South Asian Anti-terrorism Taskforce'
A trap to involve Bangladesh in the US-India's ˜war on terror
Tuesday February 17 2009 00:04:59 AM BDT
By Dr. K M A Malik
The new Awami League government seems to be in a hurry to sign several agreements with India and the US as desired by the two big powers. One of the proposed agreements is on the formation of a ˜South Asian Anti-terrorism Taskforce (SAAT), the purpose and modality of which are not clearly known to the public. Since the matter relates to national and regional security issues, it has tremendous implications for the sovereignty of Bangladesh as well as for peace and stability in a wider region. It is therefore absolutely important for the people of Bangladesh to understand the background and possible consequences of such an agreement with India or any other regional or global actors.
But before we can make a critical analysis and reach conclusion, it is worthwhile to mention whatever information is so far available from different print- and electronic media on the official positions of Bangladesh, India and the US – the three partiess involved in the process.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, in her first question-answer session in the 9th parliament said last week (January 28, 2009) her government would not hesitate to take the stringent measures to curb militancy in the country.
"I have already directed all ministries and the authorities concerned to find out the militants' patrons, financers and sources of illegal arms and ammunitions to root out militancy," she said.
Terming militancy a major problem in the country, the premier said she has already asked the authorities concerned to take necessary steps to form 'South Asian Anti-terrorism Taskforce' (SAAT) in line with her party's election manifesto for curbing cross-border terrorism.
The purpose of the proposed ˜Taskforce is said to help tracking down militants and bring them to justice. It will also strengthen cooperation between the police forces and courts of the South Asian nations. (Daily Star, January 29, 2009).
The new foreign minister Dr. Dipu Moni also announced, immediately after taking office, that formation of the Taskforce was one of her most important priorities (New Age, January 8, 2009).
â€œBangladesh will involve neighbours in working out an effective mechanism such as establishment of a task force to fight militancy and terrorism for peace and stability in South Asia, she said. As militancy and terrorism are not confined to geographical boundaries, we will take effective steps in consultations with our neighbours against it, she added. As for issues whether the taskforce would only involve South Asian countries, she said that â€œthe government could go beyond the region to work out the mechanism to face the menace of terrorism depending on the response of the countries with which Bangladesh has friendly ties.
Indian High Commissioner in Dhaka, Mr. Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty, after his first call on the new foreign minister Dipu Moni on January 21, 2009, said among other things, Bangladesh and India might form a new platform to fight terrorism and insurgency across the two countries. (http://www.bdnews24.com/details.php?id=74315&cid=3
). "A new body could be formed that will deal exclusively with the issues of terrorism, insurgency, cross-border crime and so on, he added. It should be noted that this and other bilateral issues were discussed during Indian Foreign Minister Mr. Pranab Mukherjeeâ€™s visit to Dhaka on February 9, 2009. Details of these discussions are not known, but according to press reports, Pranab signed two trade and economic deals with Bangladesh. One is an agreement on mutual investment promotion and protection giving the most favoured nation (MFN) status to each country and the other is on the renewal of an old deal, which includes a clause dealing with water, rail and road transit. (http://www.bdnews24.com/details.php?cid=2&id=75906&hb=0
The Times of India ran a report on 31 January, 2009, on Mr. Mukherjee's proposed Dhaka visit. It revealed that India and Bangladesh are all set to form a joint counter-terrorism group. Citing Indian government sources, it said that the two sides are expected to sign an agreement for the formation of such a group during Mr. Mukherjee's visit to Dhaka. At the end of Mr. Mukherjee's visit ( February 9, 2009), however, it became known that no deal on this topic was signed, but it still remains on the table as a top priority.
The Times of India report further said, With the friendly Sheikh Hasina government now firmly in charge, India had been looking forward to working closely with Bangladesh for combating terrorism. In fact, the Indian High Commission in Dhaka had said earlier in a statement that the two countries would work together against terrorism.â€ It also quoted an official statement as The brutal terrorist attack in Mumbai has shown that we need to resolutely rebuff such evil attempts that strike at our common civilisational roots. We remain determined to work with friendly countries like Bangladesh to address this menace. India was hopeful that â€œthis new group will effectively tackle terrorism.
The US position
When asked about the formation of SAAT proposed by Sheikh Hasina's government, the US ambassador to Dhaka, Mr. James Moriarty, said that the US government will extend support to Bangladesh governmentâ€™s effort to combat regional terrorism. (Daily Star, February 1, 2009).
