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From Saigon to Kabul: Questionable approaches of the West, and future of Afghanistan

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By Dr. Laksiri Fernando

US decision or Joe Biden’s decision to leave Afghanistan was correct in terms of ‘original sin’ and the socio-political, and cultural contradictions, created during the ‘colonial occupation’ since 2001. However the way they are withdrawing creates the impression that the US and other Western allies are in a terrible mess.

Without much common sense, the American and allied troops were withdrawn before their civilian supporters or citizens were evacuated. Academics and students were among them. That is why we still have a chaotic situation at the Kabul airport. Twenty odd people have already been killed. At least some of them fell from the first aircraft leaving. The scene was very much similar to Saigon, 46 years ago.

Joe Biden blamed the Afghan forces that they recruited, trained and armed during the last 20 years. ‘What can we do if they cannot fight the Taliban?’ was his explanation for the apparent betrayal. In that case why the hell did the US go to Afghanistan and virtually occupy this other people’s country? Biden did not blame President Ashraf Ghani who fled the country before anyone else.

Hypocrisy of US policies

So many ambiguities and contradictions are exposed in respect of US foreign policies, as a result of the present crisis. Biden claimed, like other previous presidents, that US foreign policies are guided by international human rights. In the same speech he said that there is nothing more to gain by the US being in Afghanistan. His reasoning was that the US invaded Afghanistan because of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and to punish Osama bin Laden as a way of meting out justice that the American victims and people deserved.

Osama bin Laden was caught and killed in 2011. Then why didn’t the Americans leave Afghanistan immediately after that? Ten more years have gone by since then. Bin Laden was not killed in Afghanistan, but in Pakistan. Even if the US wanted to eliminate not only Bin Laden but also al-Qaeda, which might make sense, why did they want to occupy the whole of Afghanistan?

There is no question that not only the US, but Western countries in general, are interested in promoting human rights and democracy in their foreign policies. But their self-interests are the cornerstone, and these interests as well as their human rights policies are overwhelmingly still marked by a form of colonial mentality. This has been the crisis from Saigon to Kabul.

History

Some people believe that the US intervention in Afghanistan started in 2001. That is not the case. It goes back to the beginning of the Cold War. Both the Soviet Union and the US wanted to keep Afghanistan as a client state. During the period of Daoud Khan (1953-1978), Afghanistan zig zagged between the two superpowers. The opportunity was taken up by the Communists and created a revolution in 1978. Afghanistan was named a People’s Democratic Republic. That was when the US started directly funding and arming Mujahideen movements of various types through Pakistan. Then the Soviet Union intervened and first invaded the country.

Understandably, any type of socialism was anathema to the US. It was not on the basis of human rights but for economic or profit reasons. It is not true that only the US backed regime after 2001 created circumstances that ensured women’s right to education and work. Those were introduced between 1978 and 1990. The communist regime also was repressive and the ordinary or rural people disliked some of the policies on religious grounds. That was the basis for the people-based Mujahedeen movements. There is evidence that the US, perhaps unintentionally, prompted some Arab Mujahideen groups to get involved in the Afghan civil war. Certain origins of Al Qaeda goes back to these efforts, if not Taliban.

Personal experience

I had to visit the UNHCR office in Peshawar in 1989 as a World University Service (WUS) representative. WUS Pakistan was assisting refugees independently and apolitically. The visit involved visiting refugee camps in Azakhel and further towards the Pakistan-Afghan border. There was no possibility of crossing the border or visiting Jalalabad in Afghanistan given the heavy fighting.

The wounded who were treated at Medicine San Frontier makeshift hospitals were disheartening to look at. In many makeshift camps, young boys carried heavy arms, perhaps guarding their mothers and sisters. These were supposed to be the future Taliban. I was not allowed to take many pictures except of some male refugees/activists (picture 1) and a side view of the Basic Health Unit at Azakhel Camp (picture 2). The streets in Peshawar at that time were largely deserted due to the war (picture 3).

