By Rajan Philips –
After twenty years, trillions of dollars, thousands of planes, copters and drones in the air, and tens of thousands of military boots on the ground, the American enterprise in Afghanistan has come down like a house of cards. The returning Taliban forces took barely two weeks to establish their power all over the country. The Afghan armed forces, so called, walked away without resistance and their Commander in Chief, President Ashraf Ghani, fled the country with his family and now says he is ready to return for talks.
The reports and images streaming out of Afghanistan show the panic among the supporters of the fallen government. Many of them are storming the airport in Kabul jostling for a seat in any one of the American military planes flying out of Afghanistan. On the other hand, there are also reports that large numbers of Afghans, perhaps the ‘silent majority’ – to borrow Nixon’s crafty phrase during the Vietnam war, seem relieved that power has changed hands without bloodshed and that life can return to a new normal without gun shots in the background.
Outside Afghanistan, there is hyped up speculation about what the Taliban will or will not do in the country now that they are its uncontested rulers. Will they act like grownups now compared to twenty years ago? Not that the Bush-Cheney Administration was particularly mature twenty years ago. Today there is too much of manufactured outrage among American media pundits over the Biden-Harris Administration’s botched up exit plan. Too little, on the other hand, is said about what four successive American governments have done to the people of Afghanistan over twenty years.
Other governments and leaders are watching the unfolding events in Afghanistan, and are not rushing to recognize or reject the new Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the official name of the country under the new Taliban administration. The exceptions are of course the US and its G7 allies, on the one hand, and the troika of Russia, China and Pakistan, on the other. The former propped up the now fallen government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. The latter group is working to globally normalize the new Taliban government. In the South Asian regional context, the biggest beneficiary of the change in Afghanistan is Pakistan. The biggest setback will be to the Hindu Nationalist Modi government in India. But even Pakistan is not rushing to formally recognize the Taliban government even though it is only a matter of formality for the Imran Khan government.
So, it was somewhat bemusing to see Sri Lankan leaders, Ranil Wickremesinghe and Mahinda Rajapaksa, rushing to make statements on Afghanistan while other governments are watching and waiting. Ranil Wickremesinghe was the first to go, urging the Sri Lankan government not to recognize the Taliban administration, because under the Taliban, Afghanistan will again become a hub for terror groups, which may lead to terrorism raising its head again in Sri Lanka. This from the gentleman who claimed innocence over Sri Lankan security matters after the 2019 Easter bombings.
The very next day the former PM was contradicted by the current Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, who “re-affirmed Sri Lanka’s continued support to the people of Afghanistan following the Taliban takeover.” Mr. Rajapaksa also let it be known that he had spoken with, not anyone from the Taliban, but strangely with the former Afghan President Hamid Karzai “to inquire about the ongoing developments unfolding in the war-torn country and further re-affirm Sri Lanka’s support for the Afghans.” Neither statement is going to be noticed by anyone outside Sri Lanka. But we can be curious about who within Sri Lanka will be taking note of either statement. Specifically, which embassy or high commission could be the intended target audience? Or may have prompted either of the two statements?
Lockdown at last
Even as global news is being dominated by Afghanistan and the Taliban, Covid-19 is front and centre in Sri Lanka. After weeks of foot dragging and denials, the government announced on Friday afternoon a 10-day lockdown from 10:00 PM on Friday to 4:00 AM on Monday, August 30. Whether a lockdown is going to be a week or two late is irrelevant now. At this critical stage no measure is too little, too early, or too late. Every measure counts, but every measure must be based on the considered recommendations of medical professionals. And not on the hocus pocus of some clairvoyant.
Until the lockdown announcement on Friday, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s adamant opposition to lockdowns was becoming a national mystery. An SLPP Minister tried to give a rather lame explanation – that the President doesn’t like lockdowns because they will hurt the poor. The truth is timely lockdowns are needed to protect the poor from getting infected. A different explanation that has gone viral on social media, and has been authenticated by Colombo Telegraph, is about the President apparently heeding the advice of a lady astrologer named Gnanakka against imposing a lockdown during the Kandy Perahera season.
It is extraordinary that in the middle of a global pandemic, anyone would expect that any one country, however blessed, could be exclusively protected by supernatural influences. That is Sri Lanka, the most blessed of all lands. There was cynical expectation of a lock down being announced on Monday after the final Day Perahera is over. The President has answered the cynics by announcing the lockdown on the third day of the Randoli Perahera. May be new planetary positions have become auspicious enough to permit a lockdown before the perahera is over.
