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Afghanistan – a turning point?

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by Dr Sarala Fernando

Headlines in the press and live tv and internet coverage of the chaos at Kabul airport following the American withdrawal from Afghanistan has generated an impression around the world of an American foreign policy debacle, belittling the supremacy of American military power. With even smaller NATO allies like Latvia criticizing the US for lack of prior consultation on the withdrawal ,will this be a turning point for the Europeans to assume more responsibility for their security and even to fashion a pan- European defence system as suggested by President Macron of France?

Cynics will disagree, given that European allies have for years fought shy of even increasing their financial contributions to NATO, despite constant pressure from the US. However France has assumed a lead role as a security provider with President Macron making official visits in Africa and Iraq at this time where he has said that France will continue to support the global fight against terror even where the US has decided to leave.

The real historical turning point however is that the US which branded the Taliban as terrorists and drove them out of Kabul twenty years ago, are now negotiating with the same Taliban on the basis of shared interests. In the hurly burly of the chaotic media images, one may fail to see that the US withdrawal and the deadline of August 31 is in fact part of a carefully agreed negotiation process going back to the Trump era (and formally signed as far back as February 2020 between US Ambassador Khalilzad and Taliban chief Baradar), now unfolding into the last stage of implementation in a non-combat humanitarian mission of evacuation/withdrawal.

The tipping point for US security planners had come some years ago when they realized that the elected government in Kabul was unable to give leadership to the Afghan security forces to maintain their control of territory, despite the training and equipping provided by the US to some three hundred thousands of Afghan security forces. What has happened on the ground in the last weeks has legal implications since recognition of a government depends on its ability to control the territory within its accepted borders. The speed at which the regional cities fell to Taliban control in their recent offensive underlines the Taliban’s ability to negotiate power sharing arrangements with the feudal lords controlling those cities and representing various ethnic groups. As of now, despite widespread media fears , ethnic war has not broken out although there are many reports of human rights violations and individual killings especially from the Hazari ethnic community.

Despite the public smirking on the so called US “defeat”, Afghanistan’s great power neighbours like Russia and China have extended support ( ie see reference to ” a soft landing”) in engaging the Taliban in their common interest of a stable Afghanistan which would not give shelter and succor to terrorist groups. Qatar has become the lead negotiator for the international community and together with Russia, China have kept their embassies open in Afghanistan. Pakistan with its old links to the Taliban has also been a key intermediary between the Taliban and the international community, leaving India isolated and the strategic partnership between India and the US somewhat in limbo.

Initially, US political advisers like Peter Galbraith had suggested that there were positive signs with the Taliban in control, none of the remaining American assets had been attacked and that there was a relative calm in Kabul without any major violence . Despite the suicide attack on August 26 claimed by ISIS K, killing some 14 American servicemen and over 100 Afghans crowding the airport gates, the US-Taliban cooperation has continued. The Taliban have claimed that about 30 of their members were also among the victims and significantly didn’t comment when the US in retaliation launched drone strikes against the alleged ISIS K perpetrators in Afghanistan territory. Some even suggest that the Taliban may have provided the ground intelligence for the strikes.

The US engagement with the Taliban and the attempt to bring it out of the cold, is comparable to the Oslo peace process which sought to bring the PLO and Israel into an agreement. The US withdrawal, dramatic as it has been thanks to the media coverage, is in fact just a step in a process which has involved talks on several tracks with the Taliban over some years now. Once the foreign troop withdrawal is completed by August 31, the coming weeks and months will witness perhaps the most important turning point, whether an armed group like the Taliban with its strict Islamic code, can in fact convert to an “inclusive” government with sufficient legitimacy to enable resumption of western monetary and humanitarian assistance presumably under the supervision of UN and international humanitarian organizations including the ICRC with extended operations across Afghanistan, still remaining in Kabul.

The Taliban has publicly provided reassurance of changed behavior including more respect for women’s rights to education and work for example. However removal of international sanctions and recognition of the Taliban government will be the last on the agenda, given the uncertainty over the counter-terrorism dilemma and meeting international human rights standards.

The re-formulation of US foreign policy catering to the domestic agenda to bring American troops home and calling upon allies to meet a greater cost share of foreign base arrangements took a brash “showman” appearance under President Trump. However it is President Biden who has taken the hard decision (“the buck stops with me”) on the withdrawal from Afghanistan which became possible after the capture of Osama Bin Laden and destruction of his Al Quaeda network during the Obama Administration. Domestic calls for investigations also played a part in this decision following the audit of the millions of US dollars spent in that country, mainly through hundreds of American contractors. More scandals will break with hundreds of thousands of pieces of American weaponry transferred to the Afghan army now being flaunted in Taliban hands.