My visit from Geneva was after the Geneva Accords in 1988 between Afghanistan and Pakistan, guaranteed by the US and the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union withdrew and the US promised not to support any faction, true or not. The civil war continued and resulted in a Taliban governed Islamic Emirate in 1997 with many other insurgency (terrorist) groups still operating in the country. The new Emirate was recognised only by a few countries, mainly Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the UAE. And it fell quite quickly in 2001 when the US invaded.

This bit of history shows how the US, Soviet Union now gone, was involved in the Afghan debacle from the beginning, and the consequences would be extremely difficult to eliminate in the foreseeable future.

What is created?

The speed of the collapse of the US backed Afghan government of Ashraf Ghani shows the futility of what the US and some other Western governments were doing in Afghanistan during the last twenty years in the name of ‘democratic nation building.’

Democracy or human rights could be ensured primarily through internal forces and changes. These cannot be achieved through occupation or colonialism. External examples or diplomatic influence can be useful, if implemented in a friendly manner and not in an arrogant way. Even at present, the way many Western countries reacted to the first press conference of the Taliban was dismissive and arrogant.

It may be true that what they said about the rights of women, female children, the press, and amnesty to those who supported the last government cannot be fully trusted. All might depend on the circumstances. However, those should be welcomed instead of condemned outright for the sake of promoting them in a positive direction. Qualifications must be warranted, instead of sarcasm or condemnation.

What was created by the Western occupiers in Afghanistan appears to be shallow. It is true that some of the middle class sections in urban Kabul and the suburbs embraced Western values, democracy and human rights. That is good. But the great majority of the rural and remote communities were left out. They may have different values or be oblivious of democracy or human rights. Education ought to take precedence over propaganda.

What the occupation largely created were refugees. At present the population in Afghanistan is estimated to be around 40 million. According to the UNHRC, around six million Afghans are living in Iran and Pakistan as refugees. Some of them are reported to be coming back now with some national hope. The UNHCR estimated that Afghan refugees in other, mainly Western, countries amount to nearly three million. They would not come back. Who is unwilling to live in a developed country instead of a poor and a conflict ridden country? The present exodus at the Kabul airport might include not only those who worked for the occupied government but also those who aspire to live in a Western country. Large disparities in living conditions between rich and poor countries is the main reason for such an exodus.

Future challenges

It would be an extremely difficult task for any future government in Afghanistan to run the economy, day to day administration, while rectifying confusions and conflicts created by the occupiers as well as the Afghans themselves over the past 50 years. Infrastructure development might be a top priority. One hope might be China who would offer to build destroyed or absent infrastructure in the country. There are of course skyscrapers and KFCs built in Kabul. But those are not for the poor or the ordinary.

However, international forces may intervene. China might not be in a position to sort them out at all. China anyway cannot be a panacea. It still does not have much leverage in the UN system or the international community. Therefore, going by the colonial mentality of most of the Western countries, not to speak of the US, there can be future challenges including certain invasions and external influences. There may be a need to look for friends in the West as well. This is what Vietnam did after Saigon.

Of course, there would be major internal challenges as well. Apart from the Taliban, there have been half a dozen other armed groups in Afghanistan. Many have now been integrated into the Taliban, but not all. There can be challenges from ISIS or the remaining Al Qaeda. Whether Afghanistan would again become a haven for international terrorism is also a question. Even about the Taliban itself, we really don’t know much. Therefore, we really have to keep our fingers crossed but not be completely pessimistic, negative or arrogant like the Western pundits.

There is an apparent difference in the Taliban between, for example, 2001 and 2021, that may bring hope for a progressive world. The lessons from Saigon to Kabul are very clear. Diplomacy without interference might be the best for the world in promoting democracy and human rights.

Pics by Laksiri Fernando



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Form-ation of Higher Education in Sri Lanka

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By Hasini Lecamwasam

Improving higher education in Sri Lanka is not only important, but essential and long overdue. However, seeking to achieve higher ‘quality’ by ‘form-ising’ the performance of teachers (or the practice of forcing the entire teaching-learning exercise into forms designed to communicate exactly what and what transpires in a classroom) may not be able to bring about the desired change. A new set of four forms introduced recently to this end requires, among other things, drawing up a minutely detailed plan of each and every lesson to be delivered in class, aligned with the Course Learning Outcomes (CLOs), in turn, to be aligned with the Programme Learning Outcomes (PLOs), which should all then be tied to the graduate profile, or the kind of graduate we seek to ‘produce’ at the end of it all. This may, on the surface of it, sound reasonable enough and not encourage serious debate or resistance because, after all, it is only some forms that need to be filled.

