By M. Ashraf Haidari
This November 1, 2020, marked the 62nd anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between Afghanistan and Sri Lanka. To celebrate the occasion, Afghan and Sri Lankan leaders exchanged warm congratulatory messages, reaffirming their mutual commitment to further deepening ties between our two nations.
Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa tweeted: “Today, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan celebrate 62 years of establishing diplomatic relations. The leadership of both nations are committed to continue and further strengthen our friendship and bilateral relationship to mutually benefit both our nations.” President Ashraf Ghani responded: “Thank you, Prime Minister Rajapaksa. I would also like to congratulate you and the people of Sri Lanka on this auspicious occasion. Afghanistan is committed to a long-lasting relationship. We have a shared heritage, and our regional connectivity programs will build on that in the near future.”
Indeed, since time immemorial, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka have shared intertwined civilizational ties influenced by such major belief systems as Buddhism, Islam, and Hinduism, which dominated much of the Gandhara region—including modern Afghanistan—from where Buddhism spread to South Asia, Central Asia, and East Asia. And history tells us that some of the early settlers of this paradise-island hailed from the northwest of India and the Indus River region, which Afghans then and today have inhabited.
The majestic Buddhas of Bamiyan are a testament to our shared heritage and to Afghanistan’s cultural pluralism and diversity, which underpin the Afghan identity today. That is why Afghanistan’s former imperial powers, who later embraced and championed Islam in our flourishing region, revered and protected the Buddhas of Bamiyan, as have the many modern governments of Afghanistan. But the brief misrule of the extremist Taliban was an exception, as they tragically destroyed the sixth century statues in March 2001, months before September 11 when they enabled Al Qaeda to launch terrorist attacks on the United States. The Afghan people, including our diaspora communities around the world, continue mourning the tragic loss of our cultural treasure, which must never happen again.
In the modern era, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka established non-resident diplomatic relations on November 1, 1958. Our missions in New Delhi mostly handled our bilateral affairs, which except for some intervals during the years of conflict, continued after the fall of the Taliban in 2001. Afghanistan initiated to elevate our diplomatic ties with Sri Lanka, following high-level fruitful exchanges between former President Hamid Karzai and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, currently the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, in 2011 and 2012. In 2013, Afghanistan opened our embassy in Colombo, which Sri Lanka reciprocated in 2014.
Shared interests and growing ties
As two democracies in South Asia, the fast-growing relations of Afghanistan and Sri Lanka enjoy strong and unreserved support of our two governments’ leadership. Shortly after his notable electoral victory in November 2019, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and I had a very friendly and fruitful meeting, in which we conveyed to him the warm congratulations of President Ghani and his firm commitment to further expanding our bilateral relationship, which President Rajapaksa welcomed. We had a similar exchange with Prime Minister Rajapaksa, a committed friend of Afghanistan, following his landslide victory in last August’s general elections, on whose success President Ghani congratulated the people of Sri Lanka and welcomed the outcome as a major win for democracy in Sri Lanka and South Asia.
In both meetings, we reviewed the status of our existing ties and agreed on the importance of implementing bilateral MOUs and agreements, which Afghanistan and Sri Lanka have signed so far. We also agreed to expedite the procedural work of the pending MOUs and agreements to be signed, which, together with the signed ones, would encompass cooperation in the political, socio-economic, security and defense, as well as cultural areas. Indeed, the low volume of bilateral trade and investment stands out, as we stressed the importance of establishing reliable connectivity to change the status quo, thereby deepening people-to-people ties through commercial and cultural exchanges.
Consequently, President Rajapaksa tasked Sri Lankan Airlines to study options for a direct Colombo – Kabul flights. This could have materialized by now, if it had not been for the restrictions and closures caused by the Covid-19 pandemic since last February. However, this remains under both sides’ consideration, as Afghanistan and Sri Lanka look forward to establishing full-spectrum connectivity towards the achievement of our shared interests—be them in the economic and cultural areas or in those of political and defense—as both sides remain concerned about the growing threats of terrorism, extremism, and criminality with implications for maritime security in the greater Indo-Pacific region.