The US withdrawal from Afghanistan marks the end of the global war on terror declared by President George Bush after 9/11 and represents an important turning point for the reformulation of US foreign and national security policy. Perceptive analysis has suggested that future American global leadership will “prioritize diplomacy, soft-power tools, economic and financial levers, technological advantage, intelligence-gathering and specialized defensive capabilities” (the Guardian) on committing of troops to full scale invasions and occupations. This has been termed as “smart power” for a new era. This analysis also suggested that under the new strategy, US counter-terrorism policy will look beyond “Islamist terror to the rising domestic threat from far-right extremists”. For some time now, the US military has been questioning its role in “nation building” activities in distant places like Afghanistan and calling for a return to its traditional role of securing the homeland territory.

So what is the relevance for Sri Lanka? On the recognition issue, the Foreign Ministry in Colombo has quite correctly remained non-committal given the fast evolving situation. Opposition leaders, calling for non-recognition of the Taliban, are way off the mark. Perhaps most important for us is to ponder how a small “terrorist” group once defeated by a pre-eminent superpower could yet sustain itself, regroup and come to power after 20 years, attracting the support of foreign fighters and overcoming local power centres. There is another point, the Taliban has publicly announced that it will not harbor other terrorist groups in Afghanistan – how genuine this is has been questioned by many who point to Al Quaeda and Islamic State as being embedded throughout the districts.

Following the bomb attack near Kabul airport claimed by ISIS K, the US took retaliatory action probably based on intelligence provided by the Taliban – a new pattern of pragmatic cooperation on mutual interests to watch, going into the future. At the domestic level, will the Taliban example embolden local groups in other countries to rely on mobilizing domestic resources for their operations with distant goals in mind, while taking sustenance from foreign idealogy? This is why it is so important to know the intelligence ramifications of the Easter bombings in Sri Lanka and the nexus between the foreign and domestic networks as demanded by the Catholic church on behalf of the victims.

(Sarala Fernando, retired from the Foreign Ministry as Additional Secretary and her last Ambassadorial appointment was as Permanent Representative to the UN and International Organizations in Geneva . Her Ph.D was on India-Sri Lanka relations and she writes now on foreign policy, diplomacy and protection of heritage).



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Features

Why Small Farms will be the backbone of food security

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The ecological axiom that: ‘Energy flow through a system tends to organise and simplify that system’, is abundantly clear in agriculture. As farms moved from small interdependent units, bounded by fences and hedgerows, to large cropping fields to accommodate machine management, we lose the biodiversity that once existed on that landscape and the biomass that provided the Ecosystem Services. This sacrifice was rationalised through the invocation of economic profit. The economic ‘profit’ gained by subsidies on fossil fuel and uncontrolled extraction from the Global Commons. The ‘development’ of agriculture has become a race to control the commodity market. The farmer ceased to be a feature of the farm. In a telling statement, the farmers of Sri Lanka sent the following statement to the CGIAR in 1998 :

‘We, the farmers of Sri Lanka would like to further thank the CGIAR, for taking an interest in us. We believe that we speak for all of our brothers and sisters the world over when we identify ourselves as a community who are integrally tied to the success of ensuring global food security. In fact it is our community who have contributed to the possibility of food security in every country since mankind evolved from a hunter-gather existence. We have watched for many years, as the progression of experts, scientists and development agents passed through our communities with some or another facet of the modern scientific world. We confess that at the start we were unsophisticated in matters of the outside world and welcomed this input. We followed advice and we planted as we were instructed. The result was a loss of the varieties of seeds that we carried with us through history, often spanning three or more millennia. The result was the complete dependence of high input crops that robbed us of crop independence. In addition, we farmers producers of food, respected for our ability to feed populations, were turned into the poisoners of land and living things, including fellow human beings. The result in Sri Lanka is that we suffer from social and cultural dislocation and suffer the highest pesticide- related death toll on the planet. Was this the legacy that you the agricultural scientists wanted to bring to us ? We think not. We think that you had good motives and intentions, but left things in the hands of narrowly educated, insensitive people.’

