On the role of the SCO in resolving the Afghan crisis amid agreements by the Trump administration with the Taliban

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On the role of the SCO in resolving the Afghan crisis amid agreements by the Trump administration with the Taliban 24.04.2020 10:54

On March 24, 2020, it was planned to hold a seminar at the Institute of CIS Countries on the role of the SCO in resolving the Afghan crisis amid the agreements of the Trump administration with the Taliban movement. In connection with the growth of the epidemiological danger, they decided not to conduct this seminar, and to submit a report on it in the form of a thematic report. O.Nessar, a researcher at the Afghanistan Center for the Study of the Near and Middle East Countries at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, participated in the preparation of this report, N. Zamaraeva - Senior Researcher, Pakistan Sector, Center for the Study of the Near and Middle East, Institute of Oriental Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences and E. Dunaeva - senior researcher of the Iranian sector of the Center for the Study of the Near and Middle East of the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

On February 29, 2020, the United States and the radical Taliban movement (banned in Russia) entered into a peace agreement that envisages the complete withdrawal of US troops and their allies from Afghanistan within 14 months (there are now 12.500 US troops in within 135 days after signing the agreement, their number will be reduced to 8.6 thousand). The Taliban, for its part, pledged not to allow anyone, including the al-Qaeda terrorist organization (banned in Russia), to use the country's territory to undermine the security of the United States and its allies. In addition, it was planned to begin inter-Afghan negotiations by March 10 with the participation of the Taliban, the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (IRA), and legal Afghan political movements. Also, by this date, it was planned to complete the exchange of prisoners (5 thousand representatives of the Taliban movement for 1 thousand people held by the Taliban).

From the very beginning it was clear that the US administration agreed to this agreement only in order to facilitate the victory of D. Trump in the November 2020 presidential election. The Americans are not going to completely withdraw their troops from Afghanistan, since they do not exclude the possibility of using this territory for projection forces against the states of the SCO family - China, Russia and Iran.

Just a day after the signing of this peace agreement, the President of the IRA, Ashraf Ghani, opposed the deadline agreed by the Americans and the Taliban to begin negotiations between the government and the Taliban and the exchange of prisoners as a precondition for such negotiations. He signed a decree on the phased release of just 1.500 Taliban, but after they pledge in writing not to return to the battlefield after being released. The Taliban called this decision a violation of the terms of the agreement with the United States.

On April 7, the Taliban announced the termination of negotiations with the IRA government on the exchange of prisoners due to the authorities' refusal to release them. The Taliban said they would continue fighting against official Kabul until their supporters were released in accordance with the terms of a peace agreement with the United States. Among the prisoners in the movement, whose release is sought not only by the Taliban, but also by the United States, are 15 field commanders who have been accused of terrorism. To date, according to the Afghan authorities, 300 Taliban have been freed, primarily from Bagram Prison. In response, on April 12, the Taliban released 20 prisoners associated with the IRA government and transferred them to the International Committee of the Red Cross in the Afghan province of Kandahar.

Uncertainty remained with regard to the period of reduction of violence. According to Kabul, this should lead to a complete ceasefire in Afghanistan.

All this happens against the backdrop of an acute intra-Afghan crisis. So, inauguration of Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, who considers the published results of the presidential election invalid, took place simultaneously in Kabul. They started forming parallel governments, which greatly complicates the mechanism of creating an “inclusive, nationwide and nationwide delegation to participate” in negotiations with the Taliban (negotiations are ongoing in Afghanistan between representatives of A. Ghani and A. Abdullah to resolve the political crisis). The specified delegation should also include various ethnic and religious groups of the country, as well as former field commanders and security forces. To date, inter-Afghan negotiations have not begun (the Taliban opposed the delegation formed by the government of A. Ghani of 21 people).

The Taliban announced the end of the week-long “reduction in violence,” launching attacks on the government and security forces of Afghanistan (this was not done against representatives of foreign troops). So, on the same day, a bomb planted on a motorcycle exploded during a football match in southeast Afghanistan, killing three people. and injuring more than ten. This did not prevent representatives of both sides from opening diplomatic channels to find a possible compromise.

US Secretary of State M. Pompeo announced his intention to reduce financial assistance to Afghanistan by $1 billion in 2020, and by another $1 billion in 2021. A. Ghani and A. Abdullah are opposed to the formation of a united government, therefore the United States disappointed in them. At the same time, Washington will send $15 million to Afghanistan to stop the spread of coronavirus.

