In the Thick of It

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Could SCO Fill Void Left by US in Afghanistan?

September 15, 2021
Lucie Messy

If geopolitics abhors vacuums, then who will fill the void created by the U.S. departure from Afghanistan? One player that may be in a position to fill some of that void is the Shanghai Security Organization (SCO), in my view. Since its prototype was established in 1996, the SCO has evolved into a viable organization for regional security and defense cooperation, and there is no doubt that most, if not all, of its members, share an urgent interest in keeping instability from spilling over from Afghanistan. However, while the SCO should be expected to try to act on that collective interest, it is doubtful that any of its members, even leading giants Russia and China, will be able to fully fill the shoes left by the U.S. and its allies in Afghanistan.  

The change of power in Kabul has been quite abrupt, catching many regional watchers off guard, as evidenced, for instance, by a commentary published by the Diplomat in mid-July arguing that it was time for the SCO to accommodate the Ashraf Ghani government’s requests for Afghanistan to join the organization. In the wake of the subsequent demise of Ghani’s regime and the arrival of the Taliban in Kabul, there is hardly a neighboring country left that would not be interested in joining forces with some of the regional powers to defend themselves from threats emanating from the (yet again) destabilized Afghanistan. Individual SCO members are no exception, and there is no doubt they will devote the lion’s share of their Sept. 16-17 summit in Dushanbe to the Afghanistan formulating a collective strategy to respond to these threats. These threats include a deadly resurgence of al-Qaida, the Islamic State and other jihadist groups, a dramatic increase in the transit of refugees, and continued drug trafficking.

But security and safety threats emanating from Afghanistan are not the only reasons why SCO members should be expected to work together on Afghanistan. Some members also believe the departure of the U.S. and change of power in Afghanistan has created opportunities they could collectively tap into. The SCO’s leaders, China and Russia, see this as a geopolitical opportunity to further limit the West’s general influence on the region and expand their own influence. There is no doubt that leaders in Beijing and Moscow believe the SCO could prove a useful resource in attaining these two goals if only they could figure out a way to convince fellow SCO members to unite their resources, which would be quite formidable if joined for that purpose (see Table 1). SCO members include China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, and India as full members and Iran, Afghanistan, Belarus, and Mongolia as observers. Although Afghanistan holds observer status in the SCO, it has not been invited to the Dushanbe summit, which will reportedly initiate procedures for admitting Iran into this organization.

Table 1. Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Key Stats


SCO’s combined GDP, PPP (2020, in constant 2017 USD, World Bank)

SCO’s combined population (2020, World Bank)

SCO’s combined landmass (World Bank)

SCO’s combined defense expenditures (2020, in millions constant 2019 USD, SIPRI)

SCO’s combined armed forces (2018, World Bank)

Absolute value

$37.13 trillion 

 3.22 billion


 33 million sq. km



As % of world total






There should also be no doubt that Russia, China and other SCO members also see economic opportunities in Afghanistan, which is home to various mineral deposits (copper, oil, uranium, coal, iron) that could be extracted and sold for profit. The opportunities to tap into these natural resources, which one former Afghan minister said could be worth up to $3 trillion, could be realized if the new reincarnation of the Taliban rule turns out to be more moderate and constructive than the previous one. (So far, however, the Taliban’s appointment of five individuals designated as terrorists by the U.N. to ministerial positions does not inspire hopes in that direction.)

In addition to facing common threats and seeing common opportunities, SCO members also naturally have individual national agendas to pursue vis-à-vis Afghanistan, and some items on these agendas could be conflicting. Russia, for instance, is quite keen to employ its own vehicle for security and defense cooperation, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) to deter and defend against security threats emanating from Afghanistan toward Central Asia. In fact, Moscow has already organized several wargames with Central Asian members of CSTO to prepare for such scenarios. In contrast, China should be expected to want a greater role for the SCO in responding to security threats from Afghanistan. China fears that instability could spill over its 76-kilometer border with Afghanistan to fuel violence in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, where it has been brutally suppressing the Uygurs’ separatist aspirations.

In addition to a potential conflict of interest between the SCO and CSTO when it comes to leading regional security efforts in Central Asia, Russia and China might also not see eye-to-eye on the development of economic cooperation in the region. Russia is keen to expand and strengthen the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union, while China is focused on the expansion of its Belt and Road Initiative. This competition might also impact the dynamics of Russo-Chinese interaction within the SCO. We should also keep in mind that some SCO members remain in a state of not-so-dormant territorial conflict, as is the case with China and India, as well as India and Pakistan. These rivalries hinder the organization, as India does not want to participate in military drills where China and Pakistan are present. These conflicting national priorities are one reason why the SCO’s development as a regional security organization has been somewhat stunted and may remain so in spite of the aforementioned threats and opportunities associated with Afghanistan.

The Afghanistan crisis is posing multiple threats to most SCO members, ranging from hard security threats to refugee flows, but it is also creating some opportunities for the organization. The next few years will demonstrate whether the SCO manages to seize on these opportunities while reducing the threats emanating from Afghanistan to prove it is an actor to be reckoned with in matters of regional security.

Lucie Messy is a recent graduate of Lille Catholic University, where she studied international relations.

Russia Matters student associate Thomas Schaffner mined data and conducted calculations for Table 1.

Photo by shared under a Creative Commons license. The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author.