Mohammed Rasooldeen , Editor-in-Chief of the Colombo Times, interviewed Afghanistan’s Ambassador to Sri Lanka M. Ashraf Haidari, discussing questions on the key aspects of the growing relationship between Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. They also discussed developments in the two countries’ relations over the recent years, as well as the post-COVID19 prospects of more tangible security and economic cooperation between the two countries in a regional context.
COLOMBO : What are some of the key issues that form the basis of a growing Sri Lanka-Afghanistan relationship?
Haidari: Foremost, let me point out that this past November, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka celebrated the 62nd anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between our two countries. Since 1958, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka have stood by each other in various multilateral forums, supporting each other’s humanitarian and developmental causes on a South-South cooperation basis. And as two near South Asian neighbors, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka have increasingly shared many interests and concerns in the region.
This encouraged both sides to open missions in Kabul and Colombo in 2013 and 2014 for more tangible collaboration on a range of issues from establishing full-spectrum connectivity for trade and stronger people-to-people ties to drawing relevant lessons from Sri Lanka’s war-to-peace-transition experience. This is particularly helpful, as Afghanistan both fights terrorism with regional roots and pursues a results-driven peace process that can deliver sustainable peace and end the imposed war in our country. And other issues that commonly concern our two countries include climate change, poverty, and drug-trafficking, all of which feed extremism, separatism, and terrorism.
So, because economics drives security and vice versa in a resourceful and polarized region like South Asia, regional cooperation is not an option but an imperative, a must among all South Asian nations or the member-states of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). And that is exactly why President Ashraf Ghani has strongly and repeatedly called for regional cooperation, which underpins Afghanistan’s foreign policy, against confrontation. We all know that the pursuit of confrontational, zero-sum policies has only prevented our region from developing together or addressing together the challenges that transcend our porous borders.
What steps have the Sri Lankan and Afghan governments taken to cooperate economically?
Haidari: Since 2013, our two governments have signed and initiated to sign sixteen bilateral cooperation MOUs and agreements in total. These encompass all areas of mutually beneficial cooperation in the commercial, political, security, and cultural sectors. Establishing connectivity between Afghanistan and Sri Lanka has been one of our top priorities.
Had the global COVID19 pandemic not happened, we would have already had a direct flight between Kabul and Colombo by now, transporting goods, businesspeople, students, and tourists to and from our two countries. And this would generate millions of dollars in monthly revenues for both sides, while deepening people-to-people ties between our two beautiful countries with a shared cultural heritage.
I say this with confidence because both President Ashraf Ghani and President Gotabaya Rajapaksa remain firmly committed to establishing trade connectivity between our two countries. At the same time, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, under whose former presidency our diplomatic relations were elevated, has strongly supported every effort to further deepen our two countries’ growing friendship.
To this end and in preparation for the post-COVID19 era, we have finalized to sign an air services agreement soon, while proactively forging ties between our two countries’ chambers of commerce and investment. Last September, the Afghanistan Chamber of Commerce and Investment (ACCI) and the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce (CCC) signed a cooperation MOU, under which both sides established country trade desks with focal points, working with our two missions in Colombo and Kabul to facilitate bilateral trade and investment.
In the same vein, I have lost no opportunity to go on provincial trips, connecting with the provincial chambers of commerce and meeting major local businesses to discuss bilateral investment opportunities. For example, Sri Lanka’s principal products such as Ceylon tea; apparel and textiles; spices; food, feed, and beverages; and coconut and coconut-based products could easily find profitable markets in Afghanistan.
As I often say, 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 I’ve been encouraging the tea industry of Sri Lanka to make a move and begin exporting your tasteful tea varieties to Afghanistan with consistent demand for this signature Sri Lankan product.
