Afghanistan Joins World's Largest Regional
By Breffni O'Rourke
Radio Free Europe /
April 3, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The South Asian
Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) has
opened its annual summit in New Delhi, where, with
Afghan President Hamid Karzai in attendance,
Afghanistan became its eighth member.
Karzai and Foreign Minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta
are in the Indian capital for the two-day summit on
Spanta addressed foreign ministers of the group at
a meeting on April 2.
RFE/RL's bureau chief in Kabul, Amin Mudaqiq, said
Spanta laid out Afghanistan's expectations from the
"The Afghan foreign minister, speaking to this
forum, said that Afghanistan will seek foreign
investment in the country, that Afghanistan will offer
transit facilities between the South and Central Asian
countries and, most importantly, that Afghanistan will
seek help from the SAARC member countries to join
counterterrorism circles," Mudaqiq reported.
But South Asian analyst Sukh Dev Muni added a note
of caution, saying that not all of the group's members
appear equally interested in combating terrorism. He
did not name any specific country, but the barb could
be aimed at Pakistan.
"The real problem is again political," Dev Muni
said. "If some of the countries use terrorism as a
means of achieving a strategic policy goal, then they
would not want to suppress it."
SAARC is the most populous regional grouping in the
world, with some 1.47 billion people represented.
Founded in 1985 at the initiative of Bangladeshi
President Ziaur Rahman, it comprises India, Pakistan,
Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, the Maldives, Bangladesh,
and now Afghanistan.
Originally conceived as an engine of regional
integration, rather like the European Union, the SAARC
has become little more than a forum for annual talks
among regional leaders. That is partly blamed on a
rivalry between the two regional powers -- India and
Pakistan -- which has prevented broad agreement on
many political and economic issues.
"I think the lack of political will on the part of
the countries in the grouping -- India and Pakistan --
[stems] not only from the conflict between them, but
also [from the fact that] neither could be sure
whether regional integration would cater to their
demands," Dev Muni said.
But even at the level of a discussion forum, RFE/RL's
Akbar noted, SAARC can be useful to Afghanistan and
can contribute to regional stability.
"There have been complaints [by Afghanistan] about
the cross-border infiltration from Pakistan," Mudaqiq
said, "so, as Pakistan is a SAARC member country,
Kabul will try to use the forum of SAARC to solve this
problem, and at the least will seek to enlist the help
of other SAARC states to start a constructive dialogue
Despite its scant record of achievement,
international interest in SAARC runs high. The United
States, the European Union, China, Japan, and South
Korea all either have observer status with the
organization or have applied for it.
Iran has applied for full membership of SAARC, but
it is considered unlikely to be offered to join until
the international row over the Iranian nuclear program
The European Commission says in an overview
statement on its relations with SAARC that it is
currently designing a broader program of cooperation
with the grouping, aimed at raising awareness of the
benefits of regional cooperation and promoting
business networking among SAARC members.
In one concrete development, after 14 years of
effort the group is implementing a free-trade zone
this year, within which all member states are reducing
import duties by 20 percent.