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South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and Taliban

South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and Taliban 

CONTEXT:

  • A meeting of foreign ministers from the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) countries, which was set to be held in New York, has been cancelled.

Issue of participation of Afghanistan:

  • Member states were unable to agree upon the participation of Afghanistan, with Pakistan and India in particular at loggerheads over the issue.

  • Pakistan’s objection: To the participation of any official from the previous Ghani administration

  • Empty chair: SAARC members reportedly agreed to keep an “empty chair” as a symbolic representation of Afghanistan.

  • Taliban: However, Islamabad later insisted that the Taliban be allowed to send its representative to the summit, a notion that all of the other member states rejected.

  • After no consensus could be formed, Nepal, the ‘host’ of the summit, officially cancelled the meeting.

Reasons for objection of Taliban Participation:

  • The Taliban has not been recognised as the official government of Afghanistan by any SAARC countries barring Pakistan.

  • Several top Taliban leaders are blacklisted by the US and/or designated as international terrorists.

  • Senior leaders who are not blacklisted are known for supporting terrorist activities or affiliating with terrorist organisations.

  • Allowing Taliban to represent Afghanistan in SAARC would legitimise the group and serve as a formal recognition of their right to govern.

  • India, have openly questioned their legitimacy.

  • At the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation meet, PM Modi referred to the Taliban as a non-inclusive government.

  • SAARC members are deeply aware of the threat of spillover terrorism from Afghanistan under the Taliban regime.

  • PM Modi stated that “developments in Afghanistan could lead to uncontrolled flow of drugs, illegal weapons and human trafficking.”

South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC)

SAARC:

  • SAARC is a regional inter-governmental organisation of South Asian countries.

  • Members: India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

  • Afghanistan joined the bloc in 2007, under its then President Hamid Karzai.

  • SAARC also includes nine formally recognised observers including the European Union, the US, Iran and China.

Historical Background of SAARC:

  • USSR Afghan Invasion: After the USSR invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the security situation in South Asia rapidly deteriorated.

  • In response, the foreign ministers of South Asian nations met in Colombo in 1981.

  • Bangladesh proposed forming a regional association that would meet to discuss matters such as security and trade.

    • While most of the countries present were in favour of the proposal, India and Pakistan were sceptical.

  • In 1983 in Dhaka, joined the other five nations in signing the Declaration on South Asian Association Regional Cooperation and with it, signalling the official formation of SAARC.

  • SAARC charter: Goal of the organisation was to contribute to “mutual trust, understanding and appreciation of one another’s problems”.

Afghanistan and SAARC:

  • In 2005, Afghanistan formally applied for membership to SAARC.

  • In 2007, Afghanistan became the eighth member state of SAARC.

Integrated Program of Action:

  • SAARC also launched the Integrated Program of Action which outlined the five areas of cooperation between SAARC countries:

    • Agriculture;

    • Rural development;

    • Telecommunications;

    • Meteorology; and

    • Health and population activities.

Issues in SAARC:

  • Despite its lofty ambitions, SAARC has not become a regional association in the mould of the European Union or the African Union.

  • Its member states are plagued by internal divisions, most notably the conflict between India and Pakistan.

  • No meaningful collaboration: This in turn has hampered its ability to form comprehensive trade agreements or to meaningfully collaborate on areas such as security, energy and infrastructure.

  • No Summit held: The 18th and last SAARC summit was held in 2014.

    • Pakistan scheduled to host the 19th summit in 2016.

  • Uri terror attack: However, following Islamabad’s alleged involvement in the Uri terror attack in Jammu and Kashmir, Modi refused to participate.

  • Lack of a conducive environment: Even Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Bhutan, Maldives and Sri Lanka also pulled out, citing fears of regional insecurity and a lack of a conducive environment.

    • Nepal was unable to withdraw from the summit as the chairperson of SAARC was from Nepal.

Modicum of success:

  • Despite these setbacks, SAARC has achieved a modicum of success.

  • Regional Collaboration: It has provided a platform for representatives from member countries to meet and discuss important issues.

  • Multilateral v. Bilateral: SAARC gives an advantage over the bilateral discussions.

  • India and Pakistan: They struggle to publicly justify a bilateral meeting at times, but representatives from both countries could come together under the banner of SAARC.

  • Collective Agreements: The bloc has also made some headway in signing agreements related to

    • Climate change,

    • Food security and

    • Covid-19 crisis.

Conclusion:

  • It has the potential to do far more but that is contingent upon cooperation on key issues between member states.

  • With Pakistan headfast in its support for the Taliban and the rest of SAARC weary to acknowledge the group, any future summit is unlikely until the issue has been resolved.

SOURCE: Indian Express