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Ikram Sehgal
Thursday, November 22, 2012
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In the backdrop of the Afghanistan conflict and the upheaval in Syria, the 9th Worldwide Security Conference organised by the East West Institute (EWI) in Brussels, in collaboration with the World Customs Organisation (WCO), brought together around 300 policymakers, business persons and public-opinion leaders from all over the world. The event was held with the objective of brainstorming issues of economic security in the region, with particular focus on the energy-water-food nexus. The withdrawal of Nato troops from Afghanistan by 2014 is bound to have a profound impact in the region and present significant challenges and opportunities, leadership changes taking place along with new thinking presents a unique opportunity to expand networks, break down barriers and face the challenges with concerted commitment.

WCO secretary general Dr Kunio Mikuriya called for ensuring of greater connectivity to focus on economic growth and security in the Middle East and Southwest Asia. Finland’s former president and Nobel laureate Martti Ahtisaari appealed for curbing conflicts in the region. “The nations need to work to build a security organisation that bridges major divides, building trust depends on building relationships.” Encouraging participants to make specific recommendations on cross-border infrastructure, the water-energy-food nexus, youth unemployment and social marginalisation, Ahtisaari said: “Peace will never come to the Middle East unless the Palestine-Israel problem is resolved. Peace is a question of political will. Action for conflict reduction is needed. We need to propose more open borders to cope with the issue of Palestine and other big issues, such as Iran’s nuclear programme.” Ahtisaari sounded a note of caution about the scope of the challenges. “The region has too often been host to regional tension and conflict, and a battleground for competing outside interests. In the 21st century this vast area has become the core of global politics. Only further development and direction will determine what kind of 21st century we all will be facing. In this region the very credibility of the international community is at stake.” The present deadly Hamas-Israeli confrontation at Gaza makes Ahtisaari’s recommendations take on added poignancy and urgency.

Ambassador Hesham Youssef, assistant secretary general of the Arab League, said: “Unfortunately, we have not prevented political troubles from harming economic interests. During 2011, foreign investment declined by 38 percent. With five percent of the world’s population, the Arab world has 0.7 percent of the world’s water. Potential conflicts over scarce resources, particularly water, are another major concern. Many experts have been predicting that the next war in the Middle East will be about water.”

Dr Khalid Malik, head of the UNDP’s Human Development Report (authored in 1994 by the late Dr Mahbubul Haq), noted that the security shift away from military guarding borders is to security concerns addressing people, people’s capabilities, freedom from want and freedom from fear. “The notion of states and state systems has clouded that point.” Speaking of food security, he said that despite abundant resources, people would go hungry. He called it a matter not of availability, but of affordability. Khalid Malik said it was important to put people first. Stressing on the need of soft borders rather than hard borders, he said that the changing world called for new thinking. The takeaway from the conference was hope, awareness that neighbours matter and the need for conscious policy choices to strengthen regional ties.

Some questions were placed before the panellists in the session chaired by me as an EWI board member. What major gains can be achieved through private-sector involvement in addressing water-energy-food security in the region and what critical issues inhibit private-sector involvement? How can these issues be resolved? Panellist Tewadros Ashenafi of Ethiopia said: “The government, private sector and civil society must work together to solve the challenges. (It is) a challenge that calls for innovation. Because of its innovative entrepreneurship the private sector must be a very strong actor in this water-energy-food nexus. Entrepreneurs were realistic opportunists and there was a lot of opportunity for innovative thinking.”

Panellist Prof C S Kiang, chairman of the Sustainable Development Technology Foundation in Beijing, stated that it was important to recognise the problem accurately, not just talk about sustainable development. The water-energy-food nexus needed to be addressed holistically, with integration, accumulation of knowledge and collaboration, transparency and the change of leadership would most likely make China more transparent than in the past. He emphasised the need for measurable criteria for urban development, low carbon emissions, new renewable energy and methods for recycling and reuse. EWI Professional Fellow Dr Greg Austin said that while it was important to define an action agenda on issues discussed, in areas of dispute, resources became a complex issue. However, these were not insurmountable, citing the example of the 1954 Indus Basin Treaty between Pakistan and India.

Referring to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Maria Livanos Cattaui, former secretary general of the International Chamber of Commerce, said that, regional cooperation being the key, there could be none without political transition. “Political will is paramount. The region in general and Afghanistan in particular, needed strong election structures, more transparency, human rights, justice, accountability and environment for international investors. International policies would have to be changed, a new breed of leaders would have to come forward, and investment instruments put in place. The private sector is important, but it has to be dynamic and responsible, (and) create job and market opportunities. Resources were short and cash crops would have to be conserved and force multiplied.”

Participants shied away from home truths about Afghanistan. Chatham House Rules prevent that from being aired. However, the disparity in treatment of the countries in the region by the west was glaring. To quote Rajiv Chandrasekaran of the Washington Post, the US “essentially carpet-bombed the country with money.” The US has spent $100 billion since 2001 to help Afghanistan develop its economy. In 2010 alone $4 billion was spent on “reconstruction.” $600 billion was spent on the war in Afghanistan. Stars and Stripes, the US Armed Forces magazine, gives the combined military and civilian figures in May 2011 as totalling almost $10 billion a month. For the record, the US President has requested $10 billion in reconstruction money for 2013 alone. The US Special Inspector General of Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) estimated that only 15 percent reaches the affected, fully $85 billion of the $100 billion in civilian aid has been wasted. One may well ask what have the Afghans to show for it, except for the elite who own 70 percent of the villas on Palm Island in Dubai?

It was most disappointing and disgusting to hear some who know better push the fantasy that India, without a common border with Afghanistan and one-third of its revenue districts under Naxalite rule, should have greater role in the country post-2014. There are some people whose influence led to US and coalition forces carpet-bomb enormous amounts of money into a black hole in Afghanistan, while a whole lot of young US soldiers have shed their blood to protect the Afghans’ Dubai bound. Even a fraction of this amount spent in Pakistan would have got the west much greater traction towards peace and stability in the region. The problem is Afghanistan, the solution is Pakistan.

The writer is a defence and political analyst. Email: [email protected]