External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar is headed to Tajikistan and then on to Uzbekistan to take part in a series of meetings of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) where the situation in Afghanistan will be a crucial talking point with the country again convulsed by widespread fighting against the backdrop of the departure of US troops after 20 years' occupation of the country.
While Washington leaves without any of the reforms it fostered having properly taken root in the strife-torn country, its withdrawal from the scene threatens to push Afghanistan down another protracted spiral of violence, which in turn threatens to affect all SCO members, given their physical proximity they share with it. With experts saying that the SCO is set to play a more important role in Afghanistan, here's a look at what is at stake for the members and India.
How does the US leave Afghanistan?
US president Joe Biden has marked 31 August as the date by which all but a handful of US troops would have left Afghanistan. It would be a a few days shy of the 20th anniversary of the 11 September attacks that had seen Washington put together a coalition to invade the country and flush out terrorists. In these two decades, a little under 2,400 US soldiers have lost their lives in the country's longest war while its coffers have borne a cost of about $2 trillion to fund the occupation.
Getting US troops out of the country had increasingly become an urgent objective for successive US presidents and, if his predecessor Donald Trump oversaw the opening of talks with the Taliban that hinged on a complete US withdrawal, Biden has declared that the US will make a complete exit regardless of the situation on the ground. But the Democratic president's insistence on ending the "forever war" has been met with alarm by experts who have said that the US move will destroy whatever gains Afghanistan has made under the occupation and spell doom for the country.
Biden though maintains that the US has achieved what it had set out to when it invaded Afghanistan, pointing to the decimation of the Al-Qaeda and the assurance from the Taliban that it will not let the soil of Afghanistan be used for terror attacks against America.
"We did not go to Afghanistan to nation build. And it's the right and the responsibility of the Afghan people alone to decide their future and how they want to run their country," Biden said last week in Washington. However, the US president did note that "the likelihood there's going to be one unified government in Afghanistan controlling the whole country is highly unlikely".
The peace process initiated by the US has failed to take off and while the Taliban has said it is committed to talks, it may not be willing to yield any grounds on its demands — including for an Islamic state — making it difficult for any agreement to be possible with the government in Kabul.
How are the SCO's interests involved in Afghanistan?
To begin with three of the eight SCO member countries — Pakistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan — share land borders with Afghanistan. Of the remaining five member states, China and India are heavily invested in the reconstruction of the country. China's northwestern Xinjiang province shares a small sliver of border with Afghanistan, too. Russia had in its erstwhile USSR avatar gone through its own failed occupation of the country. The remaining two members — Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan — are former members of USSR.
So, Afghanistan sits at a crucial crossroads for the SCO, one of whose stated "long-term" goals is to "establish a free trade zone between its member states".
Andrey Kortunov, the director general of the Russian International Affairs Council, says in Chinese publication Global Times that there are two key considerations for the neighbourhood vis-a-vis Afghanistan: "First, Afghanistan should not become an Islamic Emirate, which international terrorist groups like [the Islamic State] or Al-Qaeda could use to plan their... subversive operations in the region. Second, Afghanistan should stop being the major producer and exporter of narcotics, which it has become under the Western occupation."
While India would certainly find its concerns overlapping with these goals, it is anybody's guess at this moment in which direction the country is going and whether the government troops can defeat the Taliban or whether the Islamist group manages to wrest control of enough territory in the country to secure a strong bargaining position.
What the SCO has done on Afghan peace
Afghanistan has since June 2012 enjoyed the status of being an SCO observer, of which there are a total four countries, Belarus, Mongolia and its neighbour Iran being the other three.
SCO also has had an Afghanistan Contact Group since 2005 and it is this panel's meeting that Jaishankar will be attending in Tajikistan. The foreign ministers of China and Pakistan, too, will be present for the discussions.
Chinese news outlets credit SCO members of facilitating the peace process, pointing to a 2016 meeting of the Afghanistan-Pakistan-US-China Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) for "helping to create conditions for direct dialogue between the Afghan government and the Taliban". The Taliban, long reluctant to come to the talks table, has now launched an offensive against the Kabul government and claims to have captured 85 percent of Afghanistan's territory. That can only mean the SCO members will have to redraw their strategy in light of the developments post the US withdrawal.
What's the way forward?
According to Kortunov, SCO is in a good position "to address simultaneously (the) security, economic and human development agendas of Afghanistan". As the country looks to rebuild and recover, the SCO members can provide "support for political stability, implementation of large-scale economic projects and assistance for social capital building".
He notes, however, of fault lines among the SCO members themselves, including between India and Pakistan, saying that "select SCO states could form project-based coalitions to engage in initiatives of their choice without necessarily trying to involve all of SCO member states".
Most importantly, he notes that SCO would do well to not limit the role of Afghanistan "to that of an SCO economic or security assistance recipient", batting for active Afghan involvement in all plans involving the country. One key area where Afghanistan would have a significant bearing for SCO countries is projects to improve connectivity in the region. A prime project in that regard is Beijing's Belt-And-Road Initiative to which, experts agree, an unstable Afghanistan poses a grave threat.