The diverse farm had to yield to production monoculture, which was made possible through the burning of fossil fuels. Ironically the burning of fossil fuels is the major reason for the current destabilised climate and threat to agriculture. One consequence of climate change is the predicted rise in global temperatures. If ambient temperatures exceed 40 degrees , which has become the reality in many places even today, food production will be compromised. All the food we eat originates with plants and plants produce using photosynthesis. Photosynthesis, or the capture of solar energy by plants, is done with chlorophyll, the thing that makes plants green and chlorophyll begins to break down after 40 degrees. Landscapes whose summer temperatures go beyond this limit will have smaller and smaller crops as the temperatures increase. The only solution to this oncoming crisis, is to begin introducing trees at strategic points on the landscape.

Trees and all other forms of vegetation cool the environment around them through the transpiration process, which takes place in the leaves. The water absorbed by the roots is sent up to the leaves which release it as vapor, cooling the air around it. Measurements on trees done by research institutions worldwide, indicate that an average large tree produces the cooling equivalent of eight room sized air conditioners running for 10 hours, a cooling yield 0f 1,250,000 Bthu per day. Plantations of trees have been recoded to have daytime temperatures at least 3 degrees below the ambient. This is an important aspect of Ecosystem Services that needs to be considered for adaptive agriculture.

Small farms which produce food with low external energy and maintain high biomass and biodiversity, are the models of food production that can face the climate compromised future before us. Capital, resource and energy expensive agricultural systems could fail in a high temperature future and threaten global food security, we need options. One would be to encourage a consumption and distribution system that facilitates small farmers to enter the market. Another would be to realise the value of the ecosystem services of a farm and develop systems to measure and reward. We are all aware of the future before us. Now is not the time to stand blinking like a deer facing the headlights.

But placing trees in and around cropping areas becomes a problem in large cropping fields designed to accommodate machine management. The management of such trees and hedgerows requires needs that cannot be provided without human management. Agricultural landscapes will need management that will be adaptive to the changing climate. An example would be; small interdependent units bounded by fences and that increase biodiversity and the biomass while providing Ecosystem Services.

Investment in food security, should take climate change seriously. All new agricultural projects should address the heat thresholds of the planned crops. The Sri Lankan country statement at COP 21 stated that :

“We are aware that the optimum operating temperature of chlorophyll is at 37 deg C. In a warming world where temperatures will soar well above that, food production will be severely impacted.”

And that :

“We are aware that the critical Ecosystem services such as; production of Oxygen, sequestering of Carbon, water cycling and ambient cooling is carried out by the photosynthetic component of biomass. This is being lost at an exponential rate, due to the fact that these Ecosystem Services have not been valued, nor economically recognised.”

These statements cry out for the recognition of the role that small farms will have to play in the future. In a temperature compromised future, small farms with high standing biomass, through their cooler temperatures will continue to produce food in heat stressed periods. If such Ecosystem Services can be given a value, it will strengthen the economy of small farms and ensure local, sustainable food production into the future.

Small farms which produce food with low external energy and maintain high biomass and biodiversity, are the models of food production that can face the climate compromised future before us. Capital, resource and energy expensive agricultural systems could fail in a high temperature future and threaten global food security, we need options. One would be to encourage a consumption and distribution system that facilitates small farmers to enter the market. Another would be to realize the value of the ecosystem services of a farm and develop systems to measure and reward. We are all aware of the future before us. Now is not the time to stand blinking like a deer in sheadlights.

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Encouraging signs, indeed!

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Derek and Manilal

Local entertainers can now breathe a sigh of relief…as the showbiz scene is showing signs of improving

Yes, it’s good to see Manilal Perera, the legendary singer, and Derek Wikramanayake, teaming up, as a duo, to oblige music lovers…during this pandemic era.

They will be seen in action, every Friday, at the Irish Pub, and on Sundays at the Cinnamon Grand Lobby.

The Irish Pub scene will be from 7.00 pm onwards, while at the Cinnamon Grand Lobby, action will also be from 7.00 pm onwards.

On November 1st, they are scheduled to do the roof top (25th floor) of the Movenpik hotel, in Colpetty, and, thereafter, at the same venue, every Saturday evening.

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Constructive dialogue beyond international community

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by Jehan Perera

Even as the country appears to be getting embroiled in more and more conflict, internally, where dialogue has broken down or not taken place at all, there has been the appearance of success, internationally. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa will be leading a delegation this week to Scotland to attend the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26). Both the President, at the UN General Assembly in New York, and Foreign Minister Prof G L Peiris, at the UN Human Rights Council, in Geneva seem to have made positive impacts on their audiences and, especially amongst the diplomatic community, with speeches that gave importance to national reconciliation, based on dialogue and international norms.