In Tehran, the signing of the US peace agreement with the Taliban was received with great caution. In particular, the Iranian Foreign Ministry said: “The Islamic Republic of Iran believes that a sustainable peace agreement in Afghanistan will be obtained only through inter-Afghan negotiations with the participation of political groups of the country, including the Taliban. "Iran welcomes any development that leads to peace and stability in Afghanistan ... The presence of foreign forces in Afghanistan is one of the main causes of war and danger in the country." It was also noted that the United States is trying to ensure the legitimacy of the presence of its troops in this country. Iran is ready to provide any assistance in establishing peace, stability and security in Afghanistan, so it will continue negotiations with the Taliban with the knowledge of the Afghan government.

In Iran, many are pessimistic about the implementation of this agreement. Thus, the expert on international relations, Mohsen Rouhissefat, said that the agreement between the United States and the Taliban shows that Washington was unable to achieve its goals. Having invaded Afghanistan, the United States promised the people of this country sustainable security and economic progress. Instead, the Americans occupied the country, but, having lost a trillion dollars and thousands of lives of military personnel, were forced to negotiate with the Taliban. This indicates the failure of US policy in the country in question.

Senior international relations expert Kiomars Yazdanpanah believes that the Taliban is a radical and extremist organization that does not fit into the world of peace and nation-building, it insists on its past practice and is not committed to any obligations”. In this regard, the signed agreement is a disaster for the government of the IRA and its people. It only contributes to the legitimization of the Taliban. Regional expert Amirali Abulfath sees one of the main obstacles to the implementation of the agreement in that it was signed between the United States and the Taliban, but the conflict has a third party, the government of Afghanistan, and the Taliban do not recognize this government and oppose it. And the former Iranian ambassador to Afghanistan, Abolfazl Zohrevand, notes that the Taliban and the United States themselves are the main cause of insecurity in Afghanistan. In addition, the agreement does not provide for the complete disarmament of the Taliban.

The agreement between the United States and the Taliban has caused concern in India, as the Taliban’s return to power could affect its multi-billion-dollar investment. In addition, a government friendly to Pakistan could be formed in Kabul. Anticipating this development, back in July 2019, the head of the Indian Foreign Intelligence Service Samant Goel called on Prime Minister Narendra Modi for the speedy integration of Jammu and Kashmir with the rest of the country. The reason for this was that the strengthening of Pakistan in Afghanistan could lead to increased direct and indirect support by Islamabad for terrorist groups operating in Kashmir. As a result, on August 5, 2019, India abolished the special status of the disputed region.

Despite the fact that some representatives of the Indian government consider the gradual establishment of channels of communication with the Taliban a necessary measure, New Delhi believes that the best approach to this situation is expectant tactics and the constant support of the friendly side in Kabul. So, the former Ambassador of India to Afghanistan Amar Sinha said that now there is no point in establishing relations with the Taliban due to the loss of friends in the Afghan government. In addition, Taliban policies are too tightly regulated by Pakistan. Until these ties weaken, it will be pointless for India to take any action. In his opinion, as soon as the intra-Afghan dialogue is gaining momentum, India should offer its help and assistance in holding a meeting of the Loya Jirga (All-Afghan Council of Elders).

Former Indian Foreign Minister Shyam Saran encouraged New Delhi to plan a response to the agreement. According to him, “in addition to sending military forces, it is necessary to study the possibility of military support for the current regime and assistance in uniting Afghan groups hostile to the Taliban. A different point of view is shared by the former Ambassador of India to Pakistan, Gopalaswami Parthasarathi. He believes that although New Delhi should follow the development of events, as well as begin “insightful diplomacy” and express readiness to continue to provide economic assistance to Afghanistan and to open channels with the Taliban. In his opinion, unlike the last Taliban government in 1994-2001, in this situation, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE will not be able to provide financial assistance to Afghanistan. Therefore, even the government led by the Taliban will ultimately depend economically, including on New Delhi.

Some Indian experts take into account that in December 2019, the law on the granting of citizenship to religious minorities from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan came into force. Thus, a member of the Indian Legislative Assembly and political expert Manvendra Singh believes that this controversial law on citizenship negatively affects the attitude of Afghans to India.

In Islamabad, the signing of the US peace agreement with the Taliban movement is seen as a strategic victory for the Pakistani armed forces, which has always supported the leaders of the Afghan Taliban. In his view, Afghanistan is a good way to balance India’s position in the region. That is why Pakistan negatively perceived the opening of Indian consulates in Herat, Mazar-e-Sharif, Kandahar and Jalalabad in addition to the embassy in Kabul. Pakistani authorities have accused the Indian embassy in Kabul of spreading anti-Pakistani propaganda and scaling up intelligence gathering. Islamabad also claims that most of the funding and weapons for the Baloch leaders are grouped under the auspices of the Balochistan Liberation Army and sent there through the Indian consulates in Jalalabad and Kandahar.

