Abstract. The author discusses security on the landmass taken up by the member countries of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and closely scrutinizes Islamic fundamentalism dressing up in our times as the Islamic State (of Iraq and Levant, or Syria, to give the full unabbreviated name of ISIS), the Taliban, or whatever names its proponents choose to call it – that is raising its head in Afghanistan after the failure of Operation Enduring Freedom and withdrawal of the Western coalition’s main forces from that country, and sheds light on the U.S.’s ill-fated role in the erosion of stability in the region. The author also argues for the need to strengthen the SCO’s military arm to keep its enormous expanses secure and stable, and offers his recommendations on enhancing the Organization’s power and capabilities to give its members a sense of protection and security.

Last October, Moscow hosted an International Conference on Afghanistan that had been planned and guided through by the Russian Ministry of Defense (MOD). Army General Gerasimov, chief of the Armed Forces’ General Staff, said in his opening address that much of the heartland in Syria and Iraq had been overrun by the ISIS terrorists who cannot be dislodged from their positions and captured cities and towns by the forces of the U.S.-led counterterrorist coalition. Apart from Syria and Iraq, developments are at their worst in Afghanistan. The terrorists’ growing activity is a drag on the country’s life, while the ample outflow of drugs, weapons, and trained militants from Afghanistan carries a threat to its neighbors, primarily Central Asian countries that, with the sole exception of Turkmenistan, are members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). At this point of his address, the General Staff Chief made a pitch: “We have to look together for ways to help that poor suffering country to regain peace and calm and to prevent instability from spilling over into the neighboring regions.”1

Right until the October 2015 conference, the SCO members evaded talking about a joint security system each time they got together to discuss anything but. Now, with instability building up in the Central Asian region and Afghanistan too heavy a burden on their minds and shoulders to carry on as before, and, the last straw, the ISIS threatening to well over into Central Asia and the Caucasus, it would be natural and logical for the SCO to give thought to a design in a suitable format to thwart threats weighing upon any of its members anywhere over its vast area. A further must-do reason to act is that some SCO members (Iran, in the first place) rub shoulders with the Middle East and, like Russia, too, are involved in the coalition fighting ISIS forces in Syria.

On the latest count in late 2015, the SCO had 16 members, including:

  • Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, India, and Pakistan as full-status members;
  • Iran, Mongolia, and Belarus as observer states; and
  • Azerbaijan, Armenia, Turkey, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, and Nepal as dialogue partners.

A glance run down the list of SCO members dotting the larger part of East Eurasia picks up two permanent UN Security Council members and four nuclear powers.

The greatest threat of all hazards named by the General Staff chief as sources of danger confronting all SCO members comes from the fundamentalism of the Islamic State and the Taliban and several other Islamist organizations that stepped up their operations following the withdrawal of the Western coalition’s main forces from Afghanistan. The threats posed by these forces are examined in more detail below.

Beginning in 2013, the Islamic State has actually been defined as an unrecognized quasi-state living by the sharia laws. In June 2014, it proclaimed itself a worldwide caliphate.* Fully in control of significant areas of Iraqi and Syrian territories, the extremists are planning to spread their operations to Russia and Central and Southeast Asia through militants from many countries, including Europe, Russia, and elsewhere that have some kind of SCO status who are ideologically indoctrinated and given training in the Islamists’ military outfits.

In our view, the danger posed by the Islamic State’s extremists can materialize in two most likely scenarios depending on the outcome of military operations against the ISIS. In the event that the military outfits of ISIS extremists are defeated in Iraq and Syria would not suggest by any means that their organization (or movement) would fade away for good and the situation in the Middle East would stabilize. Any surviving ISIS network elements can go over to guerrilla warfare and stage massive acts of terrorism in Iraq, Syria, and far beyond.

* The ISIS has been designated as an extremist organization in Russia and banned from engaging in any activities on Russian territory.

The feasibility of this scenario coming off depends much on the willingness (or unwillingness) of the U.S. and some members of the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition to finish off the ISIS. It is an open secret that the U.S., or its special services had a hand in bringing the Islamic State around. Does it stand to gain from calm descending on the Middle East, Syria in the first place? The answer is not a definite yes or no, if we take the clue from the eighteen months of fighting against the ISIS, or rather no headway made at all in the time that long. Add to this the anti-Russian information campaign the U.S. and its allies mounted after the Russian Aerospace Forces (ASF) have scored a series of successful strikes at ISIS Islamists and balked at coordinating their aerial attacks closely with the Russian forces.

