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South Asia: Afghanistan Joins World's Largest Regional Grouping

Afghan President Karzai (left) along with the Pakistani and South Korean foreign ministers today in New Delhi (AFP) 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.

RFE/RL's Broadcast Countries

RFE/RL's Broadcast Countries

A boy sells balloons in Kabul because he is unable to go to school (epa)

A BLEAK PICTURE: Below, HRW experts comment on the human rights situations in some of RFE/RL's broadcast countries.

Human Rights Watch's Asia Research Director Sam Zarifi, speaking about Afghanistan:

"The Taliban have been using increasingly brutal tactics such as suicide bombings and attacking soft targets, such as health clinics and schools. The attacks on schools have been particularly vicious. More than 200,000 children who were in school last year have not been able to go to school this year. We've seen over 130 schools attacked. The resulting fear, of course, has caused a huge amount of resentment, especially in southern Afghanistan, because ordinary Afghans feel that President [Hamid] Karzai and his international backers are not able to support them and provide them what they need.
Basic reconstruction and development throughout the south has essentially come to a halt in many areas. The situation is not just bad in the south, however. In the north and in the west of the country, warlords -- many of them ostensibly allied with the government - have also used the threat of the Taliban and the weakness of the international community and President Karzai to re-entrench themselves and so Human Rights Watch has been documenting numerous instances of land grabs, political oppression and rampant human rights abuses by these warlords, many of whom are also involved in the drug trade."

Giorgi Gogia, of Human Rights Watch's Caucasus Office, speaking about Georgia:

"Georgia, in late 2005, announced a reform of its criminal justice system and started a rigorous fight against organized crime, particularly against the power of organized crime bosses. While this move is certainly commendable, this had some negative consequences, particularly overcrowding in prisons and abuse of power by some police or law enforcement structures. Overcrowding is particularly a big problem in Georgian prisons, considering that they are very poorly ventilated, filthy, and prisoners very often receive inadequate nutrition and substantive medical care."

Rachel Denber, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Europe and Central Asia division, speaking about Kyrgyzstan:

"In September, Human Rights Watch released a report that documented the poor state response to domestic violence and bride kidnapping for forced marriage in Kyrgyzstan. Our main finding, which I think is consonant with the conclusions of Kyrgyz human rights organizations, is that the authorities just allow for impunity for domestic violence and kidnapping for forced marriage."

Rachel Denber, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Europe and Central Asia division, speaking about Turkmenistan:

"Turkmenistan is one of the world's most repressive and closed countries. The authorities severely suppress all forms of dissent and they absolutely isolate the population from the outside world. The president, who just passed away on December 21, President Saparmurat Niyazov, had declared himself president for life. He presided over a massive and grotesque cult of personality. This year, due to international pressure, the government reduced some harassment of followers of minority religions; they released several people from psychiatric institutions, where they had been forcibly detained as a measure of punishment. And they allowed one dissident to travel abroad. But otherwise, 2006 was as disastrous as every other year for human rights in Turkmenistan."

Rachel Denber, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Europe and Central Asia division, speaking about Uzbekistan:

"2006 was one of the worst years for human rights in Uzbekistan in the 15 years since Uzbekistan's independence from the Soviet Union. There has still been no justice for the massacre that happened in May 2005 in Andijon, in Uzbekistan, during which government troops fired on mostly unarmed protestors -- no justice for that whatsoever. And the Uzbek government has continuously rejected all efforts to have an international, independent investigation of the massacre. The government crackdown on human rights defenders, independent journalists, and political activists, is the fiercest we have ever seen in Uzbekistan, since independence."