Officials from the 10 member countries of the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO) are gathering in the western Afghan city of Herat today for the five-day conference continuing through October 20. The organization brings together Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Iran, Pakistan, Turkey, and the five former Soviet republics of Central Asia.
The Council of Ministers meeting of the ECO takes place each year. But for Afghanistan, hosting the conference represents a step toward normalcy after decades of war: a gathering of senior governmental officials from across the region who will discuss how they can work together for the prosperity of their people.
RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan spoke to Afghan Foreign Ministry spokesman Sultan Ahmad Beheen today in Herat as he and other Afghan officials were finalizing preparations for the event. Beheen explained that deputy foreign ministers and other high ranking officials will meet during the first days of the conference, to be followed by the foreign ministers' meeting on October 20. “That is when the deputy foreign ministers will present their conclusions to the foreign ministers for approval. At this meeting, economic issues, trade, transportation, and other issues of regional cooperation will be discussed,” Beheen said.
Beheen says he hopes the ministers also will discuss an international donors' fund that has been opened to promote the reconstruction of Afghanistan.
For Kabul's part, Beheen says officials will be promoting Afghanistan's potential as a future regional hub for trade and transportation between the Middle East, Central Asia, and South Asia.
“The policy that we have been following is to promote regional cooperation. We want Afghanistan to be a bridge between the Asian countries. If you look at the map, in principle, we have already achieved this goal," Beheen said. "Just in the area of transit and transportation -- and if we also consider energy transit -- all of this can go through Afghanistan. And all of this is important -- not only from an economic point of view, but also from the point of view of security and social development. This is a golden opportunity for Afghanistan.”
U.S. government officials specializing in agriculture are expected to attend the event as observers. Also attending are representatives of international organizations like the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, the Islamic Development Bank, and several UN organizations.
Beheen said security has been bolstered in Herat ahead of the event to prevent possible attacks by Taliban militants. He added that more than 2,500 additional police from the Afghan National Police force have been deployed in Herat.
The ECO Council of Ministers last met in Baku in 2006. Heads of State from member countries are scheduled to gather in Pakistan in 2008 for the ECO summit.
(RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Sharafuddin Stanakzai in Herat and Radio Free Afghanistan's Hasheem Mohmand in Prague contributed to this report.)