The Russian forces’ strikes from the air and sea at targets detected by their own reconnaissance and indicated by their Syrian allies have caused enormous damage to the terrorists – scores of ISIS command posts, munitions stores, and infrastructure elements have been destroyed, hundreds of militants killed, and dozens of military vehicles disabled, giving the Syrian army an advantage large enough to go over to the offensive. Its breakaway do-it-alone success in battle regardless, Russia has invariably insisted on efforts to build the broadest possible coalition to fight extremists and terrorists, and is calling on “all interested countries and forces to join in the operation of the information center set up in Baghdad.”2

In Russian President Putin’s words, Russia has established businesslike contacts with the governments of the Mideastern countries: “We are in talks with the governments of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Jordan, Israel, and other countries [in the region], and are trying to engage the U.S. and Turkey in cooperation”3 [unofficial translation – Trans.]. Still again, all attempts to achieve a breakthrough anywhere across the board have failed. As we read it, should the ISIS terrorist bands be defeated militarily, the near chaos instability in the Mideastern countries setting in on the heels of the retreating Islamists will linger on for years to come. To end here, there is a very high probability of this scenario being played out in this region.

The second scenario is linked to the situation in Afghanistan, and it carries a threat to several SCO member states. We definitely know that 5,000 to 7,000 militants born and raised in Russia and other CIS countries are fighting for the ISIS cause. If defeated in the Middle East, they will infiltrate into unstable Afghanistan, Central Asian countries, and other SCO member countries to use the skills they have learned in Syria and Iraq – making and exploding landmines and IEDs, using secret codes and disguise, and street fighting tactics. National secret services report that ISIS militants are already getting together and training teams in committing acts of terrorism and subversion. In the estimates of the Russian Armed Forces General Staff, a force of up to 50,000 militants broken down into over 4,000 teams and groups specializing each in its area of secret warfare is active in Afghanistan. They are built around a hard core of up to 40,000 militants of the Taliban Islamist movement. Another two to three thousand Islamic State militants are also active in Afghanistan, and their number keeps growing.4

With the start of the Russian aerial operation in Syria in late September (30) 2015, fighting in Afghanistan intensified. The Taliban opened a powerful offensive of their own against cities and provinces in Northern Afghanistan. They captured Kondoz, a city of 300,000 and the center of a province 70 kilometers from the border with Tajikistan. The Afghan army, though, pushed the Islamists out of the city with help from the U.S. Air Force. The Taliban withdrew without showing any signs of panic and carried away the weapons and vehicles they have seized from the Afghan army and millions of dollars in cash they had plundered from the local banks.

Even though thrown out of Kondoz, the Taliban are still in full control of a majority of counties in the like-named province and concentrating their thrust eastward and northward toward the Tajik border. This is more than a symbolic response, though. In the political sense, the Taliban has proved to be a strong military force claiming its share of authority over Afghanistan’s territory. On the geostrategic scale, they now have the road open to Kabul to the south and can advance unopposed north and east to the Tajik border and then on, fanning out across Central Asia.

As they seized control over Kondoz province, the Taliban also engaged government forces in neighboring provinces, aiming to capture Pol-e-Khomri, a strategically sited town, and straddle the strategic road running through a tunnel under the Salang Pass to Northern Afghanistan. The Taliban have also held control over several counties in Afghan Badakhshan, South Turkestan, a fact confirmed officially by the authorities in Kabul. This Taliban-controlled area is turning into the Islamists’ foothold to attempt the crossing of the Panj River to Tajikistan and joining up with the local radicals.

The situation in Afghanistan is complicated by the poor training and equipment of the Afghan forces that are unable, for this reason, to launch effective operations against unlawful armed groups, while the extremists’ active and effective operations against government forces frustrate the efforts of the government in Kabul to stabilize the political and socioeconomic situation in the country and intensify the population’s distrust of the central authority.

