Afghan President Hamid Karzai opened a regional economic conference Sunday with a pitch for closer cooperation, casting his country's fragile new stability after decades of war as a crucial chance to boost trade and growth.
Greeting officials from 12 nearby nations at a two-day meeting co-chaired by Britain, Karzai expressed satisfaction "that Afghanistan now is peaceful and stable enough to host its neighbors and its friends and countries in the region." "Afghanistan is privileged and happy to have the opportunity, after 30 years of suffering, to consider itself a partner, a contributor though in a very small way to the economic growth of the region," he said.
Karzai said political interests have dictated for decades other nations' relations with Afghanistan, whose people suffered as pawns in power games played by neighbors and outsiders, ranging from the Cold War superpowers to al-Qaida. "Today, my appeal to you is to take a different look at Afghanistan, to take an economic look at Afghanistan," he said. "Afghanistan's roads, Afghanistan's airports, Afghanistan's borders are totally at your disposal for economic activity."
Karzai said neighboring countries have already enjoyed a peace dividend since the ouster of the hard-line Taliban in 2001 citing huge increases in their exports to Afghanistan, and calling for more.
The conference brought officials from the six nations bordering Afghanistan Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran, Pakistan and China as well as India, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.
Karzai offered Afghanistan as a conduit for regional trade and a market for energy and skilled labor to fuel its reconstruction efforts. The country is buying electricity from several neighbors and will need to import it for at least a decade, he said.
British Foreign Office Minister Kim Howells said cooperation is crucial for the region. He said Afghanistan has made "dramatic progress" since 2001 and called the conference "a wonderful opportunity to put this part of the world back on the world map" but he warned that concrete plans and hard work are needed.
Afghanistan is still plagued by violence, with a Taliban-led insurgency that has left nearly 1,500 people dead this year. Political and border disputes have hampered relations in the region, and some countries have been slow to implement economic reforms.
Global capital is "looking for security, predictability and consistency, and we have to think about that at this conference," Howells said, suggesting the region's nations need to improve security and business climates.
He said foreign investment in Afghanistan has reached nearly US$1 billion (Ђ855 million) and is likely to keep rising, but that its "licit export remains fairly limited" despite resources including water and iron ore.
Afghanistan is the world's largest supplier of opium and heroin, its major exports. Both Howells and Karzai said battling the drug trade and other organized crime in the region is crucial to security and economic development, reported AP. P.T.