Form by tedious form, however, the teaching-learning process at state universities is becoming increasingly constricted, fragmented, monitored, controlled. In this piece, I wish to briefly ponder on the implications of these requirements and the larger trends they signal, while also attempting to reflect on what instead we may do to ensure ‘quality’ in the delivery of higher education.

The problem with form-ation

The larger ‘Quality Assurance’ (QA) landscape in which these developments take place was discussed in detail in an earlier Kuppi Talk by Kaushalya Perera. In a nutshell, QA seeks to standardise education such that study programmes can be assessed against each other, assigned numbers, and ranked accordingly. The deployment of overarching yardsticks for programmes with hugely varying mandates, methods, and content has been the subject of much critique lately the world over, not the least due to its rather warped understanding of ‘quality’ as something that can be objectively established through metrics and audits.

While I do not question the bona fide motives behind the initiative taken with the aforementioned forms, I do think serious reflection on where these developments push us in the longer term is needed. My primary reservation here has to do with the impact of this lesson-wise breakdown on the creative and democratic exercise that the teaching-learning process is supposed to entail. When each topic is broken down into such fine detail prior to the actual occurrence of the ‘lesson’ (for want of a better word), outcomes are foreclosed rather than collectively and organically evolving in the course of the ‘lesson’, which is particularly important to many of the subjects offered in the Arts Faculties. Exactly how many of us are actually quite so democratic in our classrooms is a valid question in this regard, and one I will return to. The point for me here, however, is that for those who do have a sincere commitment to such a democratic classroom environment, such forms and the limiting of the teaching-learning experience they constitute, may be tantamount to strangulation.

Even if the majority of us admit to being very controlling in our classrooms anyway, does that justify going one step further with these forms and institutionalising such control? Should not our commitment be to the emancipatory ideal, rather than simply what most are on board with? There should be meaningful space for creative, organic, and democratic teaching-learning processes to unfold for teachers who wish to make that choice, and for students to explore and think beyond the teacher’s frame of thinking. Micromanaging beyond the general content of a course (laid down in enough detail in the course syllabus) is inimical to even a possibility of democracy existing in the classroom and within the larger university space.

This complete subservience of the teaching-learning process to red tape signals a larger and troubling trend of corporatisation. Corporatisation may be defined as the restructuring of a publicly owned institution to be managed as a business place would be, with a view to privatising in the long term. In state universities, this shift is couched in the supposedly ‘progressive’ language of student-centered approaches and interactive classrooms, hijacked from the democratic pedagogy of the likes of Paulo Freire, but bereft of any of the emancipatory politics within which these methods assume meaning. Despite the use of these catch-phrases, however, such minutely detailed forms signal a return to an extremely teacher-centered model due to the absence of the possibility for students to meaningfully influence the outcome of a lesson, as it is predetermined for them.

The result, as the Kannangara report worried with remarkable foresight some 80 years ago, is students “with much knowledge and little understanding. They have not read books; they have “studied” texts. They cannot write, they produce essays after a set style. They can answer questions but not question answers … Their imagination has been stunted, their originality suppressed, their capacity for thought undeveloped, their emotions inhibited.”

What alternative can we propose?

A valid question countering what little resistance there is to form-ation asks how we can ensure the education we currently deliver is of an acceptable standard, and that everybody observes such. There seems to prevail tacit and widespread agreement that the ‘democratic nonsense’ within universities is what has allowed many to hide behind debates, deliberations, appeals to creative freedom, and so on, without actually doing their work.

In my view, this is an arbitrary causation to draw. Blaming internal democracy for negligence of duties fails to take into account the highly anti-democratic practices at universities that may better explain such behaviour.