All these downsides pitted together suggest that instability is an intractable problem Afghanistan is condemned to live with indefinitely long. They will only keep the situation on edge in the country, with extremists in full control over provinces, terrorism blending with organized crime, and, as a result, production of opium-based drugs going up, drug trafficking swelling, ordinary Afghans’ socioeconomic conditions deteriorating, unemployment rising, people fleeing the country, and extremist organizations entrenching in politics.

The “American factor” too, is not something to be dismissed lightly in an overview of the situation in Afghanistan and Central Asia, its destructive effect on the Central Asian countries showing no sign of decreasing. Rather, following the rise of the pro-European movement in Ukraine funding of nongovernmental organizations in Kyrgyzstan shot rapidly up.5 Really, the U.S. special services stationed in the country are trying to destabilize Tajikistan. The FIDOCOR international nongovernmental organization has announced that the Civil Society Development Association (CSDA) jointly with the Association of Corporate Service Providers are about to launch an auction for the grant to develop networks of nonprofit organizations in the Republic of Tajikistan within the Development Through Regional Economic Cooperation Program that is to be carried out with financial support from the U.S. Agency for International Development in the Central Asian Republics (USAID/CAR).6

Actually, NGOs and radical Islamists are funded from the same source. Specifically, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), one of the world’s major NGO sponsors, provides funds to the Muslim Integration in Central Asia, a new international Islamic organization set up in Dushanbe and bringing together Islamic groups, including Hizb ut-Tahrir, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, and the Akramia movement, that are banned in Islamic countries.7 Indeed, the forces maintaining instability in Afghanistan and in several Central Asian countries, including SCO members, are like puppets on strings tightened and eased off by a hand in Washington.

Against this general background, tense relations between SCO member states, at times on the point of exploding into hostility, make a dreary sight. The most outrageous dispute is brewing between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan over a water management scheme acceptable to both. Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov says that unless Bishkek stops building a power dam with Moscow’ assistance, the rest of Central Asia will have no power flowing in its grids. “We must take a common stand on power projects to be completed on rivers crossing Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan,” he said.8 He does not rule out at all that “water shortages can eventually lead to serious frictions, even wars, in Central Asia in the near future.”9 Boundary delimitations are a further problem waiting to be solved. Cross-border conflicts keep flaring up on the border between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, and between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. In short, almost all Central Asian countries have major claims to press against one another.

The U.S. efforts to slow down economic development of Central Asia are only a narrow bypath of Washington’s policy to stir up chaos in the region. The documents laid out on the notorious WikiLeaks website leave no doubt about U.S. officials’ concerns that Russia and several other countries avail themselves of the benefits of direct economic investments in the region, while the U.S. Department of State is developing a network of nonprofit organizations that will, over time, exercise the broadest possible control over all areas of life in Central Asian countries.10 Washington is clearly frustrated by the contribution China, India, Iran, and Russia are making to civil construction and economic development in Afghanistan. The Americans are apprehensive that Kabul will definitely be drawn within the range of SCO influence, and now that it has the observer status, Afghanistan qualifies for full membership of the organization.

To prevent Afghanistan falling away, the NATO Command cancelled the program for the transfer of Russian Mi-17 transport helicopters to the Afghan Army and halted several security programs, including the training program for officers of the Afghan and Pakistani drug squads.11 These moves have plainly been motivated by the desire to sustain a source of terrorist and drug trafficking threats near Central Asian countries’ borders. There are many more examples of this type to bear out our point. There is hardly any need for more – all will support the obvious fact that security in Central Asia cannot be maintained effectively unless the principal destabilizing factor – the U.S. geopolitical presence in the region – is put out of the way.

The Russian RIA Novosti news agency reported on October 15, 2015, with reference to U.S. President Barack Obama’s announcement that the U.S. forces would not be withdrawn from Afghanistan in late 2016, as he had pledged, and that 5,500 U.S. servicemen would stay on in that country beyond that time frame. For greater effect, the U.S. would slow down the withdrawal rate of its forces now standing at 9,800 that will remain at or near that number for most of next year.

Our take of it is that the U.S. is going to make most of the SCO stuck midway to its final shape and still lacking practical effective mechanisms for making all of its members feel secure. Accordingly, the next thing for the SCO to do is defining its own status in more precise terms to make it more effective in maintaining regional security and stability.

