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The SCO Role in Afghanistan

Interviewee: Evan A. Feigenbaum, Senior Fellow, CFR
Interviewer: Robert McMahon, Deputy Editor, CFR.org
March 26, 2009

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization -- comprising Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan -- projects what some observers believe are ambitions to be a regional counterpoint to NATO. Yet the organization's first invitation to the United States to attend its March 27 meeting in Moscow has aroused interest about a potential partnership for stabilizing Afghanistan. President Barack Obama announced a shift in U.S. policy emphasis on the same day as the SCO summit, and greater consultation with Afghanistan's neighbors is a part of the new template.

The Moscow meeting also has stirred interest because Iran, a state with SCO observer status, is due to attend, marking the first high-level contact between Tehran and officials of the Obama administration.

CFR Senior Fellow Evan Feigenbaum, until recently the State Department's deputy assistant secretary for South and Central Asia, says the meeting "offers an opportunity for the United States to try to turn what are ostensibly common interests [in Afghanistan] into complementary polices." The organization alarmed Washington in 2005 when it issued a communiqué calling for the United States to set a timeline for withdrawal from military bases in Central Asia. Such bases are crucial to supplying the U.S.-led counterinsurgency effort in Afghanistan.

Feigenbaum says the call for a withdrawal timeline in 2005 "attracted a lot of notoriety; it also attracted a lot of diplomatic efforts by the United States to make sure that the organization didn't repeat that call. And so, if you notice after 2005, the declarations of the organization in 2006, 2007, and 2008 didn't repeat that and indeed, it started to talk about things like economic cooperation with Afghanistan. So in that respect, I think, that created the potential, not necessarily for cooperation, but at least for coordination on complementary interests."

But Feigenbaum says while individual members of the SCO have played constructive roles in Afghanistan, it's unclear what measures the organization can take as a group. "We really don't understand what the SCO is in part because SCO members themselves don't know what the SCO is," he says. "Is it a security group? Is it a trade bloc? Is it a group of non-democratic countries that have created a kind of safe zone where the United States and Europeans don't talk to them about human rights and democracy?"

The U.S. State Department is sending Patrick Moon, deputy assistant secretary of state of South and Central Asia, to attend the Moscow meeting. This is taking place just prior to a UN-chaired meeting on Afghanistan to be held in the Hague on March 31, 2009. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will attend the UN meeting and Iran has accepted her invitation to attend as well.

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