Pakistani experts note that the ongoing armed actions of various militant groups in Afghanistan amid a reduction in the military presence of the United States and its allies can lead to a vacuum of power and the capture of Kabul by the Taliban. But the final victory of the Taliban movement can take place only if Rawalpindi (the location of the headquarters of the ground forces of Pakistan) manages to keep Afghanistan from the chaos of the civil war after the withdrawal of foreign troops.

Islamabad recognizes that the complete capture of Afghanistan by the Taliban can lead to significant casualties, including from the local population. So, if the Taliban try to establish full control over the country, then they will face serious external resistance. Such a “settlement” of the Afghan crisis will force the regional opponents of the Taliban, such as India and Iran, to not lose their influence in Afghanistan. They will support their groups operating in the country, both financially and by arms. This will increase the confrontation in Afghanistan and involve other regional players in the armed conflict. Moreover, the "struggle for Afghanistan in the region" will be fierce. For this reason, it is preferable for Pakistan to maintain the current “status quo and some level of chaos that it has influence on.

Given Islamabad’s many years of support for the Taliban, its main requirement for the Taliban will be a significant reduction in Indian influence in Afghanistan. The government, under the leadership (influence) of the Taliban, may not give India the freedom of action that was given to it by the administration of H. Karzai and A. Ghani - A. Abdullah. However, Pakistan does not have the full impact on the Taliban. Relations between Islamabad and Kabul remain difficult, primarily due to the lack of mutual trust.

Due to a significant reduction in funding from the United States and international funds, Kabul in the near future will face the need to strengthen security structures. He will need a professional military and well-trained and equipped police officers. In Pakistan, this is taken into account, therefore they want to offer their training programs for training in order to balance the influence of the Afghan security forces who have been trained in India in recent years. Islamabad also believes that friendly Beijing will increase the amount of economic and military assistance to Afghanistan to advance the Chinese One Belt, One Way initiative. Indirectly, this will strengthen Pakistani influence in the country.

Afghanistan, like Iran, is an SCO observer state. Of the members of this organization, Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are actively involved in resolving the Afghan crisis. In such circumstances, the SCO could be the best platform for resolving the Afghan crisis, especially given that the Organization’s priority is to ensure regional security and cooperation between Russia and China with the countries of Central Asia, and Afghanistan is in its area of ​​responsibility. The consequence of this was the creation in 2005 of the SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group, which involved a consultative dialogue with Kabul and the development of proposals and recommendations for cooperation on issues of mutual interest. Initially, the work of the Contact Group was planned to be carried out on the basis of the SCO Secretariat or the Afghan Embassy in Beijing. The composition of the Group was made up of permanent representatives of the Member States of the Organization under the SCO Secretariat, officials of the Secretariat and senior diplomats of the IRA Embassy in China.

On May 15, 2006, by the decision of the Council of Ministers of Foreign Affairs of the SCO member states, the rules of procedure for the work of representatives of the Organization in the Contact Group were approved. In it, in particular, it was noted that at its meetings the representatives of the SCO speak from an agreed position, and if there are objections to this or that position from one-member state, it is considered to be inconsistent and is not submitted to meetings of the Group. Obviously, such a formulation of the issue sharply narrowed the SCO's ability to resolve the Afghan crisis.

After the establishment of the Contact Group, and until 2017, only three meetings were held:

1. In February 2006, the procedural issues of its activities were discussed and a circle of issues of mutual interest was determined.

2. In February 2007, the Afghan side expressed interest in assisting the SCO in restoring the economy of the IRA and its involvement in the implementation of projects under the SCO's Multilateral Economic and Trade Cooperation Program. Among the priority areas for the IRA, projects in the field of energy and transport infrastructure were indicated.

3. In October 2008, the Afghan side transmitted information on the situation in the country, on domestic construction and on preparations for the 2009 presidential election. Then it again touched on the economic problems of cooperation with the SCO, in terms of developing the IRA transport system, providing the most favorable conditions for access of Afghan goods to the markets of the Member States of the Organization and in the customs sphere. At the same time, she announced the increase in the status of her representative in the Contact Group to the level of director of the Department of Foreign Affairs for Economic Affairs. But this proposal did not receive consensus within the framework of the SCO due to different approaches to resolving the Afghan problem. Thus, the Russian Federation and most of the Organization’s member states considered it necessary to cooperate in the field of security, while Kabul sought only to receive economic assistance, believing that the West (primarily the USA) would continue to ensure its security.

