At its August 16 summit in Bishkek, several member governments of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) identified narcotics trafficking from Afghanistan as a major regional security problem. NATO should use this possible opening to explore potential collaboration in Afghan security issues with Russia and China. Since the alliance mission in Afghanistan continues to suffer from major problems, assistance from these two countries-to supplement the support already provided by the SCO's Central Asian members as well as SCO observer Pakistan-should be encouraged.
In their Bishkek Declaration on international security, the summit participants expressed alarm about "the threat of narcotics coming from Afghanistan and its negative effect on Central Asia" and called for "combining international efforts on the creation of anti-narcotics belts around Afghanistan." The heads of state also affirmed their readiness "to participate in the efforts to normalize the political situation in Afghanistan" and "to develop economic cooperation with the country." In addition, the communiqué issued by the heads of state called for greater use of "the SCO Afghanistan Contact Group mechanism as well as other mutually acceptable formats" to manage Afghan-related security threats.
Shortly before the summit, the Russian Foreign Ministry circulated a draft proposal for an international conference on Afghanistan that, while occurring under SCO auspices, would nevertheless include countries both from the region and other interested parties. In his speech to the summit attendees, Russian President Vladimir Putin urged the foreign ministries of the SCO members to take charge of organizing such a gathering. He also called on the SCO to create a counter-narcotics security zone around Afghanistan that would help monitor money laundering and other sources of terrorist financing associated with Afghan narcotics trafficking.
Although China is not situated along the "Northern Route" through which Afghan narcotics have traditionally entered Central Asia and Europe, new narcotics trafficking networks have developed since 2005 that transport illicit drugs from Afghanistan through Pakistan and Central Asia into China.
In addition, Chinese officials remain concerned about the Taliban's ties to Islamic extremist groups advocating independence for China's Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. A June 2007 People's Daily commentary warned that
The ‘Taliban phenomenon' has produced grave concern. . . . [I]ts resurgence has severely challenged the authority of the Afghan government. . . . [T]he Taliban have grown more robust . . . taking full advantage of local feelings of dissatisfaction over living conditions and anti-US sentiments. . . . [T]he Taliban have galvanized their link-up with al-Qaeda remnants. . . . Afghanistan is at risk of becoming the second Iraq.
An official at the Chinese Foreign Ministry subsequently said that, since maintaining stability in the larger Central Asian region represented a "primary focus" of the SCO, China and other member governments want to cooperate on fighting drugs smuggling and terrorism emanating from Afghanistan.
Relations between NATO and the SCO are admittedly contentious. The July 2005 SCO summit declaration calling on Western governments to establish a timetable for their military withdrawal from Central Asia probably encouraged the government of Uzbekistan to expel U.S. military forces from its territory a few months later. In addition, many observers suspect that Russia and China have since then been pressing Kyrgyzstan to end U.S. military access to Manas airport. The organization's June 2006 summit in Shanghai, attended by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, evoked further alarm about the possible emergence of a potent anti-American bloc among some of the world's leading energy and military powers. Several Western commentators have denounced what they saw as an emerging neo-Soviet bloc of authoritarian Eurasian countries‹a kind of "NATO of the East."
Yet the emergence of a neo-Cold War between democratic and authoritarian blocs in Eurasia can be averted. Despite Western concerns, the Bishkek summit did not call for the elimination of the U.S. base at Manas, located only a few kilometers from Bishkek or generate other overtly anti-Western actions. The great powers involved in Central Asia have incentives to compete for local allies, energy resources and military advantage, but they also share substantial interests, especially in reducing terrorism and drug trafficking. If properly aligned, the major multilateral security organizations active in Central Asia could provide opportunities for cooperative diplomacy in a region where bilateral ties traditionally have predominated.
The situation in Afghanistan and Central Asia may offer greater opportunities for dialogue between Russia and the West than many other issues. Russian policymakers evince less unease about the Western military presence in Central Asia than they do about NATO military activities in Eastern Europe, Ukraine or the Southern Caucasus. In particular, no influential voices in Moscow, Brussels or even Washington are calling for extending full alliance membership to the current Central Asian governments anytime soon, given their limited adherence to democratic principles and NATO's lack of vital security interests in the region.
In addition, Russia and NATO share an interest in preventing a Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan. Since NATO is still experiencing difficulties ensuring security in that country, cooperating more with the SCO on curbing terrorism and narcotics trafficking as well as promoting Afghanistan's economic and political reconstruction makes sense.
Strengthening security along the Tajik-Afghan border might provide a starting point for deeper institutional cooperation between the SCO and NATO, since their zones of interest overlap in this region. The members of both organizations have long sought to curb the transit of Afghan heroin through Tajikistan to Eurasian and European markets. Tajikistan is a member of the SCO. With the encouragement of China and other SCO members, Russia remains heavily engaged in strengthening Tajik law enforcement efforts. NATO enjoys overflight rights over Tajikistan in support of coalition operations in Afghanistan and has been providing technical assistance to Tajikistan's border guards and interior ministry. Offering concrete plans for working with Tajikistan and other SCO members to curb narco-terrorism in Afghanistan would underscore NATO's continuing commitment to Eurasian security at a time when many observers within and beyond the region are beginning to question the alliance's staying power.
Richard Weitz is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.