And I too have encouraged the jewelry sector of Sri Lanka to visit Kabul and see for themselves the endless investment opportunities in this virgin market in Afghanistan as one of the minerally richest countries in the world with large reserves of precious and semi-precious stones. Here, we not only need your exploration and extraction technical know-how but also Sri Lanka’s experience and expertise in processing, designing, and marketing our precious and semi-precious stones, including emerald, ruby, lapis lazuli, garnet, tourmaline, and others.
What is hindering the Afghan peace process and how its failure could destabilize the whole region with implications for your extended neighborhood and the world at large?
Haidari: Since June 2017, President Ghani has made every effort domestically, regionally, and globally to end the imposed war in Afghanistan and to usher in the country sustainable and dignified peace. In doing so, he has consistently consulted with all segments of the Afghan society, including women, through our traditional consensus-building and decision-making mechanisms, such as Loya Jirgas, to negotiate a political settlement with the Taliban.
In this light, the principal goal of the Afghan peace process is to preserve our Republic and the hard-earned Constitutional, democratic gains of the Afghan people, including human rights and women’s rights, made over the past 19 years. In doing so, even though the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan was not a party to the Doha Agreement reached between the United States and the Taliban under the Trump Administration, we made an unprecedented concession for the sake of peace, releasing over 5,000 imprisoned Taliban.
Mandated by the Afghan people, our government did so to build genuine confidence with the Taliban, encouraging them to deliver on their commitments under the Doha Agreement, which include an immediate reduction in violence followed by a comprehensive ceasefire, cutting ties with terrorist groups, preventing their released prisoners from returning to the battlefield, and a results-driven peace talks process that would verifiably culminate into a sustainable outcome acceptable to the Afghan people.
On the contrary, however, the Taliban, backed by their traditional sponsor and other regional peace spoilers, have failed on every one of their Doha Agreement commitments, escalating terrorist attacks on our innocent civilian population, including carrying out targeted attacks on members of Afghanistan’s vibrant civil society. Consequently, we have welcomed a thorough review of the Doha Agreement by the Biden Administration, as well as thanking our other NATO and European partners for their enduring commitment to a conditions-based troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Indeed, as we appreciate a conditions-based military approach to peacemaking in Afghanistan, we have reached out to all our near and far neighbors, building and strengthening regional consensus for tangible cooperation to help the Afghan peace process succeed against regional and transnational terrorist networks, including Al Qaeda and ISIS, which operate under the Taliban umbrella.
Our neighborhood recalls from the spillover effects of the imposed conflicts in the 1990s that a destabilized Afghanistan only undermines regional stability at a time when our region desperately needs to recover from the devastating economic impact of the COVID19 pandemic. And nor could the United States and Europe afford to abandon prematurely Afghanistan’s developing democracy, for which their and our forces have made thousands of sacrifices, indeed, the ultimate sacrifices that must never go in vain and must never allow another 9/11 to happen ever again.
On a lighter note, tell us about the shared heritage of Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. Can a Buddhist temple be built in Bamiyan Province, which houses the statues of the Lord Buddha, for international tourists, including pilgrims from Sri Lanka?
Haidari: Since time immemorial, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka have shared intertwined civilizational ties influenced by such major belief systems as Buddhism, Islam, and Hinduism. These 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.
So, the majestic Buddhas of Bamiyan are a testament to our shared heritage and to Afghanistan’s cultural pluralism and diversity, which underpin the very 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, with the exception of extremist Taliban, who on orders from their foreign patron, tragically dynamited the sixth-century statues of Buddha. As the world watched the destruction of the world’s heritage site in Bamiyan, the Afghan people, including our diaspora communities around the world, mourned the tragic loss of our cultural treasure.
All told, yes, a Buddhist temple can be built in Bamiyan. And this can be discussed and achieved under the cultural cooperation agreement between Afghanistan and Sri Lanka. I have discussed this with several revered monks, including in Kandy, and encouraged them to approach the Sri Lankan government for support and to work with our two missions to achieve this common goal in recognition of our cherished, shared heritage.