The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan poses three specific sets of challenges for the OSCE and its participating States: instability in Afghanistan; the resultant threats to regional security and stability, especially for the three Central Asian OSCE participating States that border Afghanistan—Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan—and for Russia; and the impact of the evolving local and regional situations on the entire OSCE area and relations among OSCE participating States and hence the ability of the Organisation to develop an approach to Afghanistan in line with its mandate for comprehensive and cooperative security.
Afghanistan was granted the status of an OSCE Partner for Co-operation in 2003, based on a joint understanding that the then (transitional) government of Afghanistan was fully committed to the principles, values, and goals of the OSCE. During the following years, OSCE security concerns were related to the threats posed by illicit drugs, organised crime, and extremism emanating from Afghanistan.
Following the launch of the Istanbul Process on regional security and co-operation for a secure and stable Afghanistan in November 2011 and in light of the commitments made at the International Afghanistan Conference in Bonn in December 2011, the Vilnius Ministerial Council of the OSCE noted “the importance of regional co-operation between Afghanistan and the OSCE participating States in Central Asia, and of the essential role of these participating States in helping to promote long-term security and stability in Afghanistan” and tasked “the Secretary General and executive structures with continuing ongoing projects and programmes of co-operation between the OSCE and Afghanistan and with developing a new package of activities across all three dimensions of security”.
The commitments expressed in Vilnius also resulted in expanding border management projects to build and strengthen Afghan capacity “to prevent the movement of terrorist individuals or groups through effective border controls” and in ODIHR continuing its support for elections in Afghanistan.
Taking stock of OSCE engagement with Afghanistan in 2020, the Tirana Ministerial Council highlighted “the role the OSCE has played in supporting Afghanistan in combating transnational threats through border and customs management training, with a particular focus on countering terrorism, trafficking in drugs and illicit trafficking in cultural property”, while also affirming “the importance of supporting efforts to ease barriers to trade between Afghanistan and its neighbours, which will boost economic growth in Afghanistan and the broader region.”
While the OSCE, thus, has engaged with Afghanistan across all three dimensions of its comprehensive security concept, projects were generally of limited size and scale and primarily conducted in neighbouring participating States, e.g., in the OSCE Academy in Bishkek, the OSCE Border Management Staff College in Dushanbe, and in cooperation with the five field operations in Central Asia. This is a result of the reluctance of OSCE participating States to commit to out-of-area projects, including on the territory of its Partners for Cooperation, the limited financial scope that the OSCE has, and the fact that the Organisation, as a relatively marginal security actor in the Afghanistan context, is dependent on cooperation with other regional and international organisations, which is not without its problems. There have long been different views on working with the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) and the Russia- and China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). At the same time, the long-term presence of other organisations, such as UNAMA, is uncertain.
The OSCE track record of engagement with Afghanistan may be slim and lacking in sustainable successes. What is perhaps even more important, however, is that most, if not all, of the OSCE’s previous partners in the country—in government agencies, civil society organisations, etc.—are unlikely to remain in post under the new regime or necessarily be permitted to continue their engagement with the OSCE. Afghan state officials, students and civil society activists who have participated in OSCE activities must fear for their lives. The insecurities in Afghanistan resulting from the Taliban takeover threaten neighbouring states. This severely constrains the OSCE’s ability to do much about the first of the three challenges, namely instability in Afghanistan. This was obvious from the first joint official statement by OSCE Chairperson-in-Office, Swedish Minister for Foreign Affairs Ann Linde, OSCE Secretary General Helga Maria Schmid, and Director of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) Matteo Mecacci, on 25 August 2021, which noted that the situation in Afghanistan is critical to the security and stability of participating States in the Central Asian region but offered nothing concrete on how “the OSCE’s continued support, in line with OSCE commitments and principles, towards ensuring the security, stability, and safety of all people in Afghanistan, the region and beyond” would materialise. The delegations’ rather general statements at the Annual Security Review Conference in Vienna on 31 August and 1 September confirmed this impression.