In addition, the incorrigibly loquacious State Minister Channa Jayasumana is reported to have said that the government decided to impose the lockdown in response to the appeal by the Sangha to shut down the country for one week to contain the spread of Covid-19. This gentleman is a Doctor and a Professor of Pharmacology to boot. What was his advice to the President in his capacity as a medical professional? Did he try to professionally intercede between the President looking for celestial signals and the community of medical professionals who have pleading for weeks on end for stringent lockdown measures?
It is known that the Maha Nayaka Theras of the Asgiriya and Malwatta Chapters sent a letter to the President requesting him “to close the country for at least a week to control the rapid spread of COVID-19 virus.” But they were only endorsing what virtually everyone else in the country, save the President’s clairvoyant entourage, were hoping for. The leaders of ten political parties in the governing SLPP alliance asked the President in writing to impose a three-week lockdown as a necessary measure to contain the spread of the virus. They even urged him to establish “a committee of health and economic experts to provide advice” to the government. Not too subtle a statement on the presidential task forces.
In Spite of the Government
These were all reactions to what was happening on the ground, as people were beginning to act on their own behalf in response to inaction by the government. Remarkably, they were beginning to act in spite of the government. This development is not only unprecedented, but has also unnerved the government and spontaneously empowered the people. Among the first were businesses and retailers who announced the suspension of business and commercial activities in reportedly 31 cities across the country to stem the spread of Covid-19. Lawyers’ Associations in a number of cities also decided to stop attending courts until the spread of Covid-19 is brought under control. Trade unions in the health sector, with support from the National Trade Union Centre, have notified that they will lockdown themselves if the government were to continue to rebuff lockdown calls.
Until the lockdown announcement on Friday, the government’s responses have been haphazard and reactive and not at all bold and decisive. During the week, the Ministry of Health issued a new set of health guidelines, most of which the people were beginning to observe on their own anyway. If these guidelines were late and redundant, the President’s mini cabinet shuffle last Monday provided the occasion for some mirth in the middle of a misery.
The shuffle involved a select band of cabinet ministers. Some of them apparently did not know that they were being shuffled out and in, till they were summoned for their swearing in. No one lost anything, while a few, or only one, Namal Rajapaksa, gained something. A kind of Pareto optimality (increasing the welfare of some without diminishing the welfare of any) in presidential cabinet making. No one could make head or tail of what the shuffle was all about, and editorial writers had a field day after the shuffle in pouring scorn over the whole thing.
Namal Rajapaksa’s new responsibility as Development Co-ordination and Observation Minister has been either laughed at or seriously interpreted, depending on the slant of the commentator. A devilish typo in a purportedly serious interpretation gives the game away. I am not making this up, and I quote from a Colombo newspaper: “Main and among the latest change is the addition of a new portfolio to Youth Affairs and Sports Minister Namal Rajapaksa. In addition to his current portfolio, he received the Development Coordination and Subversion Ministry.” Subversion is indeed the term, because NR’s new responsibility is apparently a subtraction from the other long-tiled Capital Markets and Public Enterprises Reform State Minister Ajith Nivard Cabraal. Poor Cabraal. What he has lost, the Rajapaksa scion has gained – with a purse of Rs. Seven trillion for development projects – for observation, rather, subversion!
All of the above was on Monday last week. By Friday, the government was backpedalling. The President addressed the nation for 17 long (by dual-citizen American standard) minutes, 90 minutes before lockdown started. Speech watchers have noted that it was a much shorter speech than his earlier 69 minute defensive harangue. What was manifestly missing was any show of empathy for the people falling sick daily and dying in increasingly large numbers. He even took a cheap swipe at the National Medicines Regulatory Authority (NMRA) for their due diligence before approving the Sinopharm vaccine from China. According to the President the NMRA “delayed” its approval. He should have contacted Gnanakka for a speedier green light.
The reality of Covid-19 infections and deaths in Sri Lanka couldn’t be any starker. Soon after the President spoke on Friday, the official government totals for Thursday came out: 3,839 infections and 195 deaths. According to Google global data, Sri Lanka’s Friday totals are 8,647 infections and 195 deaths. The actual numbers could be dreadfully higher. No one is faulting the government for not finding a quick way out of the pandemic. There isn’t any. Vaccination has become necessary, but it is by no means sufficient. Just look around the world.
What the government can be blamed for is trying to find a clairvoyant way out of the pandemic. The President must eschew hocus pocus, stop burdening the military with tasks that require medical knowledge and expertise, and surround himself with genuine experts on health and the economy. They will give him the advice that he ought to hear, and not what he would conveniently like to hear. If not, the people will start looking after themselves and will start acting on their own behalf, not on account of the government but in spite of the government. To a large extent, people in general were already in a lockdown mode. The government only formalized it, albeit belatedly. Politically, it is never too long a distance for any people to go from acting in spite their government to acting in defiance of it.