The Obama administration’s decision to sit in on next week’s Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s (SCO) meeting in Moscow is a welcome sign of U.S. readiness to engage on many levels to deal with real world issues. 

This conference on Afghanistan, which is a guest member, could help its neighbors play a more direct role in security and stability there.  If that happens in coordination with the West and NATO, so much the better.  France also plans to attend the Moscow meeting, which comes just before the March 31 international conference on Afghanistan at The Hague.  To be all pointing in the same direction, that is, toward Afghan security, will be a significant step.

The SCO grew out of the Shanghai Five founded in 1996 to coordinate border security between five nations of Central Asia – Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan – and added Uzbekistan in 2001.  It has usually been viewed as an attempt to counterbalance NATO and therefore, suspect. 

That outlook is short-sighted.

Focusing on mutual security issues such as counter-terrorism and drug trafficking in this thorny part of the world, the SCO provides a valuable function that the West hasn’t taken advantage of so far.  The observer states (India, Iran, Mongolia and Pakistan) also have strong interests in stability in the region –  and several of them are already our partners.  Beyond the SCO security agenda, talking about trade and development helps these countries coordinate on a regional level.

One interesting signal of SCO intentions is the March 19 decision that Iran would not become a full member in 2009.  Apparently Iran is too much of a liability because of its nuclear program.  The SCO wants to avoid taking on that problem given the mutual assistance guarantee provided to SCO members.

It’s the right time to enlist the SCO’s input and assistance on Afghanistan.  It’s an opportunity to work with Russia and China in a multilateral forum, hopefully leaving some of our bilateral baggage at the door.  Given the sensitive logistics of working in Afghanistan that recently saw the decision to close the U.S. air base at Manas, only to be offered a route through Russia, the U.S. and NATO need to work with Afghanistan’s neighbors if at all possible. 

If the SCO can provide a forum for those discussions, we should seize the moment.

Lynn Roche is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.