Strengthened Security Cooperation Among SCO Members Could Affect U.S. Economic Policy in Afghanistan
Author: Miriam Friedman
Sep 29, 2021
The topic of Afghanistan dominated discussions at the annual Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit on September 17 in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. Fearing increased terrorism activity, escalating drug trade, and the prospect of a full-blown migrant crisis, the leaders discussed strategies to address the new Taliban regime in Afghanistan. The anticipation of a humanitarian crisis marked by economic collapse, food insecurity, and a failing health sector catalyzed the leaders to urge the world to unfreeze Afghanistan’s assets and increase aid to the country.
Since the fall of Kabul on August 15, roughly $9 billion in foreign reserves of Afghanistan’s central bank have been frozen, with most of it held in the United States. The International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, foreign governments, and other donors have suspended payments to Afghanistan. With regular bank transfers among the Afghan population being blocked, civilians are struggling through high inflation, rising poverty, cash shortages, a plummeting currency, and rising unemployment. Earlier this month, the U.S. Treasury announced that the Biden Administration had no plans to release billions of dollars in Afghan assets it holds, despite pressure from the World Health Organization, United Nations, and humanitarian groups warning that it might lead to the collapse of Afghanistan’s economy.
Considering many SCO member countries are located close to Afghanistan, the return of the Taliban has had immense implications for Central Asia’s security priorities, adding pressure to act sooner rather than later. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization is an intergovernmental political, economic, and security alliance founded in 2001. Its main objective it to combat the so-called “three evils” of separatism, extremism, and terrorism through hosting regional security initiatives, including biennial military exercises and a counterterrorism center in Tashkent. Preceded by the Shanghai Five mechanism, the Eurasian security bloc initially consisted of China, Russia, the Kyrgyz Republic, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan before granting membership to India and Pakistan in 2017 and to Iran at the most recent summit.
During the SCO summit, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping raised concern over the possibility of refugees crossing the border as a result of the crisis and argued that failure to provide necessary support to Afghanistan would put the region at risk of terrorism and cause drugs to flourish. Speaking to the leaders via video, President Putin urged the SCO to “use its potential” to “stimulate the new Afghan authorities” to fulfill their promises of de-escalation and to bring security to Afghanistan.
Echoing these sentiments, Uzbekistan President Shavkat Mirziyoyev stressed the importance of preventing extremism in Afghanistan, claiming that unfreezing Afghan assets could help facilitate dialogue with the Taliban leaders. Meanwhile, Tajikistan President Emomali Rahmon urged member countries of the SCO and the Cooperative Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) to create a “reliable security belt around Afghanistan to stop the possible expansion of terrorist groups” and to strengthen the SCO’s regional anti-terrorist capabilities. He also called for more interaction among the countries’ law enforcement agencies and special services.
In the end, with the exception of Tajikistan and Pakistan agreeing to begin talks with the Taliban, there was no real unified position on Afghanistan. However, the eagerness of China and Russia to strengthen partnerships with SCO and CSTO members emphasizes the risk of a post-American vacuum in Central Asia. With the United States withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan, Central Asian governments are looking for support from Russia and China, which have negotiated with the Taliban, to ensure the unrest remains contained. While the United States is continuing its economic engagement with Central Asia, it should be wary of the political power that Russia and China gain by increasing their military assistance to Central Asia, India, and Pakistan. The freezing of Afghan assets and control over external funding through the IMF gives the United States international leverage through the prospect of conditional aid. However, as evident by the sentiments coming from the SCO summit, the United States needs to consider the regional security implications of such actions.