As for now, the SCO does not look like an effective enough regional institution. At a time when the entire skein of international relations is untangled and overhauled on the global scale, when majority of international organizations (the UN and the OECD, in the first place) are in a state of crisis and inefficient, and the international law system in crisis, too, the SCO is still groping for an identity. Unlike members of bloc-type organizations, the SCO member countries have cooperation mechanisms that ban the use of force or threat to use force and forbid military action, including the use of armed force in response to behavior upsetting stability in the region.12 Even though steps have been made from time to time to amend the SCO rules, the organization still stands on principle that it will not ever interfere into the internal military and political affairs of its members.

The numerous international conferences sponsored by the RAS Institute for Far Eastern Studies have been highlighted repeatedly by calls on SCO member countries to intensify their efforts to achieve closer integration to complete economic and other projects and to enhance the organization’s role in providing defense and security facilities to its members.

That is not to say that criticisms have not been targeted frequently at some aspects of SCO activity (or rather, inactivity and inefficiency). In particular, some critics said that for all the benefits it carries and is rightly regarded as a very fortunate international project, the prospects for cooperation in its present format are dim. Some of its member countries care most for their own interests, rarely shared by their partners. Differences still divide Central Asian countries. Partnership comes with a measure of competition (as it does in virtually all groups of different countries – the EU, ASEAN, and APEC). It is not competition, though, that causes most concern; rather, it is the desire entertained by each and every one to combine shared interests for enhancing the effectiveness of the Shanghai Organization or a scramble for gain by a single country or a group of allies? The SCO has reached a point beyond which it is to become an area of codevelopment and collective security or will its members’ behavior be dominated by self-interest? There is no way of knowing what the answer can be as yet.

The SCO was conceived from the start by its founding countries in full realization of threats to their stability. Much has since been done to keep all threats at an arm’s length. Threats to regional security have since been waxing rather than waning however. To strike back at them effectively, the SCO only has a Regional Counterterrorism Unit (RCTU) that is not thus far up to the task in either size or clearly designated missions. To paraphrase the celebrated maxim, the SCO, like any other organization, will only be worth the effort if it learns how best to defend itself and its members.

The events that keep happening in real life and the scenarios they are likely to follow add their undertones to the purpose and priorities of the SCO. Even though the organization is not a military or political alliance, it is, as we can gather from its Charter and whatever documents it has passed since startup that it is an all-purpose outfit set up to develop cooperation along many lines, such as achieving and maintaining peace, security, and stability in the region, and encouraging effective regional cooperation in politics, trade, economics, defense, and other areas of shared concern.13

The SCO members have a body of treaties and laws to draw on to do all that in the political and military situation in the region that does not appear to start changing soon and where the need exists for mechanisms to be built within the SCO framework for multilateral cooperation to be initiated across the full range of security and defense problems besetting Central Asia. It must be framed to enable the SCO to take preventive measures against threats of separatism, extremism, and terrorism, and to launch at least the full range of peacekeeping operations (humanitarian aid, peacekeeping, and peace enforcement under the UN Charter). To put it differently, there is a need and there are reasons for SCO member countries to cooperate in military affairs on a broader scale.

Expansion and invigoration of SCO activities are unfortunately taken by analysts and authorities in several Western countries as encroachment upon their national interests by this international organization. The United States claims firmly that Central Asia is a zone of its strategic influence and makes strenuous efforts to put across the harm and threat of the SCO for freedom-loving humanity. U.S. analyst Abby J. Cohen says, for example, that its operation gives away the machinations of the “Chinese hegemonists” and “Russian neo-imperialists.” In his thinking, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization is a tool that China and Russia use to boost their influence in Central Asia. It appears that the two are dead set against the U.S. having any part, even in the observer capacity that has been accorded to Afghanistan, of all countries. Very likely, Beijing, Moscow, and Tehran will probably fence in Washington to prevent it from expanding its influence in the region, if not elbowing it out altogether.

These assessments of the SCO are not to be shrugged off lightly, of course, but heads have to be cool in the heat of polemics, and no red lines crossed. When the SCO’s weight is claimed to have risen in regional security and stability maintenance, the assessments must not be taken straight – no one state, nor a cluster of states within a region will manage to rein in international terrorism unless many more members of the international community join them in a bilateral or multilateral format, including two-way cooperation between blocs of powers. Casting suspicion on the United States, or developing a distrust complex toward the West in general, whatever the circumstances, must not turn into an obsession.

