Afghanistan-Sri Lanka: Natural Partners in Democracy and Development

By M. Ashraf Haidari

The past four decades have hardly been kind to the peace- and freedom-loving people of Afghanistan. But despite the many destructive conflicts imposed on the country, Afghans armed with a steel willpower have persevered to survive and thrive in what is an increasingly complex and dangerous world. Since the fall of the Taliban in the wake of this century, the people of Afghanistan have made many strides towards sustainable peace, democracy, and prosperity. In the process, they have given countless sacrifices for their hard-earned democratic gains, which remain a work in progress and in need of further consolidation.

Indeed, in their transformative journey, Afghans have not been alone. Many friends and allies of Afghanistan—including over 60 countries and international organizations—have supported the Afghan people and continue to do so—as Afghanistan’s brave forces fight day and night to defend their beautiful homeland and the world at large against the intertwined security threats of terrorism, extremism, and criminality. Some of these dangerous threats are transnational by nature, while others are regionally rooted. But they are symbiotically reinforcing one another. That is why they must be fought and defeated simultaneously with no distinction.

In defiance of these complex security threats, Afghanistan’s developing democracy witnessed its fourth presidential elections on September 28, 2019 when close to three million Afghans, including men and women, braved months of terrorist threats and over 200 attacks on the election day to cast their ballot for one of the 15 presidential candidates. Of course, some have criticized the Afghan voter turnout to have been low, but they forget the imposed terror campaign, under which the Afghan people defiantly turned out to vote. They did so for multiple national causes, in which an absolute majority of Afghans firmly believe and for which they daily bleed.

As Afghanistan recently reminded the world at the 74th Session of the United Nations General Assembly:

Afghans not only voted for a president but they also voted for democracy and pluralism.
They voted for their progressive Constitution.
They voted for liberty and sovereignty.
They voted for prosperity and connectivity.
They voted for peace and freedom from terrorism and extremism.
They voted for the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.

In this light, Afghanistan continues to pursue a foreign policy agenda that promotes cooperation against confrontation, win-win policy initiatives against lose-lose militarism and posturing in its immediate neighborhood, the wider region, and the world at large.  

This constructive thinking underpins Afghanistan’s fast-growing ties with Sri Lanka, with which the country shares an ancient civilization. The statues of Buddha in the central province of Bamiyan speak to the rich pre-Islamic Buddhist heritage of Afghanistan, which Afghans have striven to preserve and protect.

In March 2001, Afghans at home and abroad were devastated when the Taliban on orders from outside dynamited into pieces the treasured Buddhas of Bamiyan, a UNESCO world heritage site. Indeed, the same Buddhas that stood tall, revered, and protected in the preceding centuries when the Afghan empires espoused and championed Islam as a faith of peace, co-existence and tolerance of the other.
In the same vein when a misguided extremist minority attacked innocent Sri Lankans on April 21,

President Ashraf Ghani was the first world leader to condemn in the strongest terms the same terrorism and extremism, which have mostly victimized and targeted innocent Muslims in Afghanistan and the rest of the world.

That is why when some acts of communal violence broke out in parts of Sri Lanka to retaliate against the Easter attacks, this author drew on Afghanistan’s own experience as a multiethnic and pluralistic society to call on Sri Lanka’s leaders to embrace their nation’s powerful diversity underpinned by the principle of “do no harm.” The author knew that doing so would help Sri Lanka deny extremists at home and abroad the opportunity to exploit any alienation, which divisive communalism can cause, in order to further radicalize youth and to use them as their instruments of terror.

The Government of Afghanistan has commended the able leadership of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe on taking effective security measures to have swiftly stabilized the situation, following the Easter attacks. Thanks to their efforts, Sri Lanka’s tourism industry has begun recovering fast, as well as the country’s overall economy.

At the same time, it is noteworthy that under a stable political environment millions of registered Sri Lankan voters will go to the polls on November 16, 2019 to elect their next leader. Despite occasional challenges, Sri Lanka’s democracy has demonstrated to be vibrant and steadily grown resilient, inspiring younger democracies such as that of Afghanistan.

As two democracies, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka share many development needs and challenges. This underpins their growing ties, which enjoy the support of both countries’ leadership. This author is grateful to the speaker of the Sri Lankan parliament Karu Jayasuriya for his continued support of the expanding Afghanistan-Sri Lanka relations.

Last March, the speaker helped form and launch with this author the Sri Lanka-Afghanistan Parliamentary Friendship Association, further strengthening bilateral ties between the two nations. This was initiated under the former presidency of Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2013 when Afghanistan opened an embassy in Colombo, which Sri Lanka reciprocated by opening an embassy in Kabul in the following year.  

Hence, this author is equally grateful to the former president for his deep interest in elevating Afghanistan-Sri Lankan bilateral ties and further enhancing the two countries’ cooperation within the SAARC and other intergovernmental organizations where they have advanced shared interests, including regional stability, environmental security, as well as connectivity for trade and stronger people-to-people ties across South Asia.  

Since 2013, many senior official and technical delegations from Afghanistan have visited Sri Lanka. This includes the state visit of former President Hamid Karzai to Sri Lanka in 2014, while the two governments have signed 8 agreements and MOUs. They encompass such issues of bilateral interest as economy, education, science, and techn0logy; labor; air services; sports; higher education; technical capacity building; as well as cooperation between University of Colombo and Kabul University—among others.

In the coming months, this author looks forward to initiating bilateral security and defense cooperation, knowing from the shared experiences of Afghanistan and Sri Lanka that most security threats of today transcend borders and are no longer limited to landlocked and littoral states. So, it would be beneficial to both countries to explore maritime security cooperation opportunities in the areas of counterterrorism, counter-narcotics, and counter-human trafficking.

At the same time, Afghanistan will seek to learn from Sri Lanka’s successful war-to-peace transition experience, including from the country’s reintegration and reconciliation initiatives and programs that have delivered tangible results.

In the political and economic areas, both sides look forward to signing MOUs on regular political consultations and on trade and investment promotion and protection. The latter together with the air services agreement should facilitate the establishment of a direct passenger and cargo flight between Kabul and Colombo. And when this happens as one of this author’s key goals, Afghans and Sri Lankans should be able to reconnect with their shared heritage through tourism, trade and investment, education, and cultural exchange.

M. Ashraf Haidari is the Ambassador of Afghanistan to Sri Lanka and a Senior Fellow at the Institute of National Security Studies of Sri Lanka (INSSSL).

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