Some unanswered questions
The statements of Sheikh Hasina and Dr Dipu Moni suggest that the main purpose of the so-called Taskforce is to ˜combat militancy and terrorism within Bangladesh and possibly across the border, with the help of India and â€˜extra-regional friendly powers, meaning the US and probably Britain. The Indian position, in contrast, emphasises the formation of the Taskforce involving only Bangladesh and India, without any third party. Although the label of ˜South Asia is used by both sides, involvement of other SAARC members such as Nepal, Bhutan, Pakistan, the Maldives or Sri Lanka is ruled out. But without these countries, the proposed Taskforce may be called â€˜India-Bangladesh Taskforce. The use of South Asia in the proposed name appears to be improper and deceptive, selling a product under misleading label. The purpose is obvious - misleading the public opinion in Bangladesh.
According to Bangladesh government, the object of the taskforce would be to fight militancy and terrorism but it does not say that it would also fight insurgency as desired by India. Also, what would be the role of the Taskforce if India, for example, has to fight wars with Nepal, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Pakistan or China? Is Bangladesh expected to actively support and participate in Indiaâ€™s war in Kashmir or in any of her potential wars with other countries? Would Bangladesh Armed Forces (BAF) give up their freedom and autonomy of action in favour of Indian counterparts in the so-called joint Taskforce? Is there any conspiracy to reduce BAF to the status of the post-independence ˜Rakshi Bahini during 1972-75? These and other relevant questions must be answered by Sheikh Hasina and Dipu Moni to the satisfaction of our people; otherwise they would lose all credibility as patriotic leaders.
It is true that since mid 1990s, Bangladesh has been a victim of militancy and terrorism perpetrated by some Islamic extremist organisations like JMB and HUJI-B with alleged support from the R&AW, CIA and MOSSAD, but these militant organizations and their activities have largely been subdued and contained by now, by Bangladesh's own security forces. The insurgency in the Chittagong Hill Tracts region, which was supported from across the Indian border and which plagued the country's security and stability for many years, ended in 1996, with the signing of a peace agreement between Sheikh Hasina's government (1996-2001) and the armed rebels. There is no armed insurgency anywhere in Bangladesh now.
Terrorism and insurgencies in India
But India's Seven Sisters states in the north east has been riddled with armed insurgencies for several decades now without any end to the problems. In pursuing solution to these problems (as well as dealing with the Maoist insurgency in the so-called â€˜red corridorâ€™ spreading over the states of eastern Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, eastern Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, West Bengal and Bihar, and the insurgency in Kashmir), the Indian policy makers have often talked about peaceful dialogue, but always adopted military means.Resorting to brute military force has not brought peace to any of these regions. This policy, on the contrary, has only intensified the armed conflicts and brought death and destruction to millions of poor people (mostly tribal Christians, Buddhists, the so-called ˜untouchables, Muslims and other minorities).
If any country is to be labeled as failed because of internal turmoil, lack of security and armed conflicts, it is India and not Bangladesh. While the Indian government and anti-Bangladesh, anti-Muslim elements in India have the bad habit of portraying Bangladesh as the country of religious intolerance, extremism, violence and terrorism, the fact remains that the Indian society is completely riddled with all these viruses, in addition to the curse of caste violence. There are numerous examples where the so-called upper caste Hindu fanatics and terrorists have carried out organized killings of minority Muslims, Christians, low caste Hindus and tribal people. Recent events in Malegao have proved that the Hindu fundamentalists are involved in many terrorist acts inside India. The Indian government and security forces should fight against all types of terrorism within their border, rather than trying to involve Bangladesh in a joint anti-terrorism taskforce.
The US role in the anti-terrorism agenda
The proposal for the formation of a South Asian Anti-terrorism Taskforce (SAAT) has the backing of not only India but also of the US administration. The US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, Richard Boucher, confirmed this position during his Dhaka visit (February 7-8, 2009). Commenting on the proposal for SAAT, he said that it is a very interesting idea and that since international terrorists incline to operate internationally, international community can get organized and cooperate with each other. He also said that they have â€˜all options open to curb militancy and terrorism, and that the US extends all support to Bangladesh so terrorists cannot use its soil. Asked about Bangladesh-US Anti-terrorism taskforce, he parried a straight answer saying, "We've a lot of cooperation between the United States and Bangladesh, and we'll continue that cooperation." (The Bangladesh Today, February 8, 2009).
Prior to his departure from Dhaka, Boucher also said that the US would assist Bangladesh in securing its unprotected maritime boundary if Dhaka desired. "I think there is some interest in maritime patrol so that you can protect your sea areas better," he said. (http://www.bdnews24.com/details.php?cid=2&id=75882
It is important to note that the US has been expressing concerns about the terrorism and security issuesâ€™ in Bangladesh for several years and that attempts were being made to involve Bangladesh in the world-wide ˜war on terror. Immediately after the Iraq invasion in 2003, the then US foreign Secretary Colin Powell visited Dhaka and asked for contributions of Bangladesh troops for the Iraq war, not that this would make significant difference to the US war efforts but for the reason that such a step would confirm that Muslim majority Bangladesh was an active partner in the â€˜war on terrorâ€™. This would be very good for their public relations work.
