Central Asia group seeks bigger Afghanistan role

Central Asian states meeting in Beijing this week say they want a role in stabilizing Afghanistan after most U.S. combat troops leave at the end of 2014, with China's economic juggernaut leading the charge.

The war-torn nation's future is expected to feature prominently in discussions by leaders of the six nations that make up the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. The bloc, which includes China, Russia, and four Central Asian states, seeks closer security and economic ties among its members, most prominently through regular meetings and joint military exercises targeting separatists, religious extremists and drug traffickers.

In comments published Wednesday in the ruling Communist Party's flagship newspaper, the People's Daily, Chinese President Hu Jintao outlined a broad plan for the SCO's future role as the region's pre-eminent grouping, while firmly rejecting outside meddling.

"We will continue to follow the concept that regional affairs should be managed by countries in the region, that we should guard against shocks from turbulence outside the region, and should play a bigger role in Afghanistan's peaceful reconstruction," Hu said.

How they plan to do so remains a question. The SCO has yet to declare a unified strategy on Afghanistan and shows little sign of filling the void left by the withdrawal of U.S. and other foreign forces.

Member nations Russia, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan are doing their part to ensure an orderly withdrawal, having agreed to allow the reverse transport of alliance equipment after Pakistan shut down southern supply routes six months ago.

The fourth Central Asian member of the SCO is Tajikistan.

The pullout will also prompt the end of military operations out of Kyrgyzstan's Manas air base, meeting China and Russia's oft-stated objections to a permanent U.S. presence in Central Asia.

While the SCO's security plans in Afghanistan remain unclear, economic outreach looks set to lead the way.

China — which shares a small stretch of border with Afghanistan — is the most dynamic economy in the region and its firms have already moved into Afghanistan. Kabul is hoping exploitation of its vast untapped mineral deposits will help offset the loss of revenue when foreign aid and spending drops with the withdrawal of international combat troops.

The U.S. Defense Department has put a $1 trillion price tag on Afghanistan's mineral reserves. Other estimates have pegged it at $3 trillion or more.

In December, China's state-owned National Petroleum Corp. signed a deal allowing it to become the first foreign company to exploit Afghanistan's oil and natural gas reserves. That comes three years after the China Metallurgical Construction Co. signed a contract to develop the Aynak copper mine in Logar province. Beijing's $3.5 billion stake in the mine is the largest foreign investment in Afghanistan.

China's government has also contributed substantial aid to Afghanistan over the past decade in the form training and equipment for some security units and government offices, infrastructure investment, and scholarships for Afghan students.

Russia, which lost nearly 15,000 troops in its disastrous 1979-1989 invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, appears keen to recover some of its lost influence there. Stemming the flow of heroin into Russia is a key concern to be met by increased intelligence work in the country and bolstered border security in surrounding states.

Moscow also has offered generous assistance to rehabilitate Soviet-era dams and power stations and is exploring natural gas exploitation and infrastructure contracts — putting it on a potential collision course with China.

Joint participation in the SCO might help paper over some of those differences, but practical cooperation remains elusive.

"China and Russia have no joint approach to Afghanistan. Cooperation is basically limited to a common political stance," said Zhao Huasheng, director of the Center for Russia and Central Asia Studies of Fudan University in Shanghai.