In a recent interview to the media Prof Peiris affirmed the value of dialogue in rebuilding international relations that have soured. He said, “The core message is that we believe in engagement at all times. There may be areas of disagreement from time to time. That is natural in bilateral relations, but our effort should always be to ascertain the areas of consensus and agreement. There are always areas where we could collaborate to the mutual advantage of both countries. And even if there are reservations with regard to particular methods, there are still abundant opportunities that are available for the enhancement of trade relations for investment opportunities, tourism, all of this. And I think this is succeeding because we are establishing a rapport and there is reciprocity. Countries are reaching out to us.”

Prof Peiris also said that upon his return from London, the President would engage in talks locally with opposition parties, the TNA and NGOs. He spoke positively about this dialogue, saying “The NGOs can certainly make a contribution. We like to benefit from their ideas. We will speak to opposition political parties. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is going to meet the Tamil National Alliance on his return from COP26, which we will attend at the invitation of the British Prime Minister. So be it the NGO community or the foreign diaspora or the parliamentary opposition in Sri Lanka. We want to engage with all of them and that is very much the way forward”

INTERNAL FRAGMENTATION

The concept of a whole-of-government approach is indicative of a more cohesive approach to governance by government ministries, the public administration and state apparatus in general to deal with problems. It suggests that the government should not be acting in one way with the international community and another way with the national community when it seeks to resolve problems. It is consistency that builds trust and the international community will trust the government to the extent that the national community trusts it. Dialogue may slow down decision making at a time when the country is facing major problems and is in a hurry to overcome them. However, the failure to engage in dialogue can cause further delays due to misunderstanding and a refusal to cooperate by those who are being sidelined.

There are signs of fragmentation within the government as a result of failure to dialogue within it. A senior minister, Susil Premajayantha, has been openly critical of the ongoing constitutional reform process. He has compared it to the past process undertaken by the previous government in which there was consultations at multiple levels. There is a need to change the present constitutional framework which is overly centralised and unsuitable to a multi ethnic, multi religious and plural society. More than four decades have passed since the present constitution was enacted. But the two major attempts that were made in the period 1997-2000 and again in 2016-2019 failed.

President Rajapaksa, who has confidence in his ability to stick to his goals despite all obstacles, has announced that a new constitution will be in place next year. The President is well situated to obtain success in his endeavours but he needs to be take the rest of his government along with him. Apart from being determined to achieve his goals, the President has won the trust of most people, and continues to have it, though it is getting eroded by the multiple problems that are facing the country and not seeing a resolution. The teachers’ strike, which is affecting hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren, is now in its fourth month, with no sign of resolution. The crisis over the halting of the import of chemical fertiliser is undermining the position of farmers and consumers at the present time.

EARLY WARNING

An immediate cause for the complaints against the government is the lack of dialogue and consultation on all the burning issues that confront the country. This problem is accentuated by the appointment of persons with military experience to decision-making positions. The ethos of the military is to take decisions fast and to issue orders which have to be carried out by subordinates. The President’s early assertion that his spoken words should be taken as written circulars reflects this ethos. However, democratic governance is about getting the views of the people who are not subordinates but equals. When Minister Premajayantha lamented that he did not know about the direction of constitutional change, he was not alone as neither does the general public or academicians which is evidenced by the complete absence of discussion on the subject in the mass media.

The past two attempts at constitutional reform focused on the resolution of the ethnic conflict and assuaging the discontent of the ethnic and religious minorities. The constitutional change of 1997-2000 was for the purpose of providing a political solution that could end the war. The constitutional change of 2016-19 was to ensure that a war should not happen again. Constitutional reform is important to people as they believe that it will impact on how they are governed, their place within society and their equality as citizens. The ethnic and religious minorities will tend to prefer decentralised government as it will give them more power in those parts of the country in which they are predominant. On the other hand, that very fact can cause apprehension in the minds of the ethnic and religious majority that their place in the country will be undermined.

Unless the general public is brought aboard on the issue of constitutional change, it is unlikely they will support it. We all need to know what the main purpose of the proposed constitutional reform is. If the confidence of the different ethnic and religious communities is not obtained, the political support for constitutional change will also not be forthcoming as politicians tend to stand for causes that win them votes. Minister Premajayantha has usefully lit an early warning light when he said that politicians are not like lamp posts to agree to anything that the government puts before them. Even though the government has a 2/3 majority, this cannot be taken for granted. There needs to be buy in for constitutional reform from elected politicians and the general public, both from the majority community and minorities, if President Rajapaksa is to succeed where previous leaders failed.

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