20th SCO Summit
The 20th Heads of State Summit of Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) took place in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, on 16-17 September 2021. During the meeting, the participants mainly focussed their discussions on managing the situation arising from the exit of the US and its allied forces from Afghanistan and to galvanise regional support for war-ravaged Afghanistan to regain peace and economic and security stability under Afghan Taliban rule. The sideline meetings between the heads of states and their accompanying delegations also used the occasion to explore other avenues of bilateral and multilateral economic and security cooperation in accordance with the charter of SCO.
In this first SCO heads of state summit after the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, the leaders asked the Afghan Taliban to yield power to a ‘more inclusive government’ and, at the same time, reminded the West in general and the United States in particular, that it was their responsibility to help avert a humanitarian disaster in Afghanistan after ending their 20-year presence in the country. Leaders of important regional countries concurred with Pakistan that the war-ravaged country should not be abandoned after the Taliban takeover.
This meeting spells hope for both Pakistan and Afghanistan because of Pakistan’s proactive diplomacy, which has become the need of the hour in the wake of many uncanny happenings that have turned things topsy-turvy and destabilised the region vis-à-vis Afghan imbroglio. It also helped Pakistan to play a greater diplomatic role in galvanising regional support for helping war-ravaged Afghanistan regain peace, economic and security stability under Afghan Taliban rule.
Who said what?
At the summit, leaders spoke about the need to seek Taliban cooperation and ask for an inclusive government in the country. They were cautious about Afghanistan’s new interim cabinet, formed almost exclusively of ethnic Pashtuns. The main base of Taliban support, Pashtuns comprise less than half of Afghanistan’s population. Most of the other major ethnic groups have close linguistic and ethnic ties to Tajikistan, Iran and Uzbekistan.
Here’s a look at what leaders of important regional countries said at the summit:
Speaking via video link at the summit, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that although the Afghanistan government formed by the Taliban is not representative and inclusive, yet it is essential to work with it, as he stressed on the need to coordinate the stance of other countries on the issue of recognition. “This is an interim government, as the Taliban themselves say, and it cannot be really called representative or inclusive,” he said, adding that there are no members of other ethnic groups in it. “However, it appears that it is necessary to work with it too. As for recognition, I believe, and I agree with those who spoke about it, that we need to coordinate our stance on the issue,” Putin said.
Putin said, “Now our organisation is facing an acute task of pursuing a common, agreed line, taking into account the serious risks associated with the aggravation of the situation in Afghanistan after the hasty withdrawal – well, it can be even called an escape – of the US forces and their NATO allies from this country.”
He stressed that the main part of the “expenses related to Afghanistan’s post-conflict rebuilding should be borne by the US and NATO countries which are directly responsible for the grave consequences of their prolonged presence in the country.”
He called on Washington to unfreeze assets of the Afghan central bank, which have been blocked since the Taliban takeover, saying without access to the funds, Afghanistan’s new rulers would be tempted to turn to the drugs and arms trade.
He urged the Taliban to curb drug-trafficking and fight against extremist groups while highlighting that the SCO should “use its potential” to “stimulate the new Afghan authorities” in fulfilling their promises on normalising life and bringing security in Afghanistan.
Saying that Afghanistan’s history has ushered in a new page after the withdrawal of foreign troops, and that it still faces many difficult tasks and needs the support and help from the international community, especially regional countries, Chinese President Xi Jinping called for a stable government in Afghanistan. “SCO members should better use the SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group and other platforms to promote the peaceful transition in Afghanistan, guide it to build an inclusive political structure, adopt prudent and moderate domestic and foreign policies, resolutely fight all forms of terrorism, live in amity with its neighbours and truly embark on a path of peace, stability and development,” Xi noted.
President Xi further stated that SCO member states should have ‘confidence in our system and refuse sanctimonious preaching from those who feel they have the right to lecture us’. He said, “We should maintain firm confidence in our systems, reject condescending lecturing, and firmly support countries in exploring development paths and governance models that are compatible with their national conditions,” and added that “We should support each other in steadily advancing important political agenda including domestic elections. We must never allow any external interference in the domestic affairs of countries in our region under whatever pretext and we should keep the future of our countries’ development and progress firmly in our own hands.”
President Xi said “certain countries” should assume their due responsibilities for Afghanistan’s future development, having been “instigators” of the situation. He also urged “relevant parties” in Afghanistan to eradicate terrorism and promised to provide more help to the war-torn nation. It was necessary to “encourage Afghanistan to put in place a broad-based and inclusive political framework” and to “resolutely fight all forms of terrorism” and live in peace with its neighbours. He was of the opinion that Afghanistan should be guided to be more open and inclusive, and pursue moderate domestic and foreign policies.
In his address Prime Minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan, said that the Taliban must fulfil the promises they have made, and called on the international community to stand with the people of the war-torn country. He said that it was also important to ensure respect for the rights of all Afghans while ensuring that it is never again a safe haven for terrorists.
He said that Pakistan, which had suffered due to the spillover of conflict and instability in the neighbouring country, had an interest in a peaceful and stable Afghanistan.
“We will continue to support a stable, sovereign and prosperous Afghanistan,” he said.
Commenting on the situation in Afghanistan, PM Khan said that a “new reality” had been established after the Taliban takeover and withdrawal of foreign troops.
“That all this happened without bloodshed, without civil war, and without a mass exodus of refugees, should be a matter of relief.”
“It is now in the international community’s collective interest to ensure that there is no renewed conflict in Afghanistan and the security situation is stabilised,” he said.
The prime minister said that preventing a humanitarian crisis and an economic meltdown were “equally urgent priorities”.
“We must remember that the previous government depended heavily on foreign aid and its removal could lead to economic collapse,” he said, adding that now was the moment to stand with the Afghans “firmly and unequivocally”.
He commended the United Nations Secretary General and UN agencies for mobilising support for humanitarian assistance, and said that Pakistan was also playing its part in aiding evacuation efforts and providing support.
“Going forward, we believe positive engagement of the international community with Afghanistan is extremely important. “There is a rare opportunity to finally end the 40 years of war in Afghanistan. This moment should not be squandered,” he said.
He said that it would be unwise to spread negativity or indulge in propaganda at this critical juncture. “This will only serve to undermine the prospects for peace.”
At talks taking place around the world and in statements by world leaders, it has been made quite clear that Pakistan, Iran, Russia, China and other Central Asian nations will need to play a key role in determining the political future of Afghanistan. How they do this will depend a great deal on the attitude of the Taliban government and how it chooses to address matters. So far, its role has not been entirely encouraging, with secondary schools for girls being closed to them and women on the streets demanding rights from the Taliban regime. This is a concern that has been heard around the world.
But perhaps most critical of all is the plight of Afghanistan’s people who have suffered endless torment for over 20 years. In the war, during which we heard essentially only of US casualties, over 47,000 Afghan civilians were killed along with at least 6000 security and police personnel. The suffering has been extreme. It now threatens to take economic form with Afghan accounts frozen by the US putting the country in danger of sinking into poverty. The UN has decided to send its staff back into Afghanistan to try and deal with the humanitarian crisis developing there. How they will do so is not yet clear. There is no doubt that Afghan people deserve peace. This should be the outlook of all partners engaged in the Afghanistan question and seeking an outcome from what is happening there now. Pakistan can be a key player in this and as its distance from the US grows, the question is what alliances Pakistan will now strike and how much it can do to persuade the Taliban to ensure peace in Afghanistan and bring in place a government that is recognised by the world so that the international aid required by the Afghan people and the recognition they also need in order to live normal lives can continue.
The writer is a Lahore-based freelance columnist, having special interest in global affairs.