Specifically, I think it is the rigidly entrenched hierarchy within universities that blocks the possibility of even dialogue, let alone debate, particularly when it comes to holding those higher-up in the ladder accountable for their actions (or the lack thereof, as the case may be). Hierarchy is why, among many other things, students cannot question the content or the methods chosen by their teachers. As previous Kuppi Talks have endeavoured to show, hierarchy is silently, and therefore very effectively, observed at every level, ensuring the trumping of students by teachers, juniors by seniors, women by men, minorities by the majority, and originality by tradition. It impedes questioning, stifles dissent, and smothers alternative thinking altogether. The problem, therefore, is not that we have too much democracy in universities, but too little of it.

We must make a sincere and sustained effort to radically democratise the university space by relaxing the classroom to allow open and honest exchange between students and teachers; changing the relations of power between seniors and juniors, starting with undoing the practice of deferential treatment; refusing to tolerate snide and not-so-subtle references to ways of dressing and similar gendered remarks; questioning the exclusive use of the majority language in official communications, as a starting point. In doing so, we would be subverting the crippling hierarchy that inhibits thought and practice within the university. Such a radical change geared towards improved quality through mutual accountability, for me, is the only acceptable way of introducing accountability to a space that, admittedly, sorely lacks it.

(Hasini Lecamwasam is attached to the Department of Political Science, University of Peradeniya)

Kuppi is a politics and pedagogy happening on the margins of the lecture hall that parodies, subverts, and simultaneously reaffirms social hierarchies.

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THE LOGIC OF PRESIDENT’S PLEDGES IN NEW YORK

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by Jehan Perera

The significance of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s speech at the UN General Assembly, in New York, last week, was his use of the time allocated to him to provide an outline of the government’s policies towards the main challenges besetting the country. The President covered the main issues that confront the world with his focus on Sri Lanka. These included measures to contain the Covid pandemic, the economic crisis, environmental degradation and violence. In the final section of his well-crafted speech, the President went into some depth regarding the government’s approach to national reconciliation. However, the response within the country, has been muted and for good reason. Those who voted for the government, on an entirely different platform, which emphasised ethnic majority nationalism and anti-international sentiments, are quite probably at a loss.

It is only recently that the government has started to speak in terms of reconciliation and obtaining international support for it. At the two elections that brought this government to power, the Easter Sunday bombing and the consequent threat to national security, took centre stage. The majority, who voted for the government, did so to protect it from a variety of security threats they were told of, both within and outside the country. The wretched failure of the previous government to prevent the bombing, the first terrorist act of any magnitude since the war ended a decade earlier, was attributed to the personal weakness of the then government leaders. It was also attributed to the 19th Amendment which sought to give state institutions protection from use for partisan reasons by government politicians and to consequent disintegration of the system of command and control.

A second theme, at the two elections, was depiction of ethnic and religious minorities as potential security threats. This stemmed from the country’s experience of three decades of internal warfare with the armed Tamil separatist movements. This was followed by the Easter bombings by extremists from the Muslim community, who were feared to be having a vast support base both internally within the country and also externally. In these circumstances, the re-centralisation of power within the government hierarchy and greater role given to the security forces, received public acceptance as being part of the government’s democratic mandate. At the same time, by denying the equally legitimate concerns of the ethnic and religious minorities, the electoral results demonstrated the existence of an acute polarisation, and wound, in the body politic that continues to fester to the point of bringing in involuntary and imposed international interventions.

EU MONITORING

The challenge for the government is to represent the interests of all communities and not only the majority who voted it into power. The problem is that the government’s mandate comes, by and large, from the vote of the ethnic and religious majority in a country that has been polarised on ethnic and religious lines, for many decades. An ugly part of this reality is that in the prisons are several hundreds of Tamils and Muslims for the most part who are in custody for periods ranging from a few months to many years without trial. They are being held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, ostensibly until the security forces find adequate evidence to put them before the courts of law. This contradicts the rule of law and the presumption in our legal system that we are innocent until proven guilty can have negative consequences.

