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South Asia: Afghanistan Joins Pakistan In Regional Organization

Afghan President Hamid Karzai (left) meets with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in New Delhi on April 2 (AFP) April 4, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) completed its 14th summit today in New Delhi with pledges of greater cooperation between member states, despite some doubts whether those promises will materialize into concrete action.

South Asian leaders meeting at the SAARC summit urged the regional economic group today to move beyond words and start taking action toward its goals.

Promises To Reality

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh says SAARC needs to seize the initiative of "economic vibrancy and social change" under way within the group's eight member countries.

"The only way Afghanistan can benefit from this economic cooperation and transit facilities is via Pakistan. Pakistan keeps tight restrictions on the transit [of goods] and economic exchange."

"The time has come to move SAARC from a declaratory phase to action and implementation," he said. "If we can complete work on the tools we need -- such as the SAARC development fund -- and work realistically with each other, there is no reason why we cannot translate the vision of our charter into a solid reality."

SAARC, formed in 1985, aims to promote economic integration, free trade, and cultural links between the nearly 1.5 billion people within its member countries of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. Afghanistan became the eighth member this week when SAARC expanded for the first time.

But analysts say progress toward SAARC's goals has been crippled by tensions and mistrust between India and Pakistan. They say it also has been hampered by domestic conflicts, political instability, and other regional disputes between members.

Agreement On Pipeline

However, despite the tensions between India and Pakistan, Islamabad and New Delhi today renewed their commitment to build a controversial pipeline that would supply Iranian natural gas to both countries.

Amin Mudaqiq is an RFE/RL Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent at the summit. He says a call for action made on April 3 by Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz has been greeted with skepticism from political analysts.

"I don't think that these words, coming particularly from the weak leaders on the Pakistani side, will come into practice," he said. "Shaukat Aziz is, as the Pakistani press puts it, a figurehead or a rubber-stamp prime minister. He does not have that much power to influence these Pakistani generals and Pervez Musharraf to change these words into deeds. There is doubt."

Afghan President Hamid Karzai was scheduled to meet today with Aziz on the sidelines of the summit. Reports suggest Karzai wants to develop economic cooperation with Islamabad in a way that allows Afghan traders to do more business with India.

The talks between Karzai and Aziz follow an announcement by Singh that trade barriers for other SAARC members will soon be lifted.

"I am happy to announce that we will allow duty free access to India before the end of this year to other South Asian neighbors who are least developed countries and further reduce the 'sensitive' list in regard to these countries," he said.

Pakistani Cooperation?

But Mudaqiq says most analysts at the summit do not expect Afghanistan to benefit from India's announcement because its overland trade routes with India pass through Pakistan.

"The observers here and analysts here think that Afghanistan may not get much from the SAARC summit if Pakistan does not cooperate," he said. "That's because the only way Afghanistan can benefit from this economic cooperation and transit facilities is via Pakistan. Pakistan keeps tight restrictions on the transit [of goods] and economic exchange."

Aziz said at the summit that Pakistan has done a lot to help Afghanistan and will continue to do so. The Pakistani premier also says it is in the interest of both Kabul and Islamabad to have a peaceful Afghanistan.

Major powers such as China, the European Union, Japan, South Korea, and the United States attended the SAARC summit as observers.

Iran has been given preliminary approval to join SAARC as an observer, despite rising tensions between Tehran and the West over Iran's nuclear program. Tehran has applied to become a SAARC member.