Afghanistan Joins World's Largest Regional Grouping

By Breffni O'Rourke
Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

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 April 3-4.

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 organization.

"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.

Competing Agendas?

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 with Pakistan."

Widespread Interest

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 is resolved.

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.

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