Twenty nations meet in India to deepen cooperation for Afghanistan

Kabul, November 17, 2006 (AFP) - Around 20 countries and a host of world bodies are to meet in the Indian capital this weekend to work on regional economic cooperation to help stabilise destitute and insurgency-hit Afghanistan.

The November 18-19 conference will address obstacles to trade and ways to attract investment to post-Taliban Afghanistan, including by boosting its supply of electricity which reaches only 10 percent of the population.

The Second Regional Economic Cooperation Conference on Afghanistan will also look at agro-development, officials said this week.

The first conference, held in Kabul a year ago, agreed the supply of power is essential to boosting the economy and undercutting the massive illicit drugs trade, the main economic activity said to fuel the Taliban insurgency.

The meeting will be opened by Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

It is due to be attended by representatives of Afghanistan's neighbours, including India's rival Pakistan, and other key backers, among them Britain, Canada, Russia and the United States.

Delegates from international bodies such as the United Nations, World Bank and other global groups have also been invited.

The conference comes a week after the release of a gloomy report that says the escalating insurgency in Afghanistan and other obstacles had meant progress has been been "slow or non-existent".

Violence linked to a Taliban-led insurgency that killed 3,700 people this year, four times more than in 2005, had diverted resources from reconstruction and development, the Joint Coordination and Monitoring Board (JCMB) said.

"While the growth rate for the economy this year is expected to be around nine percent, this is still not sufficient to generate in a relatively short time the large numbers of new jobs necessary to substantially reduced poverty or overcome widespread popular disaffection," it said.

Private sector investment was low and held back by insecurity, crime, corruption, limited access to financing and a lack of reliable energy, among a range of factors, it said.

A separate JCMB report said the upcoming New Delhi conference would "promote further regional economic integration as a means to ease political and security tensions in the region".

It said there had been progress in the transit of goods throughout the region including a project to build a road to link Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan with the Iranian port of Bandar-Abbas.

There was also movement in the energy sector with accords between Iran, Kazakhstan, Pakistan and Tajikistan on the supply of energy to power-needy Afghanistan, it said.

The conference comes amid tension between Afghanistan and Pakistan over the roots of the Taliban insurgency, each accusing each other of not doing enough to tackle the sources of violence including fundamentalist religious schools that promote anti-Western "jihad".

Afghanistan and India meanwhile enjoy good relations, with New Delhi one of the main donors to the post-Taliban country, granting 652 million dollars to various projects since 2001.

Islamabad, which supported the Taliban government, has accused Kabul of being under New Delhi's influence.

"The more the bilateral relations get better, the more it is a concern for Pakistan," Afghan analyst Waheed Mujda told AFP.

Pakistan and India are both pushing for clout in Afghanistan, which holds a key geostrategic position between the Middle East, Central Asia and South Asia.