In terms of a response to the resultant threats to regional security and stability, this means that the OSCE and its participating States will have to profoundly rethink their Afghanistan-related efforts. One option is to focus on managing the emerging humanitarian crisis and possible spill-over threats through engagement in and with Afghanistan’s Central Asian neighbours and cooperation with other actors who will retain a presence and some influence in Afghanistan. Above all, this will involve supporting Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan in managing likely refugee flows. Given the incomplete evacuation of individuals who cooperated with US and allied forces or worked for previous Afghan governments, this will involve processing such individuals and their families and managing their transit. However, if the political and security situation in a Taliban-run Afghanistan deteriorates further, large-scale displacement of people more generally is likely. This would then require assisting Central Asian participating States with hosting such refugee populations, possibly for significant periods of time, and of course in cooperation with governments, donors and the specialised international agencies.
If current efforts to form, and subsequently sustain, an inclusive government in Afghanistan fail, it is also likely that violent conflict will resume, for example between a reconstituted Northern Alliance and the Taliban, as a result of factional strife among Taliban forces, or because of major armed conflict between the Taliban, the Islamic State and other Islamist movements.
Moreover, as the fluid situation around the mostly ethnic Tajik-populated Panjshir Valley indicates, potentially protracted resistance to Taliban rule cannot be excluded either. With Tajiks the second largest population group in Afghanistan (approximately 8 million people, or 20-25 per cent of the country’s population), their treatment is of significant concern to neighbouring Tajikistan, and has already prompted the current Tajik president, Emomali Rahmon, to call for an ethnically inclusive government in Kabul.
Continuing instability and violence would put additional pressure on Central Asian participating States of the OSCE and pose a serious danger of conflict spill-over into the region. Enhancing border security, will therefore be a major challenge. The OSCE could contribute here, based on its experience with capacity building and training activities in Central Asia and monitoring in Eastern Europe, to improving border protection and monitoring flows across borders. A related challenge will be maintaining security in refugee camps.
The possibility, and success, of regional efforts by the OSCE to contribute to managing the fall-outs from likely humanitarian and security crises in Afghanistan will depend first of all on future commitments by important participating States to keep significantly engaged in the region. There are still no clear indications of this coming from the West. It will also depend on their readiness to provide the necessary resources and on their consent for relevant initiatives both bilaterally and through regional and international organisations such as the OSCE. This might prove an additional challenge for the Organisation. Ongoing and latent disputes between Central Asian participating States are unlikely to provide a conducive environment for the necessary intra-regional cooperation. This is potentially further complicated by the fact that both Russia (which has a significant military presence in the region) and China (which so far has promoted the idea of positive engagement with the Taliban, including in an August 19 phone call with British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab) have their own interests in the region, managed through bilateral relations with individual countries there, including Afghanistan.
Similarly to Russian efforts to stabilise individual Central Asian states, the United States, too, has announced plans to strengthen border management facilities at the Tajik-Afghan-Uzbek border. These types of activities happen outside the OSCE context. If carefully coordinated, the OSCE response to the crisis in Afghanistan could, nonetheless, complement them. However, in light of the seriously strained relations between the US (and its Western allies), Russia, and China, there is also the double danger of an OSCE additionally paralysed by internal tensions and Afghanistan becoming another geopolitical battleground.
The crisis in and around of Afghanistan is neither of the OSCE’s making, nor is it its core business, but it poses another significant challenge to an Organisation already under strain. Ultimately, it will be up to participating States to decide whether and how they will make use of the OSCE’s considerable expertise and allow the Organisation to contribute its fair share to dealing with a regional crisis that, if left unchecked, will continue to pose significant threats to the OSCE region. These threats are likely to grow, while the OSCE’s ability to help in containing them can only decrease, not least because its credibility as a comprehensive security actor in the eyes of key partners among its Asian Partners and other regional and international organisations will be diminished.