Jan 31 - Feb 6, 20

Founded in 1985 with initial seven members - Afghanistan being the only subsequent addition-SAARC does not appear to be well-positioned to meet its basic goals and objectives which include:

* Promoting the welfare of South Asian people and improving their quality of life

* Accelerating economic growth, social progress and cultural development in the region

* Promoting and strengthening collective self-reliance

* Creating mutual trust, understanding another's problems

* Promoting active collaboration and mutual assistance in economic, social, cultural, technical and scientific fields

* Strengthening cooperation among themselves and with other developing countries

* Cooperating with other international and regional organizations with similar aims and objectives

During the twenty-five year of its existence, SAARC has not been as proactive and resourceful as it should have been; the reason being its very structure which betrays a sense of imbalance and lack of purposeful coordination. The leading four founding members India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh carry with them a history of mutual distrust and political alienation. The only addition to the member-list since inception, Afghanistan is yet another dimension of political fragmentation that has been added to the already ineffective and inconsequential bunch of divergent forces. Like Kashmir, Afghanistan has also become a bone of contention between India and Pakistan who are aggressively vying with each other to hold sway on the war-destroyed country.

The poor economic and social conditions in Afghanistan are hardly going to add anything to the resourcefulness of SAARC. The dominant position of India - by virtue of its democratic image and market size - gives it a sort of veto to ditch any project that does not suit its own needs. With the present Afghanistan government being highly skeptical of Pakistan's role in the ongoing war on terrorism, India sees inclusion of Afghanistan as addition of a useful partner to the member list. Pakistan, relying on its theory of "strategic depth" might see Afghanistan as a welcome addition to SAARC membership, but the experience shows that the illusive sense of depth has hardly contributed anything of substance till today. The immediate advantage of Afghan membership goes to India.

From other SAARC members' point of view, Afghanistan, in its present condition, is nothing more than a drain on SAARC's already weak resourcefulness. Being under the effective US control, today's Afghanistan presents a picture of war-land carrying the burden of some 60,000 US and NATO forces engaged in an endless and meaningless struggle.

George W Bush, in his memoir Decision Points discusses the Afghan issue with General Tommy Franks and concludes: "Tommy made clear the mission in Afghanistan would not be easy. Everything about the country screamed trouble. It is remote, rugged, and primitive. Its northern half is home to ethnic Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras, Turkmen, and others. The southern half is dominated by Pashtuns. Tribal, ethnic, and religious rivalries date back centuries. Yet for all their differences, the people of Afghanistan have a way of banding together against foreigners. They drove out the British in the nineteenth century. They drove out the Soviets in the twentieth century. Even Alexander the Great failed to conquer the country. Afghanistan had earned a foreboding nickname: Graveyard of Empires."

Despite its great resourcefulness, the graveyard is represented by extremely poor economic and social indicators. The pre-war and post-war economic and social picture of Afghanistan is painted by George W Bush in the following words: 'Afghanistan in 2001 was the worldís third poorest country. Less than 10 per cent of the population had access to health care. More than four out of five women were illiterate. While Afghanistan's land and population were similar to those of Texas, its annual economic output was comparable to that of Billings and Montana. Life expectancy was a bleak forty-six years.

In later years, Afghanistan would often be compared with Iraq. But, the two countries started from vastly different points. At the time of its liberation, Afghanistan's per capita GDP was less than a third of Iraq's. The infant mortality rate in Afghanistan was more than twice as high. Helping the Afghan people join the modern world would clearly be a long, arduous undertaking."

Obama, as president-elect, asked General Douglas Lute to prepare an Afghan war review to give him an insight into the long-drawn battle. Lute, after a lot of hard work, summarized his findings in a 25-page review. Bob Woodward, winner of the Pulitzer prize, writes in his book Obama's Wars: "The review concluded that the U.S. couldn't prevail in Afghanistan unless it resolved three large problems. First, governance had to be improved and corruption curtailed. Bribes and embezzlements were rampant. There were, for example about 42 steps to get an Afghan driver's license, nearly all an opportunity for someone to pocket a bribe. Second, the opium trade was out of control. It fueled corruption and partially financed the Taliban insurgency. And third, the Pakistani safe havens had to be reduced and eventually eliminated. If the United States didn't accomplish these three things, it could never claim to be done in Afghanistan.

With Pakistan, the review said the U.S. should expand the scope of its aid beyond that country's military and try to stabilize its economy. If Pakistan's $168 billion economy collapsed, the chaos in the tribal areas would then spread to country's more cosmopolitan cities."

Bush's secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice was not happy with the Lute report. Bush said: "We are not going to release this publicly. Look, I'm in my last couple of months. A public release will just make people scratch their heads."

The point is that inclusion of Afghanistan - currently an economic, political, and social mess - will only blunt the sharpness of the SAARC, if there is any sharpness at all. China, the counterbalance to India has shown its interest in SAARC membership, a move, as expected, is blocked by India. Nevertheless, China has yet to show its firmness to win the membership. Iran and Myanmar have expressed interest for full membership. Iran, which shares cultural and religious ties with both Pakistan and Afghanistan, can be a firebrand addition to the Association likely to invoke high-profile reactions from the world nations, particularly the U.S. and the West. Indonesia and Russia intend to become observers and are supported by Sri Lank and India, respectively. Nine countries including Australia, China, South Korea, and United States are included in the official observer-list. Besides hypothetical addition of China and Iran, inclusion of middle eastern countries from the left flank and island countries from the right flank will give SAARC both depth and balance-and above all the necessary clout-it presently lacks.