No doubt, the SCO must gird itself for a future no one can predict, even approximately, what it will be, except that it will not be a resumption of the Cold War. It is essential, even if difficult, to cooperate with the West for neutralizing international terrorism as a system.

As the SCO is rising to full stature as a unique organization for diversified cooperation it is a trailblazer in many ways. Hence its lethargy in unorthodox situations where quick response counts for much as it did in its field test in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan [where rioting broke out in the two countries’ major cities and troops had to be called in to quell the unruly crowds – Trans.]. It appears to this author that moving in too slowly too late can be explained by the Organization’s failure to look far enough ahead and make long-term standby plans for contingencies in the cross-border political setting in the region. This double miss accounts for a shallow analysis of all possible scenarios of response to challenges some of which will not be hurled always by international terrorists only.

The SCO must have permanent executive authorities responsible for various aspects of cooperation in defense policies, but what it needs most are tangible forces under arms, facilities to be manned and handled, and ready-to-use mechanisms to fulfill decisions made at the top. Uncertainty still surrounds the approaches and options taken to perform missions the SCO has been established to fulfill, in the first place. As a result, public statements made in its name sound more like empty declarations to hear and forget than promises to be kept. Printed SCO documents, too, tend to slant that way, eroding confidence and inspiring guesses and doubts about the organization’s future. These and other shortfalls of the organization cry for speedy corrections and, just as much, for growth in its efficiency in all activities in which it is committed in one way or another.

Many problems confronting the SCO are still resolved by trial and error, as they were at the start. Problems, and errors attending them, can certainly be avoided by looking closer into SCO development prospects. Russia, for one, a country ranked among the Organization’s pacesetters, is not famous for the amount of attention and resources it puts into prospect studies, to compare, for example, to China, even remotely. The sooner it moves in to remedy this injustice, the more of a real leader it will look, and be, in the Organization. It is appropriate to step up research into the problems just named jointly with scholars from Central Asian countries, China, and India for the sole purpose of staking out each country’s stand on issues of everyone’s concern and, even more important, identifying and validating the common attitude to the SCO’s effectiveness in making the region more stable and secure.

The way it looked in 2015, the SCO has expanded the list of regional priorities to take account of the rising pitch of developments in Afghanistan – even though the SCO is not a military or political alliance, it now must become in fact a multifunctional organization and be involved still closer in efforts to find solutions to global and regional problems related to cooperation in security maintenance, as its Charter requires. Even though different member countries are integrated to a different extent into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, their shared economic, military, and political interests urge them to pool efforts and work together to maintain regional security.

In principle, giving the SCO a broader range of capabilities to protect its members against a variety of military threats has long been on the waiting list. As we said above, this author offered many times, at various gatherings, his options for addressing this issue. Each time, though, the author’s options evoked no response from an overwhelming majority of his Russian and Chinese colleagues, and, still worse, from the two countries’ foreign ministries and the SCO corps of bureaucrats. More recently, though, things have started moving.

The counterterrorist Peace Mission exercises to be held regularly by an SCO decision can be regarded as a welcome development and a partial hands-on approach to the collective security of the Organization’s members. Regular exercises have helped resolve many legal issues of troops and military equipment staying temporarily on the territory of other countries for a while before returning back to their home stations. Commanders, staffs, and troops acquire experience of acting jointly to fulfill a variety of common combat missions and providing all types of combat logistics for coalition task forces. As more countries join the SCO, the number of troops involved in the exercises will evidently increase.

To look at it from the other end, realization that the political and military situation in and around the region is growing more complicated over time to a point that events are likely to escalate like a rock fall down the slope, has led the SCO members to an understanding that the situation now shaping up must be monitored around the clock seven days a week and response followed promptly in near-real time. Accordingly, the attitudes SCO member countries take toward their organization’s ability (or inability) to give an adequate response to the challenges thrown to its members are beginning to change as well. To our mind, the SCO has to give high priority to efforts to:

  • help Afghanistan to remake itself from the current purveyor of instability, drugs, and terrorism into a modern, close-knit, and self-sufficient country;
  • prevent Central Asia from becoming, by the will of any forces that do not belong there, a foothold for outsiders intent on destabilizing the life in the countries of the region by committing acts of subversion and stage-managing Color Revolutions and manipulating China, Iran, and Russia from behind the scene invulnerable to retaliation;
  • frustrate an act of direct aggression by any country against an SCO member country(ies);
  • establish a system to maintain security in an integrated economic, transportation, and logistics environment and infrastructure elements on the territory of all SCO member countries; and
  • counter nontraditional threats such as, in the first place, drug trafficking, illegal migration, and arms smuggling as the most serious kinds of threat.

The Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, spoke about his vision of the approach to diversifying SCO capabilities to maintain its members’ security at a meeting of the Council of the SCO Member States’ Foreign Ministers in Dushanbe in September 2014. He suggested transformation of the Regional Counterterrorism Unit (RCTU) [or RATS in official verbal translation from the Russian Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure – Trans.] into a Center to Counter New Challenges and Threats as a way of enhancing the security of the SCO member countries, to be first used as an anti-narcotics force. As a measure to counter the spread of extremism in Central Asian countries, the Russian foreign minister urged the SCO countries to sign a framework agreement on cooperation over border-related issues.

Another Russian official, Army General Sergey Shoygu, the Defense Minister, advanced a proposal at a conference of the SCO member states’ defense chiefs in St. Petersburg in June 2015 to set up a new SCO body to be called a national military advisers staff. In the general’s view, the staff advisers could generate ideas for the Organization’s decisionmakers in the form of recommendations on a greater use of the SCO member countries’ military capabilities for security maintenance purposes.

Colonel General Sergey Istrakov, Deputy Chief of the Russian Armed Forces’ General Staff, took the Defense Minister’s idea still further at the International Conference on Afghanistan in Moscow. In General Istrakov’s view, the national military advisers staff or a special working group could be formed at the SCO Secretariat or the Organization’s Defense Ministers Council, respectively. The staff or council could be made responsible for managing cooperation between the national armed forces and Regional Counterterrorism Unit of the SCO, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, and the CIS Antiterrorism Center. The staff (working group) could manage the sharing of intelligence about extremist organizations, illegal armed groups, and the methods and tactics of their operations.14

The Chinese signatory, too, started advancing practical ideas for improving SCO efficiency in security issue management. The PRC State Council Premier Li Keqiang said during his visit to Kazakhstan in 2014 that the Shanghai Cooperation Organization was to become Eurasia’s defender. Speaking at the 13th Meeting of the SCO States’ Prime Ministers, Li Keqiang called for the establishment of a new center to develop forecasts of future challenges to the security of Eurasia. He also urged his partners to go on improving mechanisms that could be helpful in the fight against terrorism, illegal drug trafficking, and cybercrime. While in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, the Chinese premier named Afghanistan as a country in need of support for maintaining its “internal stability,” achieving reconciliation at home, and restoring its ravished economy.15

Finally, China’s Chairman Xi Jinping attending the 2015 SCO Summit in Ufa, Bashkortostan, Russia, said in his address at a session of the SCO Council of Heads of State: “… [W]e have to enhance its capabilities and build a strong stonewall of security in the region. We must expand our political contacts and coordinate our moves, develop measures to respond to threats and attacks and jointly to uphold our security, our governments, political systems, and social stability in all member countries of the Organization. We have to promote cooperation with Afghanistan in security maintenance, help the Afghan security forces to raise their combat power and fulfill a bigger role in promoting national reconciliation in Afghanistan, and reconstruction of that country’s economy.”16

For all the far less than serene relations between the states involved in the SCO in one way or another, they all are ready, as a top priority, to put up a solid front against a common threat. Their readiness to act jointly is a sign of their realization that strategic economic development programs and practical cooperation in security maintenance are the priority projects for the SCO.

The Russian and Chinese chief executives’ ideas we mentioned in passing above are now encapsulated and taken further in what options follow.

It would make sense first to consider establishing a military Cooperation Coordinating Committee (MCCC) as a standing SCO authority, probably on the basis of the Regional Counterterrorism Unit (RCTU) reinforced with a staff of military professionals. Admittedly, monitoring the situation and enabling intelligence sharing about terrorist threats in the region between the SCO members, the sole function now fulfilled by the RCTU, is far too little by today’s standards.

