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Can the Region Take a Lead?

By Imtiaz Gul

Weekly Pulse April 15, 2009

Afghanistan continues to burn under violence. So does Pakistan. And the entire region is feeling the heat, with serious repercussions for the neighbouring countries such as Iran, India and China. The US-led NATO forces, the statistics shows, have thus far failed in achieving the objectives they had set themselves in October 2001.
In the backdrop of this failure in Afghanistan, the new US President, Barack Obama announced a new policy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan on March 27, 2009 – the Af-Pak. Introducing certain new features in the existing policy, President Obama said that he plans to bring together “all who should have a stake in the security of the region,” including Iran, Russia, China and India, as part of a new international contact group he said he will form with the United Nations.
The new US regional approach to deal with the issue may prove effective because the regional countries are not strangers to the situation in Afghanistan as the NATO forces are, and secondly, they are affected by this war. They have their stakes in the conflict and will definitely take serious steps to resolve the issue. The powers like China and Russia have the capacity to play an effective role in establishing peace in Afghanistan.

They can launch major development projects providing relief to the war-stricken people. The platform of Shanghai Cooperation Organization [SCO] can also be used for achieving the desired goals in Afghanistan as well as combating terrorism. The Afghanistan conference held at Moscow on March 27-28 under the aegis of SCO was also a good indication of how regional countries can get together to bring about a consensus on mechanism to address problems such as Afghanistan and terrorism.
The SCO, on the face of it, is just another alliance of regional countries trying to make a difference in economic development, trade and investment of the region, but more importantly, the West perceives it as a big alliance against the EU and the US because of the presence of Russia and China and the four Central Asian countries, which had joined hands to deal with security and narcotics.
The western view of the SCO is formed by the fact that the 9/11 attacks had actually provided the immediate context and the impetus for the June 2002 establishment of the SCO; the organisation originally had sprouted from the idea of strengthening the internal and border security within the region. And that is why in the years beyond 2001, security issues have determined and dominate the nature and dynamics of the regional politics as well. Security, terrorism and, narcotics’ control were the main concerns in the minds of the architects of this organisation. The idea, perhaps, was also to minimize the chances of a US and NATO military intervention in the region.
The SCO is primarily centered around its member nations' security-related concerns, often describing the main threats it confronts as being terrorism, separatism and extremism. This focus also gave birth to the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS), headquartered in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, in June 2004.

The United States that had reservations about the SCO has changed its attitude towards this regional organization for about a year. Earlier, it took the organization as a regional bloc to reduce the influence of the United States and the NATO but now it is busy in the efforts to use the SCO platform for its own interests.
The leaders of NATO member states have also recently agreed to re-launch talks with Russia in the framework of the NATO-Russia Council (NRC), suspended by the alliance unilaterally after the Russia-Georgia military conflict. In a declaration issued at a two-day summit marking the 60th anniversary of the bloc at Strasbourg, they said, "Despite our current disagreements, Russia is of particular importance to us as a partner and neighbor."
They said that areas of common interest between NATO and Russia lie in the stabilization of Afghanistan, efforts toward arms control and disarmament, the fight against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, anti-terrorism and fighting drugs-trafficking and anti-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia.
"We want to step up practical cooperation in the NRC," NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer told a press conference after the summit.

At present, the United States is working on regionalisation of the Af-Pak conflict. And in this conflict, it is assigning different roles to the neighbours of the two countries including India and Iran. The United States and the European countries want India to be policeman of the area. If the big powers are unanimous to give India a role in the issue then Pakistan must initiate negotiations with India. If Pakistan engages itself in dialogue with India, it will be in a better position to deal wit the situation. Essentially, a regional approach invariably must involve all regional powers, and also requires both India and Pakistan to talk their way into normal relations. Both China and Russian can possibly provide good supporting hands for bringing India and Pakistan away from conflict and weeding out their mutual distrust.
Iran too is affected by the situation in Afghanistan and thus has a role there. Barack Obama also mentioned Iran while making a reference to the concerned neighbours of Afghanistan that need to be taken on board in solution to the issue. It was for the first time that the United States sat with Iran on the table in the recent SCO meeting on Afghanistan in Russia. In order to address militancy in Afghanistan, the SCO can play an important role because they have a platform to fight extremism, conducted exercises and have also set up Rapid Reactionary Force. The SCO, thus, must be involved in the conflict for its solution.

Since the entire region is echoing with security threats, which have ramifications for all the countries around the troubled Afghanistan and Pakistan, the regional economy also continues to suffer and the recent global financial crisis has further shaken the local economies. Regional organizations like SCO need to be promoted and strengthened to check regional instability created by the triangular Indo-Afghan-Pakistan relationship. SCO, for instance, helped in the resolution of the China-Russia border dispute that had been raging since 1969. Four member Central Asian states settled their border conflicts amicably. If that can happen in Central Asia, why not in South Asia?

The writer heads the Centre for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk