A group photo of the presidents of the six SCO member states, at the 2014 summit in Dushanbe. Will the 2015 photo have two more presidents? (photo: SCO)
After last month's summit in Dushanbe, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization appears poised to finally expand its membership after years of discussion and speculation. SCO members signed protocols for admitting new members, and various officials from member countries have signaled that India and Pakistan will be invited to join at next year's summit in Ufa, Russia.
This would be a watershed move for the organization, which has captured the geopolitical imagination of many around the world who see it as a growing counterweight to Western dominance. That mystique has grown in spite (or perhaps because) of the fact that the group has thus far been more about talk than action.
The SCO is now dominated by two powers, Russia and China, and also includes the Central Asian republics Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Those were the original six members when the group was founded in 2001, and despite many entreaties to join -- in particular by India, Pakistan, and Iran -- the group has never expanded. So why is it doing so now? And will expansion add to the group's clout, or dilute its ability to act?
Russia's interest in SCO expansion is relatively obvious: in the wake of the collapse of its relations with the West, the Kremlin is eager to make it appear as if it has plenty of friends around the world and so doesn't need Europe or the U.S. That's resulted in a renewed enthusiasm in Moscow for the SCO; Russia had previously mistrusted the group as being a possible stalking horse for Chinese expansion into what it considers its own strategic backyard, Central Asia.
In a statement attributed to the IMU, which included this photo montage, the murky terrorist group claimed credit for a June 8-9 attack on Pakistan's largest airport that left at least 39 dead.
The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan – a murky terrorist group that may include jihadis from Central Asia, but likely has little to do with the region these days – has purportedly claimed credit for a deadly June 8-9 attack on Pakistan’s largest airport.
A statement attributed to the IMU began circulating online on June 10. It included photos of 10 men wearing turbans and holding Kalashnikovs, claiming they were IMU fighters who carried out the attack in Karachi as revenge for "bombardments and night attacks with fighter jets" by Pakistani armed forces in the northwestern Waziristan region.
The IMU fighters "wearing their explosive-filled vests" destroyed "many of the fighter jets, American drones and other military planes" in a secret part of the airport, the statement claimed.
The attack left at least 39 dead, including the 10 militants. After securing the airport, Pakistani security forces claimed the gunmen were ethnic Uzbeks. "The militants appear to be Uzbek," Reuters quoted one official as saying.
The IMU emerged in the mid-1990s, but got international attention in 1999 when it clashed with Kyrgyz troops in the Fergana Valley. After its leader Juma Namangani was killed in late 2001 by coalition airstrikes in northern Afghanistan, the group splintered. Analysts believe IMU members have been operating in alliance with other militant networks in Pakistan's tribal areas. The IMU is widely recognized as a terrorist organization by Western governments.
While Tajiks were suffering through daily electricity blackouts this winter, their government was exporting electricity to Afghanistan, official statistics show.
Electricity exports are a hot topic in Central Asia lately. Only last week the World Bank announced it had earmarked $526.5 million in credit and grants for an ambitious project to help Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan export electricity to South Asia starting in 2018: CASA-1000. But that project is designed, World Bank officials insist, to export “surplus” electricity in the summer months only.
In a region where it’s hard to take officials at their word, could CASA-1000 be abused?
Extended, rolling blackouts are standard in mountainous Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan each winter, when reservoirs are exhausted and waiting for the spring thaw to refill. In recent weeks, the problem became acute in Tajikistan, with some areas only receiving 30 minutes of electricity per day, or even none at all, RFE/RL reported on March 27. Widespread outages started last October and normally continue until March. But this year blackouts are expected to continue a month longer than normal.
American MRAPs in depot in Afghanistan. (photo: 1st Lt. Henry Chan 18th CSSB Public Affairs)
Central Asian countries are still eligible to receive used American military equipment from the war in Afghanistan. But it seems they may be losing out in the giveaway to their neighbors to the south: Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan.
At issue are the Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected (MRAP) vehicles, a staple of the Afghanistan war. U.S. officials say that there are 1,600 of them in Afghanistan and that they are willing to give them away to allies. One possible recipient is Uzbekistan; this was apparently on the agenda when a high-level delegation from Tashkent visited Washington in December.
But controversy over the giveaway program spiked last month when the Washington Post published a story saying that Pakistan was among the candidates to receive MRAPs. This resulted in consternation in Afghanistan, where mistrust of Pakistan is strong. And U.S. officials disputed the story. “Our commitment to the Afghan people and the Afghan National Security Forces is unwavering,” said Marine General Joseph Dunford, commander of all U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan.
On Monday, the State Department issued a carefully worded statement about the U.S.'s plans. "U.S. military equipment leaving overland from Afghanistan through Pakistan or via the Northern Distribution Network is part of the overall process of removing equipment as our forces draw down in Afghanistan. We have not and do not intend to transfer this equipment to the governments neighboring Afghanistan."
U.S. troops patrol the Torkham Gate on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. (photo: Spc. Hillary Rustine, Combined Joint Task Force 1)
While the U.S. has suspended its military transportation across the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, that does not have any effect on traffic through Central Asia, a Pentagon spokesperson has told The Bug Pit.
In a protest against U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, supporters of Pakistani politician Imran Khan have imposed a sort of vigilante blockade of U.S. and NATO cargo across the border to Afghanistan. "Protesters have taken the law into their own hands deciding who can pass and go on to Afghanistan, and who can't," the BBC reported. "They have been harassing truck drivers and turning back vehicles carrying Nato provisions."
As a result, the U.S. has "voluntarily halted US shipments of retrograde cargo" through Pakistan, the Pentagon announced. In the past, that has meant a big boost for Central Asia: when Pakistan closed the border in 2011, it took close to two years to fully restore traffic. In the meantime, the U.S. was paying an extra $100 million a month to ship its goods via the longer, more difficult Northern Distribution Network.
But that's not happening this time (at least yet), Pentagon spokesman Mark Wright told The Bug Pit. He said that the small amount of traffic via the NDN has not been affected by this latest move:
As a result of a U.S. attack that killed the head of the Pakistani Taliban, there are renewed threats in Pakistan to shut down the border with Afghanistan to U.S. and NATO forces. This, of course, would have a direct impact on Central Asia, by forcing the U.S. military to again shift its supply routes back to the Northern Distribution Network through Central Asia and Russia. And this just as American military officials have managed to get away from the more expensive, difficult northern route and back to Pakistan.
The political party that rules the province that borders Afghanistan "passed a resolution that threatened to block the supply lines through the region in response to a C.I.A. missile strike that killed Hakimullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, on Friday," the New York Times reported. It set a deadline of November 20 for the U.S. to stop drone attacks, after which they promised to shut the border. The resolution, the Times says, "was a means of building pressure on the Pakistani prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, to end American drone strikes, while buying time to avoid a tricky confrontation with Mr. Sharif’s administration, which does not favor blocking NATO lines."
And also, crucially, the Pakistani military appears to favor the strike and to oppose closing the border. From an analysis of the political fallout by Ariq Rafiq in Foreign Policy:
Pakistan's chief of army staff General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani meets Kazakhstan's minister of defense, Adilbek Dzhaksybekov, in Astana last month (photo: MoD Kazakhstan)
With a handful of recent visits by senior Pakistani officials to Central Asia, is Islamabad looking to step up its security cooperation in the region?
Pakistani's chief of army staff General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani visited Tajikistan in August and Kazakhstan in September. The topics of discussion in Tajikistan included "development of military and technical cooperation, preparation of staff, and economic components" while in Kazakhstan they were "issues of regional security and the situation in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of troops of NATO and USA in 2014." And an adviser to Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Sartaj Aziz, visited Bishkek in September for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit.
The limited Pakistani engagement with Central Asia has for the most part been associated with economic issues: the proposed Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline, the CASA-1000 energy project, the development of the Gwadar port.
So does all this recent political-military activity add up to anything? A commentary in the Pakistani newspaper The Frontier Post says, yes:
Why this renewed focus on defence leadership’s exchanges with [the Central Asian republics], where Pakistan’s main interest, exhibited so far, remains economic and energy-oriented? The visits have a clear message: Islamabad values the role of CARs in post-withdrawal stability of Afghanistan, and resultantly the region as a whole....