The MCCC would boost the effectiveness of cooperation in military engineering and economic areas, accelerate completion of programs to develop the armed forces of the region’s countries, and improve their training standards. It could also coordinate cooperation efforts of the member countries’ militaries within the SCO framework. Providing timely response to situations threatening the member countries is, however, the principal purpose of the MCCC. The Coordination Committee would also have to keep on the practice of information exchange on counterterrorism subjects carried on today by the RCTU. This practice would promote effective cooperation in this area between the special services and intelligence systems of the Organization’s member countries.17

Over time, depending on the way in which the situation in the region goes, thought can be given to reconstituting the MCCC into a staff committee (or probably a Joint Staff) of the SCO. In addition to the tasks fulfilled by the RCTU and the MCCC, it will perform further functions, in particular, it will:

  • search and detect designated sources of military threats;
  • develop military, political, humanitarian follow-up, and other measures to anticipate and neutralize detected threats;
  • draw up relevant plans and action programs;
  • direct counterterrorist, peacekeeping, and any other operations to neutralize pending threats;
  • organize and direct actions of staffs and troops in preparation for counterterrorist operations; and
  • fulfill any other functions typical for a command and control (C2) authority of this high echelon.

The SCO Staff Committee can have a limited number of military experts, and its decisionmakers and operations staff officers rotated regularly.

Consideration can be given to a different C2 system based on the “detach-not-separate” principle that requires trained and qualified personnel to be detached from the national armed forces’ C2 authorities and assigned to the core component of an operations staff to be responsible for planning, launching, and conducting a particular peacekeeping operation. As the operation proceeds, the core can be built up from modular C2 components from the supporting C2 modules (logistics and engineering). This approach provides the best possible option for drawing on the existing C2 authorities’ resources and yields a significant gain of forces, assets, and time, a no minor consideration at a time of response to a crisis.

The SCO’s capabilities to give a sense and assurance of protection and security to its founders, primarily by deterrence and constraint in the situation in the region developing under scenarios carrying threats to the SCO member countries could be enhanced by instituting a peacekeeping corps or rapid response forces (a prospect raised by China’s Chairman a couple of years ago). Any measures taken at the start could include consideration to be given to the regular makeup and C2 system of these forces, and field testing them in joint exercises to achieve the desired level of operational cooperation. With the available experience of international security organizations used as a benchmark, we could assume that the SCO contingent does not need to stand by on alert at full strength all the time. In normal circumstances, each contributing country can keep its forces and assets assigned to a joint operation within the SCO boundaries at their home stations, and only order them to the SCO assembly area for exercises, war games, and special missions to follow up.

Another point is that this objective must be reached gradually, a step at a time, as the political situation rises in pitch, and an operational-strategic groundwork is actually laid by the institution of the Pease Mission military exercises on the SCO scale and the Indra bilateral Indian-Russian exercises, and the regular war games. The war games and exercises give the participating troops and staffs an opportunity to polish up on the interoperability (operational compatibility) they would need to conduct joint operations.

For regional SCO mechanisms to begin producing practical results, precise time frames must, in our view, be set for designated tasks to be taken on and funds and assets allocated on their fulfillment. If all works out as planed, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization will have a chance to become a strong influence and a pillar of regional security architecture. If not, it would be futile to expect the SCO to display activism in security maintenance.

A thing that we must have at the back of our minds is that unless we are concerned over the formulation of a general long-term SCO development strategy running across all fields of multilateral activity – economic, humanitarian, and defense – touched upon in the SCO Charter, it will never grow over into an efficient organization. Serious doubts persist that the SCO may over time become just another in the huge stable of international bureaucracies for which their very existence is a credit of no interest to their members to stay on in. Every country must see and feel the tangible benefits of being a member of its organization, for otherwise its membership is drained of every drop of sense.

