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How SCO can deescalate India-Pakistan tensions?

India and Pakistan joined the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as full member-states in the 8-9 June 2017 SCO Summit in Astana, Kazakhstan. Before the addition of the two South Asian nations, the SCO consisted of China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. The now eight-member SCO also has four observer-states, including Afghanistan, and six dialogue-partners, including Sri Lanka. In total and together, they constitute much of the Asian geography with a population of over three billion people.

The foundational purpose of SCO as the largest inter-governmental organization in the world is to strengthen mutual trust and promote good neighborly relations among its member-states. This is to be achieved through gradual but consistent efforts by the SCO member-states to engage in multifaceted cooperation to advance their collective, common interest in the sustainable human and protective security of the SCO space. Parallel to this, the SCO seeks to establish a more democratic and rational world order. 

Because sustainable peace makes sustainable development possible in Asia and the rest of the world, the SCO Summits continue emphasizing the importance of results-driven security cooperation among its member-states, observer-states, and dialogue-partners. The addition of India and Pakistan was widely welcomed as a significant opportunity for the SCO to address the lingering security threats of terrorism, extremism, and separatism in South and Central Asia. These same intertwined threats have provided an enabling environment for organized criminality, while deepening poverty that denies the youthful populations of Asia the socio-economic opportunities and facilities they need to contribute to the sustainable development and peace of their individual nations and collectively to those of the rest of Asia. 

That is why Chinese President Xi Jinping at the 18th SCO Summit in Qingdao called on the SCO’s expanded membership to move from talk to action. He stated: “We need to actively implement the 2019-2021 program of cooperation for combating ‘three evil forces of terrorism, separatism, and extremism;’ continue to conduct the ‘Peace Mission’ and other joint counter-terrorism exercises…We need to give full play to the role of SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group to facilitate peace and reconstruction in Afghanistan.”

President Xi added that “Countries are increasingly inter-dependent today… confronted with many common threats and challenges that no one can tackle alone. Only by enhancing solidarity and partnership, will we be able to achieve lasting stability and development.” Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who addressed the Summit as a newly admitted member-state, echoed his Chinese counterpart, floating the concept of SECURE to underpin the work of SCO: ‘S’ for security for citizens, ‘E’ for economic development, ‘C’ for connectivity in the region, ‘U’ for unity, ‘R’ for respect of sovereignty, ‘E’ for environmental protection. He highlighted instability in Afghanistan as an “unfortunate effect of terrorism,” noting: “I hope the brave steps towards peace taken by President Ghani will be respected by all in the region.”

Moreover, Russian President Vladimir Putin welcomed the accession of India and Pakistan to the SCO. He stressed that “countering terrorism remains the priority for cooperation within the SCO,” underlining that the three-year program of action, adopted at the 18th Summit, “envisions holding joint drills and counter-terror operations, streamlining a closer exchange of experience and operational information.” He also encouraged the SCO Youth Council to “actively participate in our work on preventing the recruitment of young people to participate in terrorist activities.” 

Building on these and other statements from the SCO member-states, calling for quick and concrete action to fight and eliminate terrorism, the Central Military Commission of Russia conducted a six-day joint military exercise from 22-29 August 2018 in Chelyabinsk Oblast, Russia. The joint exercise was initiated by the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure of SCO (RATS-SCO), which included tactical operations with a focus on strengthening counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency preparedness, coordination and cooperation among the SCO member-states. Around 3,000 soldiers—including 748 from China, 167 from India, and 110 from Pakistan—participated in the joint drill.

Indeed, for India and Pakistan, it was their first such joint military exercise since their independence in 1947. And this raised much hope about the prospect of the two countries participating in the Peace Mission 2018 and future ones to move beyond decades of routine skirmishes along the Line of Control and to begin building inter-military confidence through SCO measures, thereby easing tensions between the two nations. Commenting on this shortly before the joint exercise, Sun Zhuangzhi, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told the Global Times, “It is a rare opportunity for Pakistan and India, which have long been involved in military conflict, to enhance military exchanges and trust. This could improve regional stability.”

Contrary to these expectations, however, a rapid escalation of violence between India and Pakistan since February 14, 2019 has been cause for serious concern in the SCO neighborhood and the rest of the world. On February 14, Pakistan-based terrorist group, Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), carried out and later claimed a suicide attack on a bus, carrying the Indian Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel in Pulwama district of Jammu and Kashmir, India. The attack killed 40 of the CRPF officers. This unprovoked act of terrorism was internationally condemned with calls on Pakistan to rid its soil of terrorist networks and to dismantle their support infrastructure, including safe havens and training facilities. India promised retaliation and, on February 26, conducted surgical air strikes that hit “the biggest training camp of JeM in Balakot, Pakistan.” Many militants under training at the camp are reportedly to have been killed by India’s air strikes.

Although the international community has called for restraint by India and Pakistan and de-escalation of tensions between them, now is the time for the SCO’s founding member-states to act on their often-stated common objectives to restore, ensure and maintain peace, security, and stability in the SCO space. In the last SCO Summit, President Putin emphasized that one of the SCO’s key priorities was to assist “in the political and diplomatic settlement of conflicts near the external borders of the organization’s member-states.” 

Now that escalatory moves by India and Pakistan could lead to breakout of a larger conflict with far-reaching implications within the SCO’s own borders, the SCO should lose no time in engaging with the two countries to have them refrain from further retaliatory measures in favor of returning to direct dialogue for a resolution of mounting tensions caused by the recent developments. While this should be SCO’s immediate goal, the RATS-SCO should be tasked to identify and assess the presence of major terrorist groups and their support infrastructure throughout the SCO region. Then it should map out a results-oriented counter-terrorism plan of action for adoption by the SCO member-states, whose counter-terrorism efforts the RATS-SCO should verify to ensure no distinction between and among terrorist groups. In other words, verification by RATS-SCO should expose for correction duplicitous counter-terrorism policies, which remain an impediment to effective counter-terrorism in South Asia. 

As President Ashraf Ghani said, on condemning the February 14 terrorist attack in India, “terrorism is a cancer in the region, and it requires collective efforts to root it out.” The SCO can and should initiate to lead a collective, region-wide campaign to fight and eliminate the cancer, before it spreads in multiple destructive ways throughout the SCO region. Afghanistan has done more than a lion’s share, fighting terrorism with regional and transnational roots. Our full accession to the SCO will only enable us to do a lot more, helping our neighbors—including India, Pakistan, China, Russia, and Iran—address the intertwined threats of terrorism, extremism, and criminality. 

M. Ashraf Haidari is the Ambassador of Afghanistan to Sri Lanka, as well as a Senior International Security Fellow at the New America in Washington-DC. He tweets @MAshrafHaidari.

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