when the dust clears

Words about and images of matters political, social, and military

Bangladesh: Junior Partner in the U.S. “War on Terror”?

with one comment

I spent part of January and most of February in Dhaka developing a powerful addiction to the ubiquitous cha, strong tea with a dollop of condensed milk. The rest of the time I was plodding from appointment to appointment with Bangladeshi analysts and a handful of Americans to discuss U.S.-Bangladesh relations, perpetually astounded (and usually enraged) by the glacial and messy flow of vehicles and people.

21 January 2010-Dhaka, Bangladesh-Public bus takes on passengers at night.

I had previously visited Bangladesh in 2002 and 2008, and had made friends in Dhaka’s community of photographers and journalists. One of them suggested I look into the increasingly heavy foot traffic of U.S. officials, principally military folk, from Washington to Dhaka. A consistent critic of U.S. foreign policy, particularly our habit of military intervention in far-flung places, she suspected that Washington was grooming the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed to be a full-fledged, albeit junior, partner in the global war on terror – or whatever President Barack Obama calls his extension of Bush-Cheney hard-power initiatives.

After trolling the Internet and ringing up U.S.-based South Asia analysts and officers at the State Department and U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM), I had the distinct impression that Bangladesh was indeed getting more attention from the U.S. military than the usual port calls and disaster relief consultations.

Bangladesh and the U.S. have had reasonably strong ties for years, but the relationship had been a low priority for us – until September 11th, after which Washington asked for, and Dhaka granted, use of its airspace, ports, and refueling facilities for military operations in Afghanistan. In the years following 9/11, the Bush administration voiced concern that Bangladesh might become a base for wandering militants, even al Qaeda, because of its proximity to Pakistan as well as its porous borders with India, abysmal governance, and corrupt – and scandalously underfunded – law enforcement agencies. The government of Prime Minister Khaleda Zia denied that the threat was as serious as Washington made it out to be, an understandable response from a leader who courted – and later allied with – extremist parties such as Jamaat-i-Islami (Bangladesh). That said, many in both capitals worried that the robust trade in illegal weapons around the southeastern port of Cox’s Bazar, still a problem, might fuel homegrown militancy.

The Bush administration expanded ties with two previous regimes – the first one elected, the other installed by the military – and the Obama administration has recently given strong backing to the current elected and secular government of Sheikh Hasina. Admiral Timothy J. Keating, commander of U.S. Pacific Command dropped by in November 2007 to discuss disaster relief assistance after Cyclone Sidr devastated the country’s southern coast. In October 2008, the Oregon National Guard formed a partnership with the Bangladeshi military to boost airport and maritime port security as part of a global U.S. State Department–National Guard Bureau initiative. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense James Clad visited the following month “to discuss a range of bilateral and multilateral security issues as well as future opportunities for cooperation between U.S. and Bangladesh armed forces,” according to an embassy press release. Several other U.S. officials passed through that year, but the visits really started picking up in 2009. In February, a three-star general from U.S. Special Operations Command and a one-star from PACOM visited Dhaka. Nine months later, the commanding general of U.S. Army–Pacific, the commander of the Seventh Fleet, PACOM’s director of strategic planning, and the commanding general of U.S. Special Operations Command–Pacific stopped by, presumably to do more than just say hi.

Just this past March, the Navy’s Fleet Survey Team charted the Karnaphuli River in Chittagong, Bangladesh’s major port. China is nudging its way in Chittagong as well – in 2008 it helped Dhaka set up a missile launch pad near the port city.

More tip-of-the-spear-type activities have been added to the existing U.S.-Bangladesh training agenda of peacekeeping, civic actions, and humanitarian relief. The first “Tiger Shark,” part of the classified Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET) program, was conducted last November. U.S. Navy special operators trained with sailors from the Bangladeshi Navy Special Warfare and Diving Salvage, which according to U.S. Ambassador James F. Moriarty, “is well on its way to becoming Bangladesh’s premier maritime counterterrorism unit.” Tiger Shark 2 kicked off in April 2010. Two more Tiger Sharks are scheduled for later in the year.

[Also of note: The U.S. Coast Guard transferred 16 Defender-class patrol boats to the Bangladesh Navy in April 2010, “the largest delivery of vessels ever completed by the Coast Guard to any nation.” Five more such boats will be donated in the future.]

And if you follow the money, a pattern emerges. In fiscal year 2009, the U.S. provided a meager $590,000 to Bangladesh in military financing. State asked for $2.5 million for 2010. In 2009, the U.S. gave Dhaka $3 million in Nonproliferation, Antiterrorism, and Demining funding. The 2010 estimate is $4.2 million. Total U.S. funding provided to Bangladesh in 2009, which includes the above plus money for everything else – child survival, good governance, economic support, etc. – was just shy of $117 million. The 2010 estimate is $168.5 million. These amounts are small, but they add up in a country with a per capita income of $621.

