hampered by Russia and China's competing regional interests.

"China is traditionally worried about Islamic extremism emanating from Afghanistan," he says. "At the same time it has opened channels with the Taliban and has a strong relationship with the Taliban's primary external backer, Pakistan. So China is keeping its options open. The Russians are more firmly ranged against the Taliban, more skeptical about the Pakistani role and will probably be more prone to backing anti-Taliban forces."

Joshi was referring to contacts Beijing reportedly had with the Taliban this summer.

And Joshi says that if SCO observers and regional players India, Pakistan, and Iran were to be granted full membership during the summit in Bishkek on September 13, it could complicate things further.

"This is a group of real contradictions and there can only be some areas where they can cooperate," he says.

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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, specializes in the coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. He is also the author of the weekly Gandhara Briefing newsletter, which features some of best reporting and analysis on Afghanistan and Pakistan.