In the future, meetings of the Permanent Representatives of the Member States of the Organization were repeatedly held, which examined the activities of the Contact Group, but could not reach consensus on the Afghan problem. Moreover, Tashkent was going to build relations with Kabul exclusively on a bilateral basis, therefore, refused to participate in the activities of the SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group. The situation did not change even after Afghanistan received the status of an SCO observer state in June 2012 and submitted an application for membership in the Organization in 2015.

In view of the actual termination of the activities of the SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group in 2009, members of the SCO family began to try to address the issue in the framework of temporary coalitions with other states. So, in 2016, a quadripartite coordination group was created with the participation of Afghanistan, China, Pakistan and the United States with the aim of developing a Roadmap for ending a long-standing conflict with the Taliban. Following its first meeting, held on January 11, 2016 in Islamabad, it announced the imminent start of direct negotiations between the Afghan government and some Taliban leaders. However, then the Taliban refuted this. On January 19 of the same year, the second meeting of the quadripartite group was held in Kabul.

Initially, the activities of this group were supported by external players, including the Russian Federation. But based on the results of its third meeting, held in Oman in October 2017, Moscow assessed the low efficiency of this format. The peace talks within the framework of the quadripartite group did not receive further development.

Russia began to develop its own platform for consultations on the Afghan settlement. Following the six-party talks with representatives of Russia, Afghanistan, China, Pakistan, Iran and India, an agreement was reached on the creation of the Moscow format of consultations, the first meeting of which took place on April 14, 2017. Deputy Foreign Ministers and Special Representatives of 11 countries: Russia, Afghanistan, China, Pakistan, Iran, India, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. The American representatives invited to this meeting refrained from participating in it, citing the lack of a strategy for action in the Afghan direction at the time of the new Trump administration. Washington’s position changed only after the Moscow format confirmed its ability to consolidate efforts and develop a unified approach at the regional level.

After the first meeting in the Moscow format, there was some cooling of relations between Moscow and Kabul. In the future, it was partially possible to reduce the discontent of Kabul by assigning the government of Afghanistan the status of co-chair of the Moscow meetings. But this did not contribute to the settlement of the Afghan crisis, since various technical problems began to arise.

Two months after the first meeting of the Moscow format, the IRA government launched its own format for the peace process with the participation of external players. The first meeting took place in Kabul on July 6, 2017. It is obvious that the launch of parallel formats of international consultations as a whole reduced their significance.

On January 28, 2018, the second meeting was held in the Afghan capital as part of the Kabul process. At this meeting, a detailed program was introduced that regulates the process of reconciliation with the armed opposition. It spoke of the willingness of the IRA government to recognize the Taliban as a political force if it stops the violence; as well as release the captured Taliban and annul the sanctions imposed on this radical group if the Taliban conclude a peace agreement with Kabul. The document noted that the peace agreement should include clauses on the respect of the Taliban for human rights, their recognition of the country's constitution, the powers of law enforcement agencies and civil institutions working in accordance with the law. It was proposed to introduce a ban on the activities in Afghanistan of terrorist and criminal groups. The United States, Britain, Pakistan, the UN and NATO supported Kabul’s peace proposal.

Moscow was skeptical of the results achieved through the Kabul process, recalling that the Taliban have not shown interest in direct negotiations with the IRA government. In particular, the Russian President’s Special Representative for Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, said: “We consider the Moscow format of consultations that we launched in early 2017 as the optimal platform for substantive negotiations to promote national reconciliation and establish a constructive dialogue between the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban movement.”

On March 26 - 27, 2018, in the capital of Uzbekistan, the Tashkent Conference on Afghanistan was held: "The peace process, security cooperation and regional cooperation." The conference was attended by Central Asian foreign ministers, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini, US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas Shannon. The Russian delegation was represented by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. The conference was also attended by special representatives for Afghanistan and Pakistan of Great Britain, Germany and Italy, a special adviser to the Foreign Ministry of Japan, a special envoy of the Foreign Ministry of Qatar, high delegations of NATO, the CSTO, France and the United Arab Emirates.

The event, which was chaired by the presidents of the IRA and the Republic of Uzbekistan - Ashraf Gani and Shavkat Mirziyoyev, was held at a higher level than previous meetings on the Afghan settlement. Contrary to expectations, the Taliban did not send their delegation to Tashkent. Following the results of the Tashkent conference, its participants adopted a declaration in which they recognized the reconciliation process along with anti-terrorist and anti-drug operations as a necessary condition for restoring peace and prosperity in Afghanistan and the region as a whole.