In June this year, the EU parliament passed a resolution that the GSP Plus tariff privileges, made available to Sri Lanka should be withdrawn unless the government fulfilled its obligations in regard to the upholding of human rights. The resolution, expressing “deep concern over Sri Lanka’s alarming path towards the recurrence of grave human rights violations”, and makes specific reference to the use of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). The resolution notes the “continuing discrimination” against and violence towards religious and ethnic minorities, while voicing “serious concern” about the 20th Amendment passed in 2020, and the “resulting decline in judiciary independence, the reduction of parliamentary control, and the excessive accumulation of power with the presidency”. It also highlights “accelerating militarisation” of civilian government functions in Sri Lanka.

A delegation from the EU is currently in Sri Lanka to meet with members of the government, Opposition and civil society, to ascertain whether the country is fulfilling its obligations to be a beneficiary of EU trade benefits. It is likely that the delegation will be provided with evidence of human rights violations and acts of impunity. There are hundreds of persons languishing in prisons without being put on trial, many of whom are Tamils, suspected to be LTTE members, and more of them are Muslims, suspected of having links with the Easter bombings. When questioned in parliament about the latter, the minister in charge justified those detentions on the grounds that Muslim youth, including the Muslim parliamentarian who had questioned him, could contain Islamic State ideology in their heads and therefore be security threats.

NEW DIRECTION

At the last elections, the most potent theme was the failure of the then government to act effectively to protect the country from the Easter suicide bombings and the pressures from human rights actors in Geneva. Among the issues that loomed large at the last election was also the charge that the previous government was giving in too much to the Muslim community within the country. The fact that the Easter attacks were by Muslim suicide bombers added force to this charge. The prioritisation of national security in the election campaign had popular support. The influential religious clergy, associations of professionals and mass media also joined the battle in earnest and their messages reinforced one another. The recent debate in Parliament suggests the government’s thinking continues to be in sync with the mandate it received at those elections.

However, in his speech in New York, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has shown signs of diverging from the politics of the past. The President said “Fostering greater accountability, restorative justice, and meaningful reconciliation through domestic institutions is essential to achieve lasting peace. So too is ensuring more equitable participation in the fruits of economic development. It is my Government’s firm intention to build a prosperous, stable and secure future for all Sri Lankans, regardless of ethnicity, religion, or gender. We are ready to engage with all domestic stakeholders, and to obtain the support of our international partners and the United Nations, in this process.” However, the President’s speech continues to be at variance with the ground realities at the present time and the general manner of governance since the President took office in November 2019.

So far the pledge of a new direction is articulated in words. The time for the government to make the President’s words real and act accordingly is now. This will help to overcome the deep and dark cynicism that has enveloped the country regarding promises made by politicians. The first step would be to apply the logic of the Justice Minister in Parliament. Replying to an Opposition Parliamentarian who called for the arrest of Minister Lohan Ratwatte who stands accused of entering a prison and threatening prisoners with his gun, the justice minister said that everyone is entitled to the presumption of innocence until proven guilty. This also applies to the hundreds of Tamils and Muslims in jail without evidence to charge them in a court of law. The better way to deal with the threats to national security is to win the confidence of all the communities in the Sri Lanka by treating them without discrimination, as children of one mother, as our national anthem proclaims.

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Face shields, sans masks, on TV shows!

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Face shield ONLY does not provide protection from Covid-19

Covid-19 has claimed many lives, in our part of the world. Quite a few musicians, too, have had to face the music, where this deadly virus is concerned.

However, one is perturbed with the setup seen on some of our TV shows, especially where musicians are concerned.

The Covid-19 guidelines are never adhered to – no masks, no social distancing, etc.

There were reality shows held, post pandemic, where judges were seen even hugging their favourite contestants – with no masks.

With the virus turning deadly, some of the judges took to only wearing face shields. And, we now know the results of their stupidity.

By their irresponsible behaviour (wearing only face shields), they seem to be setting a trend for others to follow.

The question being asked is what are the health authorities doing? Why haven’t such folks been taken to task!

If the man on the street is arrested for not wearing a mask, how come these law-breakers go scot-free!

If wearing a mask is a hassle in an air conditioned setup, then such shows should be put on hold, or held virtual…live stream, zoom, from home, etc., and not with the participation of several artistes, in a studio.

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