The Debate

Afghanistan-Sri Lanka: Natural Partners in Democracy and Development

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The Debate

Afghanistan-Sri Lanka: Natural Partners in Democracy and Development

Despite occasional challenges, Sri Lanka’s democracy is vibrant and resilient, inspiring younger democracies such as Afghanistan. 

Afghanistan-Sri Lanka: Natural Partners in Democracy and Development
Credit: Image courtesy of the author

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, the people of Afghanistan have made many strides toward 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. 

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. Meanwhile, 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 symbiotically reinforce 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 election on September 28, 2019. Close to 3 million Afghans, including men and women, defied months of terrorist threats and over 200 attacks on election day to cast their ballots for one of the 15 presidential candidates. Of course, some have criticized the Afghan voter turnout as low, but they forget the imposed terror campaign under which so many 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. 

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 the 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. Those same Buddhas had stood tall, revered, and protected in the preceding centuries when various Afghan empires espoused and championed Islam as a faith of peace, coexistence, and tolerance.

In the same vein when a misguided extremist minority attacked innocent Sri Lankans on April 21, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani was among the first world leaders to condemn in the strongest terms the same terrorism and extremism which had victimized and targeted innocent Muslims in Afghanistan and the rest of the world. When some acts of communal violence broke out in parts of Sri Lanka, in retaliation and response to the Easter attacks, I 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.” I 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, that could further radicalize youth and use them as 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 swiftly stabilized the situation following the Easter attacks. Thanks to their efforts, Sri Lanka’s tourism industry has quickly begun recovering, as has the country’s overall economy.

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 itself to be vibrant and resilient, inspiring younger democracies such as that of Afghanistan. 

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

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

I am 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 South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and other intergovernmental organizations where we 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 eight 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, I look forward to initiating bilateral security and defense cooperation, knowing from the shared experiences of Afghanistan and Sri Lanka that most security threats transcend borders and are no longer limited to just landlocked or littoral states separately. It would be beneficial to both countries to explore maritime security cooperation opportunities in the areas of counterterrorism, counternarcotics, and counter-human trafficking. In addition, 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 arenas, 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. When this happens, 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 New America’s International Security program in Washington D.C.