On 7th April 2021, Afghanistan’s Ambassador to Sri Lanka M. Ashraf Hydari signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena to expedite the partnership with regular engagements. With the signing of the political consultation mechanism, Sri Lanka has completed the bilateral foreign consultation mechanisms with all the South Asian countries.
Afghanistan and Sri Lanka enjoyed a diplomatic relationship since 1958. Though it continued indirectly through neighbouring country attaches, a direct bilateral relationship was established only in 2013. Under the Presidentship of Mahindra Rajapaksha, both countries opened Embassies in each other’s capitals while eight MOU’s have been signed since then to strengthen the partnership.
Both Kabul and Colombo are part of various regional groupings apart from the UN, which include the SAARC in South Asia. Apart from it, both are members of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and have kept their foreign policy largely neutral. The current relationship between the two very different social and geographical countries is based upon shared values of democratic ideals. In the current context of signing of the political consultation mechanism, both foreign representatives decided on a yearly review of bilateral cooperation. The high potential bilateral trade areas like dry fruits, gems, jewellery, cereals, etc. were also explored. Both partners also discussed further strengthening of people-to-people ties and highlighted setting up a direct flight corridor to boost tourism, cultural and social exchanges.
Both South Asian countries share the threat of domestic instability too. Afghanistan looks to gain from Colombo’s experience in dealing with its Tamil separatist issue and further reconciliation after the end of the LTTE threat. Afghanistan is in the process of a militancy problem where reconciliation with the Taliban is looking increasingly difficult. Sri Lanka’s experience with its Tamil minorities may prove helpful in the context of intra-Afghan peace talks. One of the matters of great concern for both countries is the threat posed by extremists. In 2019, Sri Lanka was rocked by Easter Sunday attacks which claimed the lives of 270 innocent civilians. The attacks were carried by 9 suicide bombers of the radical Islamist group National Thawheed Jamaat which owed allegiance to the Islamic State. Even after two years of investigations, prime suspects of the attacks have not been identified and instead created domestic political issues for Sri Lanka. What’s important to note is that Afghan president Ashraf Ghani was one of the first leaders to strongly condemn the attack and reiterated that both countries share a common threat. Afghanistan has long dealt with such terrorist attacks from multiple Islamist groups. These include the major factional group of Taliban and other radical Islamic groups like ISIL, Al-Qaeda, etc. Hundreds of Afghan lives were lost last year to suicide bombs, targeted killings and attacks by IS in and around Kabul. Sri Lanka can learn from the experience of Afghan Security Forces in tackling this extremist threat.
As the United States looks to exit Afghanistan in the coming few months, the role of regional actors in South Asia is immensely important to tackle the problem of radicalization. There is a scope for non-aligned approach to work in the stabilization of both countries, political reconciliation with Tamils in Lanka and introduction of Taliban as a party in Afghan politics. The Lankan model of fighting the insurgency till the end won’t actually work in Afghanistan since Taliban is a much more potent force and controls huge swathes of territory in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, the Afghan negotiators can lean on the political devolution of power to Taliban just like Colombo promised to its Tamil minorities under the 13th amendment which promised to create provincial councils and assured a power sharing arrangement. Though not implemented yet, the fundamental provision was key to dissuade further insurgency. Afghan national government’s power sharing deal with Taliban, if successful could stabilize the north-west South Asian region and end the decades’- long war which has made the region prone to the breeding of Islamic terror groups.
A stable Afghanistan and strong Sri Lanka will help the regional countries of India and Pakistan in the normalization of ties under the SAARC and work for regional connectivity. India and Afghanistan are already operating a direct air corridor to transport goods apart from the key link provided by the Chahbahar port in Iran. The Delaram-Zaranj-Chahbahar link could prove beneficial for Lankan exports to Afghanistan. The North-South transport Corridor which will link Western India with Russia via Iran and Central Asia can open new opportunities for both countries to connect the landlocked Central Asian countries with the global maritime economy. So, the significance of Colombo-Kabul ties is not merely symbolic, it also showcases the immense opportunity to learn from each other and boost socio-economic ties across frontiers.
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