The Afghan Peace Process: Lessons from Sri Lanka
Indeed, Sri Lanka’s overall experience, including its mediated peace process during the war years, remains instructive. Unlike Sri Lanka, however, Afghanistan is fighting multiple regional and global terrorist and criminal groups which operate under the umbrella of the Taliban with safe havens in our neighbourhood. Since the end of the transition process in 2014, when most of the NATO troops withdrew from Afghanistan, our brave forces have been conducting over ninety five percent of all military operations against terrorist groups, including Al Qaeda and ISIS. Afghan soldiers have not only given their precious lives for defending Afghanistan, but they have also helped ensure regional stability and international peace.
As we continue defending our country against external aggression, the government of Afghanistan has pursued a path to peace through a negotiated settlement with the Taliban. As of this writing, the negotiating team of the Islamic Republic remains in Doha, continuing to wait for the Taliban to deliver on their key commitments that include a results-driven negotiating process and a notable reduction in violence across Afghanistan followed by humanitarian and then permanent ceasefires in the country. These are the main demands of the Afghan people, and our representatives met in a Consultative Peace Jirga last August and authorized the government to release over 5,000 Taliban prisoners as a concession for achieving dignified and sustainable peace.
So far, the Taliban have faltered and failed to engage with the negotiating team constructively, while escalating violence in much of Afghanistan, daily killing and maiming innocent civilians. This includes the recent terrorist attack on Kabul University, which the international community condemned in the strongest terms possible, calling it a war crime. But if the Taliban gave genuine peace a chance by shedding foreign influence and control, dignified and sustainable peace in Afghanistan is very much attainable. And, of course, to foster post-conflict peace and prosperity, Afghanistan would certainly draw on international experience, including relevant lessons to be learned from Sri Lanka’s successful war-to-peace-transition, to implement effective peace-building programs, including reintegration into society of former combatants, refugee-returnees and the internally displaced persons (IDPs).
Fighting drugs together
Besides counter-terrorism cooperation, Afghanistan welcomes the support of Sri Lanka in fighting the transnational security menace of narcotics, including its cultivation, production, and trafficking to Sri Lanka and the rest of South Asia. That is why we have welcomed the appointment of Ambassador-Designate Piyal De Silva, who as a former Navy Commander, possesses relevant counter-narcotics experience. We look forward to working with him to develop the necessary security and law enforcement institutional ties to stem the flow of Taliban-produced drugs to Sri Lanka.
That said, however, drug production in Afghanistan is driven by constant and even growing regional and global demand for narcotics. Indeed, this global security and public health challenge needs the totality of international cooperation to defeat and eliminate drugs altogether. Afghanistan has so far done our lion’s share, daily losing our brave police and soldiers in the fight against drugs. Others must do their part, including supporting our government’s counter-narcotics lead.
The gateway to Silk Roads: Investment opportunities
As Sri Lanka is the “Jewel of the Indian Ocean,” Afghanistan is the “Heart of Asia,” the gateway to all Silk Roads in all directions, north to south and east to west. We sit right between South Asia and Central Asia, awaiting sustainable peace to be achieved with regional cooperation and support so that Afghanistan can play our natural role as a land-bridge between the subcontinent, South West Asia, and Central Asia.
Given our geographic centrality for transit trade, including energy, no major connectivity project can bypass Afghanistan. That is why Sri Lanka would greatly benefit from a more beefed-up presence in the country (with a population of over 30 million consumers) where Sri Lankan diplomats could work to help the country’s private sector take advantage of the numerous investment opportunities in the Afghan markets, while looking northwards to explore similar opportunities in Central Asia (with a population of over 70 million consumers).
In this light, despite the Covid-19 challenge, we worked hard over the past few months to facilitate the recent signing of a cooperation Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the Afghanistan Chamber of Commerce and Investment (ACCI) and the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce (CCC). We did so knowing the vast trade and investment potential on both sides that need to be realized. As we discussed with President Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Rajapaksa, as soon as we have established direct air connectivity between our two countries, Sri Lanka’s tourism industry—including medical tourism and higher education tourism—would immensely benefit from Afghanistan’s demand in such major sectors. We have no doubt that within a year of such connectivity, we could easily need to operate a daily fight between Kabul and Colombo—carrying tourists seeking rest and recuperation; patients seeking treatment; students seeking quality education; and business seeking investment opportunities.
