12 May 2004 (RFE/RL) -- More than two years after the fall of the Taliban, war-ravaged Afghanistan is still struggling to stand on its feet.
Last month in Berlin, the international community pledged aid to the country totaling some $8.2 billion over the next three years.
A three-day regional conference held this week in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek looked at alternative ways to help Afghanistan. The forum, which ended today with the signing of a joint declaration, focused on ways that countries in the region could reduce trade barriers, enhance transport infrastructure, and streamline border systems.
Government representatives from Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan and the five Central Asian states all attended the conference, which was initiated by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and conducted with the participation of the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, and the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO).
"We agree on 90 percent of the issues, disagree on 10 percent, and devote all our energies to saying how we should reach a 100 percent agreement." -- Afghan Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani
The UNDP said the forum was an opportunity to enhance trust-building dialogue between the countries of the region, and urged Afghanistan's neighbors to put their traditional rivalries aside.
Afghan Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani agreed. He called on participants to outline what he called "modest, practical, and implementable" action plans to smooth out obstacles in the way of cross-border trade and transit.
"We cannot do everything simultaneously," Ghani said. "We must focus. You know what's the difference between us and the Europeans? Europeans disagree 90 percent of the time and agree on 10 percent, and then devote all their energies to implementing that 10 percent. We agree on 90 percent of the issues, disagree on 10 percent, and devote all our energies to saying how we should reach a 100 percent agreement. It's not the way to do business."
Participants said concerns over security are delaying development of deeper trade ties. They agreed, however, that the region overall cannot develop successfully without a stable and prosperous Afghanistan.
Ghani insisted that restrictive trade policies were the main barrier to boosting economic cooperation. He pointed out that development in Afghanistan could help bolster security across the region at a time when fears of Islamic extremism are rising.
Norullo Delevari, a representative of the Afghan Agency for Foreign Investment, told RFE/RL he is optimistic about future economic cooperation in the region.
"Afghanistan just joined the ECO countries. To us, ECO means a hope that this region could unify its economic activities and benefit from each other's experience," Delevari said. "Europe, North America, and Southeast Asia are developing strategies so that they will strengthen their economies to compete effectively. In order for [our region] to effectively use its resources and participate in the world economy [we've] got to find ways to move forward together."
There are numerous opportunities for economic cooperation within the region, as Afghanistan is in need of nearly everything and aiming to spend billions of dollars on reconstruction projects in the coming years.
Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev said there was no shortage to the potential partnerships.
"Central Asian countries have huge resources -- hydroelectricity, coal and ferrous metals, as well as transportation and communication networks," Akaev said. "We have great opportunities to participate in joint projects in Afghanistan in many spheres."
Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan could export hydroelectric power to Afghanistan, where only a small minority of the population has access to electricity. Afghanistan has a huge demand for qualified workers and specialists to reconstruct and develop the infrastructure. It is also a potentially convenient route to the sea for export goods such as hydrocarbons and cotton.
Isroil Makhmudov, Tajikistan's deputy economy minister, told RFE/RL that "Tajikistan is ready to send humanitarian aid to Afghanistan and to help it in other ways. We can cooperate in the health, education, and cultural spheres. Afghan youth can study in Tajik universities in their native language and without much expense. There are [also] many opportunities in the energy sector. We continue to export electricity to Afghanistan. We can increase [these exports] to 2 billion kilowatts an hour this summer. We have opportunities to cooperate on the establishment of the electricity system in Afghanistan," Makhmudov said.
But Kyrgyz Prime Minister Nikolai Tanayev said such regional partnerships could only go so far. He said the many donor countries that have promised assistance to Afghanistan must honor their pledges.
"Unfortunately, it must be noted that some of the more than 50 donor countries are not fulfilling their obligations entirely, and consequently, some of the projects are not yet realized," Tanayev said.
Tanayev said Afghanistan has received far less aid than other countries in need over the past two years.
(RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service Director Tyntchtykbek Tchoroev and Mirzo Salimov from the Tajik Service contributed to this report.)