A few military experts and political scientists have apprehensions that with all the changes and additions made as suggested here the SCO is likely to end up as a military and political alliance. Overly much attention to the military ingredient of the SCO is certainly a strong reason for political scientists, particularly those with Western backgrounds, to speak of the Organization’s “drift” toward that dualism, particularly where they want to see it to. Still reluctant to be drawn into polemics, we will make one major point again to overturn the “drift” argument. The SCO is a new type of organization, not a military alliance in any way. Its founders have underscored its difference on countless occasions. The SCO’s military power is not projected beyond its member countries’ perimeter. Where security is at stake, it is going to respond to a possible threat in retaliation. And only where the threat is really intended and forthcoming, not merely implied, and where inaction would carry a high risk. Finally, an organization serving no purpose would be a wasted asset and a heavy drain on the member countries’ budgets. To end up, the SCO is a regional organization with links to the UN that can mandate it to launch peacekeeping operations.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization still structurally incomplete, particularly at the start, and so rough at the corners that its member countries have no choice but to invite outside countries and organizations to their “regional home,” to maintain peace and calm. How long can this all go on? The answer, definite enough is that measures are to be taken to improve the SCO structure, membership quality, and tactics, expand the range of missions it takes on, and to broaden its areas of responsibility.

A few observations in conclusion. A great variety of approaches can be thought up and put down as straight cuts to enhancing the SCO’s capabilities to build up its member countries’ security. This is in theory. In practice, though, it is long past time that steps were taken for it to place reliance on a small team of advisers (probably military experts on the list of nominations made by Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu) to work for the RCTU or the SCO Secretariat to develop and implement recommendations made by Russia and China. More specifically, they will have to draw up a regional security concept of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization that could set out:

  • a roster of SCO member countries committed to comply with the concept requirements;
  • a list of vital shared and special interests of the SCO member countries;
  • kinds of outside and inside threats to the member countries’ interests;
  • purposes and objectives of cooperation on security issues among SCO member countries;
  • membership and structure of bodies directly responsible for security maintenance;
  • methods of security maintenance and practices followed to allocate standby forces and assets and to commit them in the event of a threat arising to the SCO as a whole or to any of its members; and
  • patterns of cooperation with other organizations on security and any other issues of common concern.

It is also reasonable to lay down rules for monitoring the sources of threats, sharing information, and making and fulfilling decisions by the relevant agencies of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

Having done this job, the team of military advisers will have its hands and minds free to serve as the core of a Cooperation Coordinating Committee (Staff Committee) or another authority providing C2 capabilities over forces and assets placed in its responsibility. Whatever its name, the new authority must be capable of getting its assignments fulfilled.


1. Voyenno-promyshlenniy kur’yer, # 39 (605), October 14-20, 2015.

2. Rosstyskaya gazeta, October 20, 2015.

3. Ibid.

4. Voyenno-promyshlenniy kur’yer, # 39 (605), October 14-20, 2015.

5. URL: http://www.paruskg.info/2014/02/27/95579 (Retrieved on October 19, 2015.)

6. URL: http://www.belvpo.com/ru/36158.html (Retrieved on October 19, 2015.)

7. URL: http://ukrsekta.info/2006/06/21/sekty_protiv_islama.html (Retrieved on October 19, 2015.)

8. Nezavisimaya gaze ta, October 19, 2015.

9. Ibid.

10. URL: http://www.ritmeurasia.org/–autor–olga–syelkova-517 (Retrieved on October 19, 2015.)

11. URL: http://www.ritmeurasia.org/news-2014-04-21-shos-i-nasuschnye-problemy-bezopasnosti-centralnoj-azii-12366#8?print=l?print=1 (Retrieved on October 19, 2015.)

12. URL: http://www.regnum.ru/news/1723646.html#ixzz2pFRfVOmx (Retrieved on October 19,2015.)

13. Charter of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Article 1.

14. Voyenno-promyshlenniy kur’yer, # 39 (605), October 14-20, 2015.

15. URL: http://www.thehindu.com/news/international/world/china-says-new-silk-road-needssco-security (Retrieved on October 19, 2015.)

16. Shorthand Record of the Full-Strength Session of the Council of the SCO Member States’ Heads of State. URL: http://www.kremlin.ru/catalog/persons/351/events/49908 (Retrieved on October 19, 2015.)

17. For more, see: A.F. Klimenko, Strategiya razvitiya Shankhayskoy organizatsiyi sotrudnichestva: problemy oborony i bezopasnosti [The Shanghai Cooperation Organization: Defense and Security Issues], RAS Institute for Far Eastern Studies, Moscow, 2009, 348 pp.

Translated by Gennady Khmelev