There was a near-consensus across the political spectrum among Bangladeshi analysts I spoke with about the country’s pressing, and in many cases dire, strategic concerns: poor and corrupt governance and a sclerotic political system; deep, widespread poverty; poor market access for its main export, garments; rising sea levels caused by global warming; access to water from rivers that flow through India, and which Delhi has plans to dam; and India, India, India, the regional colossus. Most believe that the U.S. can and should play a role in helping Bangladesh address these problems – provided they do so in democratic and transparent ways that take into account local needs and sensibilities.

There was, however, tremendous disagreement over the threat of Islamic militancy and terrorism. “Bangladesh is unfortunately the battleground in a proxy war between India and Pakistan,” says Ali Riaz, a South Asia analyst at Illinois State University. In August 2005, 500 simultaneous small bombs were detonated in 63 of the country’s 64 districts. Three people – and some estimates say as many as 30 – were killed and many more injured. Members of the Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh, an Islamist extremist organization banned by the government in 2006, were convicted of the bombing and hanged.

Prior to 2005, there had been no suicide bombings in Bangladesh. In November and December of that year, there were multiple suicide bombings in Gazipur, Chittagong, and Netrokona, executed by Islamist militants. More than four years later, violent extremist groups – both far right and far left – are still active.

“Islamic militancy is not the number one problem. Maybe fifth or sixth,” a journalist who covers the terrorism beat for a major Bangladeshi newspaper told me. “It is a problem created by the United States,” I was told by prominent left intellectual and NGO head Farhad Mazhar. He recalls the Bush administration’s friendship with the coalition government of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh, which fought with the West Pakistanis in the genocidal 1971 war of independence that grew out of the electoral victory of a popular politician in what was then East Pakistan and is now Bangladesh. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his Awami League, the current ruling party, won all but two seats in Pakistan’s National Assembly, tilting the national balance of power away from the formerly dominant West. Military dictator General Agha Muhammad Yahya Khan, whose power base was West Pakistan, predominantly Punjabi, prevented the assembly from meeting and arrested Sheikh Mujib, as he was – and is – known. East Pakistanis, largely Bengali, hit the streets in protest. So Yahya sent in the Pakistani Army to slaughter them. They killed between one and three million people. Millions of refugees from East Pakistan streamed across the border into India. (Remember the Concert for Bangladesh?)

Publicly, Washington condemned Yahya’s moves. Secretly, the Nixon administration backed the general and provided fighter jets via Jordan, 18,000 rounds of ammunition, and other lethal hardware. India also provided safe haven for the East Pakistani resistance movement and backed it with troops and materiel, beginning a paternalistic relationship in which Bangladesh now chafes.

Most of the analysts I spoke to see Pakistan’s influence over Bangladesh as nominal, though all are concerned about Pakistan’s instability.

Mazhar and others believe the U.S. has subcontracted out its entire South Asia policy to India. “Essentially, what Bangladeshis are afraid of is that India is using the USA to turn Bangladesh into its backfield” in its fight against leftist militants on India’s northeastern border.

For their part, U.S. officials say American policy is balanced between military and counterterrorism initiatives and governance, aid, and trade programs. The U.S. is “overwhelmingly focused on a positive agenda,” a senior Western diplomat told me, “not looking for a terrorist behind every tree,” citing robust trade, cooperation on disaster response, aquaculture, and capacity building, among others.

Many Bangladeshi analysts, and not just lefties, disagree. The American strategic posture, says retired Brig. Gen. Shahedul Anam Khan of the Bangladeshi Army, “is predicated mainly on fighting terrorism, and terrorism has become the be-all of American foreign policy. So whatever issue one talks about, the issue of terrorism creeps in automatically.” That said, Anam, now defense and strategic affairs editor for the country’s largest English-language newspaper, The Daily Star, advocates Bangladeshi-U.S. cooperation in counterterrorism efforts. Most on the left, however, feel that Washington’s preoccupation with counterterrorism will militarize the bilateral agenda and strengthen the Bangladeshi military at the expense of civil institutions.

Whether left or right, all of the Bangladeshi analysts I spoke with say there is a role for the U.S. to play in some areas. Those closer to the right see cooperation, along with a healthy and equitable relationship with India, as Bangladesh’s best hope for prosperity and security.

“I’ve been a strong advocate for the need for Bangladesh to work closely with India, to work closely with the United States, with a whole range of partners, in terms of capacity building, in terms of training, in terms of generally gearing ourselves up to dealing with this [terrorism] threat,” says Farooq Sobhan, head of the Bangladesh Enterprise Institute and a ex-diplomat with a muscular résumé – former Foreign Secretary, High Commissioner of Bangladesh to India, and Ambassador to China.

Those on left, however, are dubious about the U.S.’s ability to cooperate rather than dominate as they believe it has by supporting a series of corrupt governments and a fat and happy elite. “By nature, Bangladeshi people are soft, very amenable, reasonable too,” Nurul Kabir, editor of New Age, a left-of-center English-language newspaper, told me. “But when it comes to national dignity, some people of the upper class will compromise. The rest of the people, not.”

Copyright © 2010 by Brian Palmer


Written by bxpnyc

2010/06/10 at 16:22

One Response

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. […] Bangladesh: Junior Partner in the U.S. “War on Terror”? June 2010 5 […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: