16 May 2007
SAARC: Afghanistan comes in from the cold
Afghanistan enters the SAARC bloc as a much-needed bridge between South and Central Asia in terms of trade and security and defense cooperation.
By Sudeshna Sarkar in Kathmandu
In the 1990s, it was known as the country ruled by the Taliban, the hardline Islamic group that re-imposed the veil and other restrictions on women and destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas, two priceless pre-Islamic statues regarded as part of the world's cultural heritage.
In the next decade, it became the land bombed by the US and allied forces in search of Osama bin Laden, believed to be the mastermind of the September 2001 terrorist attacks in New York City.
This year, Afghanistan, occupying a strategic position between South and Central Asia, has acquired yet another identity as the newest member of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC).
Though Afghanistan had expressed its desire to join the grouping since 1985 - when SAARC came into being with seven members - Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka - political instability and civil war kept it isolated.
Last year, at the 13th SAARC summit – the meeting of the heads of the seven member states – a somewhat more stable Afghanistan's request was finally approved. At the 14th SAARC summit, held in New Delhi, Afghan President Hamid Karzai took part as the eighth member country representative.
On the eve of the Delhi summit, Afghan Foreign Minister Rangeen Dadfar Spanta said Afghanistan's accession to SAARC would "certainly open new opportunities for all." Kabul, he said, would focus on trans-border transport networks, energy corridors and free flow of people and ideas within the region as a member of SAARC.
Advantages for the bloc
Though Afghanistan was already a member of groups such as the Economic Cooperation Organization and Organization of Islamic Conference, SAARC is the first bloc of contiguous countries to which it has been admitted. Besides a 2430-kilometer border with Pakistan, the landlocked country also borders China and Iran .
With both China and Iran also being given a berth in SAARC as observers, ties between the 10 countries are likely to deepen. Welcoming Afghanistan into the SAARC fold, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said it was "an appropriate recognition of the long-standing ties of culture and history that Afghanistan shares with us."
Besides ending its isolation and beginning a process of regional integration, Afghanistan's SAARC entry can translate into several tangible advantages for the bloc.
For starters, Afghanistan's SAARC membership could mean a major energy gain for the bloc. Though South Asia's energy needs are growing exponentially, there is little energy trade within the region or with energy-rich Central and West Asia. Afghanistan could become the key transit for energy, providing a route for imports of hydropower from Central Asia and gas from Central Asia and Iran.
The World Bank recommends building two initial regional energy trading hubs: "The first at the western flank of the region, comprising Afghanistan, Pakistan and northwestern India as importing markets, trading with Central and Western Asia; the second at the eastern flank of the region, comprising India [as the main importing market], Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka."
Afghanistan itself has natural gas reserves estimated to be nearly 100 billion cubic meters. Currently, it produces about 20 million cubic meters per year, all of it consumed internally.
The latest SAARC summit pledged greater connectivity and an upgraded transport system. The Asian Development Bank has completed a study on building inter-linked road corridors and an integrated multi-modal transport system in the region. With Afghanistan's inclusion, the heads of SAARC states have now asked for the study to be extended to the new member.
Once updated, the SAARC Inter-Governmental Group on Transport will identify and develop sub-regional and regional projects and draft appropriate regional agreements with the goal of building a series of corridors linking South Asia and eventually the bloc with Central and West Asia.
India, Afghanistan and Iran, have an agreement in place for the development of over 200 kilometers of highway linking the Afghan town of Delaram with Zaranj in Iran.
Improved connectivity will boost regional trade.
At present, SAARC intra-regional trade is less than 2 percent of GDP. This is due to a higher level of protectionism within the region than with the rest of the world, which makes trading across borders expensive.
To address that, SAARC members have signed a trade agreement that envisions the creation of a free trade zone with zero customs duty on virtually all products.
The South Asian Free Trade Area agreement pledges to complete the customs duty reduction by 2012, though the least developed nations in the bloc – Afghanistan, Nepal, Bhutan and Maldives – will have an extra three years to slash tariffs.
The trade pact will give Afghanistan access to a much wider market with preferential trading arrangements. Currently, Kabul's largest export markets are the US, India and Pakistan .The main commodities are fruits and nuts, hand-woven carpets, wool, cotton, hides and pelts and precious and semi-precious gems.
Support to fight the drug trade
However, the commodity that accounts for nearly 60 percent of the economy is the illicit cultivation of poppy, from which opium is derived. Afghanistan is the world's largest producer of opium, the raw ingredient for heroin. Between 80 and 90 percent of the heroin circulating through Europe comes from Afghan opium.
Though the levels of drug trade decreased under the Taliban, it has grown rapidly since the regime's ouster. According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime in Vienna, in 2006, about 6,100 tonnes of opium was produced - 33 times the amount grown under the Taliban government.
Its admission into SAARC will give the Karzai government support to fight the drug trade as well as a related menace, insurgency and militancy, said to be often funded by the drug trade.
SAARC members have signed a series of conventions to combat terrorism, narcotics and psychotropic substances, trafficking in women and children and other trans-national crimes. They have also signed an additional protocol to the terrorism convention that aims at preventing and suppressing financing of terrorism.
The conventions help members adopt the same principles, draw up appropriate legislation and share information and strategy. There is also a move to create a SAARCPol, an intra-regional police force.
But all this is not going to fructify overnight. In its 22 years of existence, SAARC has not met many of its goals, mostly due to saber-rattling between its two nuclear-armed neighbors, India and Pakistan. Even on the eve of the summit, when the SAARC commerce ministers met in Kathmandu to discuss the free trade agreement, developments were held up with India warning that New Delhi might withdraw the most favored nation status accorded to Pakistan if it did not reciprocate.
However, the very fact that the member countries are now willing to sit and talk is regarded as a big step forward. As the World Bank sees it, "SAARC could play a major role in helping build mutual trust, develop regional institutions and physical infrastructure, and partner with development organizations."
Other blocs like ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) and the EU are interested in interacting with SAARC.
On the eve of the Dehli summit, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, European Commissioner for External Relations and European Neighborhood Policy, said the EU saw itself as a "natural partner in all efforts at reinforcing regional cooperation, people-to-people contacts and trade liberalization in South Asia, which will bring benefits to all."
"In recent years, the EU has turned its attention to building a common European foreign, security and defense policy," she said. "We realize that by working together more effectively, we can better fulfill our potential and contribute to solving global and regional issues."
Sudeshna Sarkar is ISN Security Watch's senior correspondent in Nepal.
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