Moreover, Sri Lanka’s principal products such as Ceylon tea; apparel and textiles; spices; food and beverages; and coconut and coconut-based products could easily find profitable markets in Afghanistan. For example, we are a tea-drinking nation, and every adult Afghan could consume more than six cups of tea a day, while we produce no tea. That is why we have been encouraging the tea industry of Sri Lanka to make a move and begin exporting the country’s tasteful tea varieties to Afghanistan with consistent demand for this signature Sri Lankan product.
In the same vein, we have encouraged the jewellery sector of Sri Lanka to visit Kabul and see for themselves the endless investment opportunities in this yet untapped market in Afghanistan as one of the minerally richest countries in the world with large reserves of precious and semi-precious stones. Here, Afghanistan not only needs Sri Lanka’s exploration and extraction technical know-how but also its experience and expertise in processing, designing, and marketing Afghanistan’s precious and semi-precious stones, including emerald, ruby, lapis lazuli, garnet, tourmaline, and others.
SAARC: Cooperation against confrontation
As we continue advocating for cooperation against confrontation in South Asia, Afghanistan has consistently pursued a foreign policy that promotes regional economic cooperation against zero-sum hedging strategies. We strongly believe that the replacement of confrontational policies at the regional level with those of cooperative, win-win partnerships would gradually minimize the existing interstate tensions in the region.
And this would enable the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) to realize its vision, knowing that South Asia is an extremely young and naturally endowed region where our youth demand jobs and a secure future in a common, interdependent neighbourhood. Indeed, this will not come to pass unless South Asian governments learn relevant lessons from pre- and post-war Europe that should encourage them to make tough but necessary policy choices against the status quo for achieving shared peace and prosperity across the region through economic integration.
The government of Afghanistan has done our part and continues to do so. Despite the imposed security challenges facing our nation, we have put forth a strategic solution for adoption and implementation by our near and far neighbors: The Heart of Asia–Istanbul Process (HOA-IP) on Regional Security and Cooperation for a Secure and Stable Afghanistan and the Regional Economic Cooperation Conference on Afghanistan (RECCA). These Afghanistan-led processes were established to help secure regional cooperation for Afghanistan’s stabilization and sustainable development, thereby ensuring regionwide stability and prosperity, which SAARC strives to accomplish.
Even though HOA-IP and RECCA remain underutilized so far, it is in the best short and long-term interests of the countries — including India and Pakistan — that participate in the two processes to achieve the shared goals of the two platforms. Of course, every tangible step they take to utilize these interconnected processes will help minimize their own and other nations’ security and socioeconomic vulnerabilities against the terrorist-extremist-criminal nexus that mostly victimizes Afghanistan.
The way forward
The past four decades of imposed conflicts in Afghanistan have proven the fact that external aggression through direct or indirect means, such as deployment of proxy forces, including the Taliban, have hardly ensured regional stability, even though the stated policies of our neighbourhood commonly acknowledge that a stable and peaceful Afghanistan best serve their own short and long-term economic and security interests.
President Ghani has repeatedly drawn the attention of our neighbours to the many ways in which the whole region would benefit from an end to the imposed war with many spill-over effects and return of peace and normalcy to Afghanistan. This remains every Afghan’s key demand and desire. Hence, we have striven to further strengthen regional consensus for achieving sustainable peace in Afghanistan through a negotiated political settlement. This Afghan national endeavour aims at preserving the Islamic Republic, our hard-earned democratic gains, including women’s and human rights, as well as our notable state-building achievements against state failure and collapse that prevailed under the misrule of the Taliban in the late 1990s.
Such a necessary outcome—underpinned by the United Nations (UN) Charter as the guardian of the principles of state sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity—should enable us to work with our neighbourhood, wider region, and others in the international system to help ensure a rules-based world order. This is currently threatened by such regional and global challenges as poverty, climate change, pandemics, terrorism and extremism, and organized crime.