Connectivity Key to Afghanistan–Sri Lanka Economic Cooperation

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 to say: “Today, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan celebrate 62 years of establishing diplomatic relations. The leadership of both nations is 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.”

As two democracies in South Asia, the fast-growing relations of Afghanistan and Sri Lanka enjoy the 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 the 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 air and sea connectivity to change the status quo, thereby deepening people-to-people ties through commercial and cultural exchanges.

Consequently, President Rajapaksa tasked the Sri Lankan Airlines to study options for a direct Colombo-Kabul flight. This could have materialized by now if it had not been for the restrictions and closures caused by the COVID-19 since last February. But 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.

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 and south; east and 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 Sri Lankan private sector take advantage of the numerous investment opportunities in the Afghan virgin 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 this mega sector. We have no doubt that within a year of such connectivity, we could easily need to operate a daily flight between Kabul and Colombo—carrying tourists seeking rest and recuperation; patients seeking treatment;  students seeking quality education; and businesspeople seeking investment opportunities.

Moreover, 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. 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 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, 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.

Regionally speaking, 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 youths demand jobs and a secure future in a common, interdependent neighborhood. 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 Afghanistan and Sri Lanka in SAARC strive to accomplish.

M. Ashraf Haidari is the Ambassador of Afghanistan to Sri Lanka, as well as a Senior International Security Fellow at the New America in Washington-DC. He tweets @MAshrafHaidari.