Group photo from the last Chinese-Pakistani joint air force exercise in 2011. (photo: Pakistan air force)
China and Pakistan are going to hold joint air force exercises in the province of Xinjiang, the home of China's restive Uyghur population that also borders Pakistan. The exercise will take place against the backdrop of improved relations between Beijing and Islamabad, which have been frayed over China's complaints that Pakistan doesn't do enough to combat Uyghur separatism on its territory.
The Chinese defense ministry said the exercise, called Shaheen-2 would take place Sept 2-22. It is the follow-on drill to Shaheen-1, held in Pakistan in 2011.
China has repeatedly accused Pakistan of allowing the presence of Uyghur militants on its soil, usually doing so in private but occasionally, including after attacks in the far western Chinese city of Kashgar in 2011, in public. But during a visit this year by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to Islamabad the Chinese side publicly praised Pakistan's anti-terror efforts:
China “reiterates that it respects the anti-terrorism strategy developed and implemented by the Pakistani side in light of its own conditions. …China expresses its appreciation and continued willingness to help Pakistan build up counter-terrorism capacity”, the joint statement read.
And Pakistan also promised “continuous, active collaboration with and assistance to China in combating terrorist forces including the ETIM," referring to the Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement, the group China accuses of carrying out an Islamist, separatist agenda in Xinjiang.
Although Pakistan reopened its border with Afghanistan of U.S. and NATO military back in July, traffic there is still moving so slowly that the coalition forces haven't even moved all of the goods that had backed up there -- meaning the Northern Distribution Network through Central Asia remains the key means of supplying foreign forces in Afghanistan. That's according to Air Force Col. Robert Brisson, chief of operations for U.S. Transportation Command, in a recent interview with Military Times.
U.S. military officials have spent the past five months wrangling with the Pakistanis over a formal legal agreement and also working to clear out the roughly 7,000 shipping containers that were stalled in transit when the Pakistanis abruptly closed the border crossings in November 2011.
Coalition forces are only able to get between 10 and 50 cargo trucks per day across the border, compared to around 100 before the border was closed, Col. Brisson said.
“We haven’t booked any new cargo into the ports of Karachi and Qasim to move northbound, nor have we started moving new cargo heading southbound out of Afghanistan,” Brisson said.
New cargo may begin moving in late December or January, he said.
The U.S. and Pakistan are still working out the terms of the new agreement to ship goods through that country, and apparently the biggest sticking point is the question of transit fees.
Russian President Vladimir Putin unexpectedly canceled his visit to Pakistan last week, but ties between the two countries nevertheless appear to be growing as a result of the Kremlin's fear of instability in Afghanistan.
Putin was supposed to be in Pakistan last week for the Dushanbe Four summit, a grouping that includes Russia, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan. But he canceled at the last minute; foreign minister Sergey Lavrov went instead and Pakistan's chief of army staff, Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, visited Moscow at the same time. And despite Putin's cancellation, analysts in Russia, Pakistan and India all seem to agree that Russian-Pakistani relations are nevertheless destined to get stronger.
Part of this seems to be a very slow post-Cold War geopolitical realignment, and part is motivated by specific worries about Afghanistan. Russia and India have strong relations, especially military-to-military ties, a vestige of the Cold War when India was a Soviet ally and its enemy, Pakistan, was supported by the U.S. But India is now seeking to diversify its relations, including strengthening ties (including in defense) with the U.S. That has led some in Moscow to want to send India a message, said Ruslan Pukhov, director of the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies and an analyst well connected to the Russian Ministry of Defense, in an interview with Kommersant:
“India remains Moscow’s most important partner in the area of [military-technical cooperation], both in terms of volume and potential. Yet Delhi’s attempts to diversify its supplies of new weapons – increasingly from Western countries – are making Russia flinch. Moscow has explained to Delhi, in no uncertain terms, that it can also diversify its military-technical ties by means of a rapprochement with Pakistan."