As NATO draws down troops from Afghan soil, the continued fight in this beleaguered country and a possible resurgence of the Taliban pose three acute problems to Eurasian security: demographic decline, regional instability, and international terrorism. To cope with these challenges to peace in Eurasia, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization should take a more comprehensive role in stabilizing Afghanistan.

The SCO, devised in 1996 as a border dispute mechanism between China, Kazakhstan, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, has become a formal platform for coping with common security threats to Eurasia’s stability. Today, peace and security in Eurasia are no longer confined to conventional weapons and traditional military threats, but rather encompass a broad spectrum of challenges, such as state failure, economic development, and drug trafficking. 

Even before September 11, 2001, instability in Afghanistan was a major threat to Eurasian security because a major narcotics route passes from the Islamic Republic, through the porous Central Asian borders en route to Russia. According to the 2010 World Drug Report of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Afghan drugs accounted for over 89 percent of global opium output in 2009.   Drug smuggling represents one of the principal revenue sources for international terrorist groups including the Taliban. 

It is estimated that illicit opiate production in Afghanistan generates $100 million annually in profits for the Taliban fighters. The influx of money from drug trade allows the Taliban insurgents to procure weapons, commit terrorist acts in Afghanistan, and support extremist organizations such as Hizb ut-Tahrir in neighboring Central Asian republics.  While the proliferation of Afghan narcotics requires multiple solutions, security in Eurasia will be illusionary without strengthening Afghanistan’s army. The SCO has a unique role to play in this task.

First, the SCO should involve Afghanistan in multifaceted collaboration and raise its present status in the organization to at least the level of Observer State. Even though the SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group was established in November 2005, the training of Afghan troops within the SCO framework has not taken place. No country can rely forever on foreign contingents for its protection. Therefore, enhancing the capacity of Afghan forces in such areas as anti-terrorism and border protection by SCO is absolutely essential to long-term security in Afghanistan.  In fact, the SCO and NATO have a common interest in increasing professionalism of Afghan troops. Consequently, cooperation between the SCO and NATO in providing joint military training to Afghan army and security personnel is paramount. 

Second, the recently-discovered deposits of iron, copper, cobalt, gold and lithium in Afghanistan, valued at nearly one trillion dollars, hold substantial promise for the country’s economic development. Indeed, the discovery of rare earth metals leads many experts to claim that Afghanistan could become the “Saudi Arabia of lithium.” Nevertheless, in the absence of modern infrastructure, technology, and scientific know-how, the Afghan government cannot fully exploit its mineral wealth to eradicate abject poverty. In this regard, the SCO Business Council and the Inter-Bank Consortium should significantly increase economic assistance to Afghan authorities to help build transport and industrial infrastructure in the country. 

Contrary to the widespread perception, promoting Afghan economic development is not just a philanthropic activity for the SCO, but a strategic investment. Afghanistan’s geographic location boasts a principal transit route between Central and South Asia and offers part of the shortest transportation corridor to the Arabian Sea for the landlocked Central Asian republics.  

Finally, constant warfare and the brutal rule of the Taliban have taken a tremendous toll on the human capital of the Afghan people.  Prior to the Taliban’s rise to power in the early 1990s, secondary education in Afghanistan was universal, compulsory, and free.  Currently according to the US Central Intelligence Agency, the literacy rate in Afghanistan is 43.1 percent for men and only 12.6 percent for women.   Unfortunately, an uneducated and unemployed populace provides an ideal breeding ground for the proliferation of radical, extremist ideologies. Therefore, educating Afghan citizens should be a top priority for the SCO member-states if peace and security in Eurasia are to endure. One option is to allow talented Afghan students to study in the best universities of the SCO countries under the auspices of the organization. Another is devising an SCO version of the American Peace Corps program for Afghanistan to address the lack of qualified personnel and disseminate valuable professional skills among the Afghan population. In the meantime, training Afghan instructors and providing quality teaching materials must be high on the agenda for the Secretariat of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Without these and similar solutions to the dire educational needs of Afghanistan, the SCO’s efforts to bring peace and stability in Eurasia are doomed to fail.

Similarly, preventing state failure and strengthening effective governance in the region is of strategic importance for Eurasian security. In addition to Afghanistan, which is ranked seventh on the 2011 List of Failed States compiled by Foreign Policy Magazine and the Fund for Peace, three permanent members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization: Kyrgyzstan (31), Tajikistan (39), and Uzbekistan (39) are among the forty most fragile countries in the world. Poorly governed territories pose a considerable threat both to the local population and the region as a whole.   For example, speaking at an informal Summit of the Collective Security Treaty Organization in Astana, Kazakhstan on August 12, 2011, the CSTO Secretary General Nikolai Bordyuzha pointed out that several hundred Kyrgyz nationals had undergone training in terrorist camps in Afghanistan. 

In particular, the recent collapse of government institutions in Kyrgyzstan and the attendant interethnic violence and civil unrest in Bishkek, Osh, and Jalal-Abad brought to the fore the issue of effective governance.  Premised on the principle of noninterference, the SCO cannot directly intervene in the internal affairs of other countries. However, because chaos in one nation tends to spread to the contiguous states or the entire region, enhancing state capacity through economic and political development is instrumental to the SCO’s long-term goals.

In contrast to the European Union’s emphasis on democracy as a panacea, the SCO cannot advocate a certain type of government, be it presidential, parliamentarian, or a communist political system. Whereas the EU consists of countries with similar political structures (mostly parliamentarian democracies), common religion (Christianity), and in one geographic location (Europe), the SCO’s heterogeneous composition precludes any consensus on what an effective form of government is. 

Therefore, supporting frail states in the region through regime change will inevitably be construed as intrusion in domestic affairs and thus backfire. Instead, the focus of the SCO should be directed towards helping fragile governments in Eurasia fulfill the main functions of effective states such as protection of citizens, delivery of justice, and promotion of general welfare without official calls for regime change.  Eventually, this approach will be more conducive to the gradual democratization of the region.  Pragmatically for the SCO, enabling every nation-state in the region to fulfill these functions should be primary while instituting a certain form of government secondary. In the long run, failure to preempt state collapse will ineluctably cause the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to degenerate into a “Club of Failed States”.  

By devising a comprehensive assistance policy for Afghanistan, strengthening effective governance, and forestalling state collapse in the region, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization can successfully foster security in Eurasia for the 21st century and beyond. Successful accomplishment of these goals by the SCO in tandem with such regional and international institutions as the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), NATO and the United Nations (UN) will ensure that Eurasia is both secure and prosperous.

Rafael Zhansultanov was an intern with the Atlantic Council’s Patriciu Eurasia Center for Summer 2011.