The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is an important regional cooperation organization involving both Russia and China as the region's heavyweights. In recent weeks, there have been indications that both these countries want Afghanistan to join the SCO as an observer state. Afghanistan has already submitted its application and it will be discussed in SCO's forthcoming summit in mid-June. The move has significant implications for both Afghanistan and the broader region. Let us take a closer look at the regional dynamics behind the SCO's gaining traction, the role of the U.S. and NATO and what can be in store for Afghanistan in relation to this important regional organization.
From the grand plans of "Great Middle East" to the "Great Central Asia", lies a string of unrealized hopes as long as strategists in Washington are concerned. The idea of a "Great Middle East" has remained good only on paper with the Arab-Israeli conflict having ruined any chances for its realization.
However, the onset of the "Arab Spring" in the Middle East and the surge of secular and progressive popular movements throughout that region has been a blessing in disguise for the U.S. These essentially post-Islamic, secular movements aimed at realizing a less totalitarian political and social order in these countries are in fact a quantum jump towards that vision of a "Great Middle East" floated by the George Bush Administration. On the other hand, the vision of a "Great Central Asia", first officially introduced by the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher during the George Bush Administration, was quick to be forgotten as the U.S. difficulties in Afghanistan grew, Iraq turned into a quagmire, an economic crisis erupted and later the Obama Administration went about its "reset" of relations with Russia.
This idea of a "Great Central Asia", harbored by the ambitious neoconservatives of the Bush Administration, in essence amounted to taking head on the "New Great Game" being played out in the swaths of Central Asia. The "Great Central Asia" was supposed to be one in which the U.S. would expand its sphere of influence in the region, cut back to size the traditional influence of Russia over its "near abroad" and confront the growing influence of a rising China in the region. The U.S. could therefore position itself right next to an increasingly assertive China in close vicinity of its Xinjiang province.
Moreover, the "soft underbelly" of Russia comprised of its former republics would be weaned away from Russia, therefore denying the likes of Putin ability to revive imperial tendencies of the past. In this way, Washington would eventually be in an ideal position to win the "New Great Game" being played out in the region.
These once-forgotten plans of bringing about a "Great Central Asia" are slowly moving back on the agenda of the U.S. and NATO, one indicator of which is the U.S. seeking at any cost a long term/permanent military presence in Afghanistan. This U.S.' objective, hitherto hidden under the guise of combating a flourishing tide of terrorism, has further alarmed the countries in the region including Russia, China, Pakistan, and of course Iran.
By all indications, it is emerging that the U.S.' long-term plans for the region and the broader Asia-Pacific region are finally taking off. As China and Russia are taking note, the U.S. and NATO's reason for drawing down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are not to retreat and focus on reconstructing their battered economies and internal problems but to project much greater military force in the periphery of Russia and the Asia-Pacific region. Building "full spectrum military dominance" on land, in air, sea and space over almost the entire planet is the eventual aim harbored by the Western strategists in Washington and the NATO. Russia is alarmed by what it sees as Obama Administration's plans for re-introducing its missile defense shield in Eastern Europe on Russia's doorstep.
Although Obama's intentions of improving U.S.' relations with Russia were genuine, the "reset" of relations between the U.S. and Russia is fast crumbling under the pressure exerted on Obama by his Generals, military and their backers in Congress and American media. By now, Obama must have learnt that the U.S. foreign policy, as it has been since the days of Franklin Roosevelt, is too much dominated by the military and he is merely a decider among many others with some more powerful than him.
The events in Libya yet have worked to reinforce these Russian and Chinese apprehensions of the true western intentions in the Middle East and North Africa. The net result has been closer cooperation and coordination of positions between Russia and China against what they see as Western designs to encroach upon their vital interests in Africa, Middle East, Eastern Europe, the Asia-Pacific region and the Arctic region in the North Pole. Russia's foreign ministry has already announced that in the forthcoming SCO summit, India and Pakistan's full accession into SCO will be considered. India and Pakistan currently have observer status in the SCO.
The past few weeks also saw high-profile visits of regional leaders to Moscow and Beijing. Asif Ali Zardari, President of Pakistan, visited Moscow in a sign that Moscow has finally moved to de-hyphenate its relations with India and Pakistan and now views Pakistan as a vital partner to work with in an eventual post-America Afghanistan. Zalmay Rasoul, Afghanistan's foreign minister also visited Beijing with a mission to explore ways and means to expand and deepen relations between Kabul and Beijing.
The drift of President karzai away from the U.S. and towards regional countries such as Pakistan and China is increasing much to the dismay of Washington and its Western allies. Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, also visited Kabul and the result was a joint declaration stressing the resolve of both countries to sign a strategic partnership agreement. In such an evolving regional scenario, the quiet invitation extended to Afghanistan to join the SCO as an observer member speaks of a grand regional initiative to strengthen regional cooperation and consultation in a world characterized by the decline of the hegemony of the U.S. and its Western allies and at the same time heightened military expansionism by them.
To astute eyes it cannot remain hidden that what we are witnessing is the gradual emergence of a more coherent and cohesive bloc against the expansionist policies of the U.S. and NATO in the broader Eurasia. The end-game to the war in Afghanistan is nearing and this has further accelerated the process of regional countries to some extent setting aside differences and starting close cooperation and consultation. Afghanistan, over the long term, will increasingly gravitate towards this new regional architecture.