Reiterating Pakistan’s commitment to Afghan peace, development and prosperity, President Asif Ali Zardari on Monday called for trans-border cooperation, which would not only transform the economic landscape of the South and Central Asian region, but would also be an effective bulwark against extremism and militancy.
“We believe that the crusade against poverty and deprivation must be waged in tandem with the war against terrorism. Pakistan’s consistent position is that more than the military, it is a battle for hearts and minds,” he maintained.
The president expressed these views while addressing the inaugural session of the two-day fifth Regional Economic Cooperation Conference on Afghanistan (RECCA-V) being hosted by Tajikistan and attended by delegations from around 70 countries and international organisations.
This conference will consider proposals and projects aimed at boosting regional cooperation with Afghanistan, with particular emphasis on socioeconomic development and infrastructure development.
President Zardari said that Pakistan firmly believed that an economically strong and politically stable Afghanistan would be a catalyst for peace and prosperity in the region, adding that on the other hand, regional cooperation that optimizes Afghanistan’s strategic location would be vital for the country’s development.
“Afghanistan has always held great significance for Pakistan, he said. He mentioned that the present democratically elected government has brought about a fundamental transformation in relations with Afghanistan.
“The two countries are now involved in a multi-track engagement. Through intensive interaction we are developing deeper trust and greater understanding,” he added.
The president said the presence of Pakistan, Iran and Tajikistan as well as others in the conference reflected the collective commitment of each one of them towards Afghanistan’s development. “My presence specially demonstrates Pakistan’s commitment to Afghan peace, development and prosperity and Pakistan’s strong belief that Afghanistan and Pakistan’s destinies are interlinked inextricably,” he stressed.
Zardari said, “When I support development for Afghanistan, I am in essence supporting development for Pakistan.” He mentioned that he always raised the drug issue in Afghanistan at international forums and urged the world to help the country in addressing it.
He said the Declaration on Future Directions of Bilateral Cooperation signed by Pakistan and Afghanistan envisaged a future partnership in a regional context. The president said that despite resource constraints, Pakistan was making a significant contribution towards the reconstruction process in Afghanistan.
“From our pledged amount of over $300 million, we have undertaken a number of reconstruction projects in the fields of education, healthcare and infrastructure in different parts of Afghanistan,” he mentioned.
President Zardari said that Pakistan has one of the largest scholarship programmes for Afghan students, adding that Pakistan is providing 2,000 fully-funded graduate and post-graduate scholarships to Afghan students in its higher education institutions.
“Moreover, today over 7,000 Afghan students are enrolled in Pakistan’s colleges and universities. This represents about 60 per cent of all Afghans studying in institutions of higher education abroad. In addition, about half a million Afghan refugee children attend schools in Pakistan,” he added.
Talking about measures taken for health, the president said, over 90 per cent of Afghans who seek medical treatment abroad visit Pakistan. Most of the Afghan patients opt for free treatment at government or philanthropic healthcare facilities, he added.
The president appreciated the earlier RECCA meetings for having done a commendable job in devising a strategy and said that as highlighted by these conferences, there was a need for more focused, incremental steps towards trans-regional development.
He said, “As the near and extended neighbours come together for RECCA for the fifth time, in my mind the real opportunity that RECCA offers is in the realm of regional infrastructure and connectivity.”
“We have tremendous scope for cooperation in several areas including energy, transport, industry, mining, livestock, education, agriculture and environment,” he added.
Zardari emphasised that our private sectors can also play a crucial role in regional development program and joint ventures, adding, “We just need to provide them with an opportunity.”
In the context of energy cooperation, President Zardari reiterated that regional projects such as Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India (TAPI) and Iran-Pakistan (IP) gas pipeline projects as well as Central Asia South Asia (CASA-1000) electricity transmission line were important and required regional and international support.
The president also expressed his gratitude and deep appreciation to Tajik President Emomali Rahmon and the government and people of Tajikistan for hosting RECCA-V.
Karzai, Ahmedinejad and Rahmon also addressed the opening session of RECCA-V, which was a follow-up of the previous four Regional Economic Cooperation Conferences on Afghanistan held at Kabul in 2005, New Delhi in 2006, Islamabad in 2009 and Istanbul in 2010.