On November 9, 2018, the second meeting of the Moscow format of consultations on Afghanistan was held with the participation of deputy foreign ministers, special representatives and observers from Russia, Afghanistan, China, Pakistan, Iran, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and the United States. For the first time, a delegation of the Political Office of the Taliban movement in Doha, led by its leader Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, took part in an international meeting of this level. On the Afghan side, the meeting was attended by the IRA Ambassador to the Russian Federation and several officials from the High Peace Council, who held fairly high posts in the Afghan government.

One of the most important outcomes of the second meeting of the Moscow format was the statement by the Taliban about their readiness to begin direct negotiations with Afghan political parties. At the same time, due to certain factors, the Taliban categorically refused direct negotiations with the IRA government under the leadership of A. Ghani. This put the Afghan government in a difficult position, since by this time a significant part of the political forces in the country had passed into opposition to the incumbent president. This forced Kabul to accelerate the work of forming a group of negotiators with the Taliban. However, it was not possible to form such a delegation in the composition that would suit all political forces.

In general, the second meeting of the Moscow format had a significant impact on the alignment of forces around the peace talks on Afghanistan. It was after this meeting, when the consolidation of the region on the Afghan issue began to intensify, the West spoke in favor of coordinating its actions with Moscow. As a result, Zalmay Khalilzad, a special representative of the US State Department for Reconciliation in Afghanistan, visited Moscow and other cities of the region several times.

On February 5-6, 2019, the Inter-Afghan Forum was held in Moscow. In addition to the Russian diaspora and politicians and activists from Afghanistan, representatives of the Afghan diasporas from a number of other countries attended it. The Forum was attended by delegations from the Taliban and Afghan politicians and public figures, led by former Afghan President Hamid Karzai. As a result of the two-day forum, its participants adopted a joint resolution in which, in particular, they called for "preparing the ground for the complete withdrawal of foreign forces from the country." In July 2019, the second meeting of the inter-Afghan dialogue was held in Doha with the support of Qatar and Germany (partly the government of the IRA).

In 2019, a new format of negotiations on Afghanistan began to be created: “3 + 1” with the participation of the USA, Russia, China and Pakistan, which joined them. The indicated format is unlikely to contribute to the consolidation of the region on the Afghan issue, as it is intended to solve other issues. It is such regional formats, such as Moscow, maybe Tashkent, that are able to bring together the positions of parties interested in resolving the Afghan problem. It should be borne in mind that many SCO member states are involved in them.

The activities of the SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group resumed only in October 2017 (Moscow), but already at the level of deputy foreign ministers and on an expanded scale (with the participation of representatives of India and Pakistan). During this meeting, in particular, issues of illegal drug trafficking, the flow of militants from Syria to Afghanistan and the strengthening of the Islamic State radical group (banned in Russia), in the ranks of which were about 4 thousand people, were discussed, as well as the provision of assisting Afghanistan in rebuilding the economy and achieving national reconciliation. It was expected that the Contact Group would not duplicate any of the existing negotiating platforms on Afghanistan, and Iran and Turkmenistan would gradually be connected to its activities.

In April 2019, in Bishkek, a regular meeting of the Contact Group was held, within which the development of the current military-political situation in Afghanistan, its impact on regional security, the assistance of SCO member states to Afghanistan in ensuring peace, security and economic recovery were discussed, and also expanding regional cooperation. In June this year, at the SCO summit in Bishkek, a Roadmap for further actions of the SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group was agreed. The relevant document was signed between the SCO Secretary General Vladimir Norov and the Deputy Foreign Minister of the IRA.

The further fate of both the implementation of this roadmap and the real interaction of Afghanistan with other members of the SCO family remains unclear, in any case, until the withdrawal of US troops and their allies from the country (so far no such prospects are visible). Only in this case Kabul will be able to fully fulfill the obligations arising from membership in the Organization. For example, to prevent hostile actions against SCO member states from its territory. One must also take into account, firstly, that the majority of the Organization’s members are opposed to transforming integration processes in the field of regional security into a military-political alliance. Secondly, the SCO does not intervene in conflicts between members of the Organization, but only creates a favorable background for their resolution. Thirdly, the process of forming a new SCO core within Russia, India and China has not yet been completed.

Thus, while the SCO has limited opportunities in resolving the Afghan crisis. Now in this process, the most active are the Americans who have signed a peace agreement with the Taliban. However, for several reasons, neither President D. Trump nor the Taliban are going to carry it out, which virtually eliminates the large-scale launch of an inter-Afghan dialogue. This will push Kabul to strengthen interaction with the SCO, but only in some perspective.

Vladimir Evseev, Head of the Eurasian Integration and Development of the SCO Institute of the CIS.