There were country-wide protests against the idea and Khaleda government politely refused to send troops to Iraq. Even before that time, during Shaikh Hasina's government (1996-2001), the US peddled the idea for a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) for incorporating Bangladesh into its regional and global security arrangement. Although full details of the agreement were never made public, it was reported in the press that, under the agreement, the US forces could enter into Bangladesh without any visa formalities and that they would be exempt from all proceedings in a Bangladeshi court, even if they violated the country's laws.
During the Fakhruddin government last year a US security team was reported to carry our surveys and other studies along the Indo-Bangla land borders at different places, but without being accompanied by any Bangladeshi security officials. The exact purpose of these surveys and studies were never published; whether the team also bothered to hand over a copy of their studies to Bangladesh government is also not known. These unrestricted activities by foreign personnel and agencies, which have intelligence and security implications, do suggest that Bangladesh has become a playground for big powers. The latest statement by Richard Boucher to help maritime patrol in the Bay of Bengal seem to be driven by the US desire to protect the IOCs exploring gas and oil resources in the region. Another purpose could be to keep any Chinese naval presence in the area.
Sheikh Hasina has invoked the same terrorism theme, partly because she herself was the target of a ghastly terrorist attack in 2004 and partly to get the US-India backing necessary for gaining or retaining political power in Dhaka. In a bitter struggle for power, Hasina and her supporters always accused the rival BNP Khaleda Zia as â€˜patron of Islamic fundamentalism and terrorismâ€™, while she herself claimed to be on the side of war on terror. Hasina made no secret of her desire to make the SAAT an instrument for the US- and India-led war on terror in the region.
How Sheikh Hasina won the US-Indian support
Some analysts believe that several matters including the security issue were discussed and agreed upon last year during Sheikh Hasinaâ€™s forced stay abroad, mainly in the US, before she was allowed to return to Bangladesh before the December general elections. In her bid for power, Sheikh Hasina and some of her trusted representatives met with Indian and US authorities on several occasions in different places including New Delhi, London and Washington and agreed to consider the Indian/US demands with favour, in return for their covert and overt support to her cause. The demands (direct and indirect) were, and still are, mostly from the Indian side and these include the transit and port facilities, unhindered Indian investments in different areas of economy, gas pipeline, Asian Highway, control over the security forces, limiting significant links with China and Pakistan, etc. The US is interested mainly in the energy (natural gas) sector and having overall control of the political process and security scenario including fighting terrorism. It is also putting pressure on Bangladesh government to sign a controversial Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA).
It is no longer a secret that both India and the US (along with their surrogates in Dhaka and elsewhere) inspired and supported the army-backed Fakhruddin government to take state power in January 2007, which immediately launched a campaign to exclude Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina from the leadership of their respective political parties, on the pretext of fighting corruption. But the foreign powers and their local collaborators underestimated the grass-root support these leaders enjoyed. And once the so-called minus-two formula failed to work, they chose to support Sheikh Hasina against Khaleda Zia as lesser of the two evils. After all, Hasina has long been known to be â€˜softâ€™ on Indian positions compared with Khaleda Zia. The former also professed to uphold the principles of â€˜secularismâ€™ while the latter was tainted with ˜Islamic fundamentalistâ€™ colour. Both were, and still are, loyal to the Washington, although their attitudes towards New Delhi differ to a significant level.
Sheikh Hasina sought and received the crucial US support against all her adversaries probably in a meeting with Richard Boucher in Washington on July 25, 2008. The meeting was held in the presence of the US Ambassador to Dhaka James Moriarty and Dr. Hasan Mahmud (current state minister for foreign affairs). Hasina's son Sajib Wajed Joy, who has been advancing his mother's case to the US policymakers with the help of some foreign lobbyists and pro-Indian, pro-Zionist elements, was also present in the meeting. According to a news report, Sheikh Hasina, in this meeting, promised to continue supporting the anti-corruption campaign of the Fakhruddin government as well as the US-led â€˜war on terrorâ€™ (Amader Shomoy, July 27, 2008).
Part of the 'Contain China' policy?
The discussion on the proposed SAAT would be incomplete if we fail to see the potential implications of Bangladeshâ€™s relations with China. For many years now, Bangla-China relations have been excellent, without any serious misunderstanding and dispute. China is the second biggest trading partner of Bangladesh (after India) and one of the main suppliers of defence equipment and material. It has also participated in many important infrastructural development projects including the development of a coal field. The majority people of Bangladesh do not consider China as an enemy, since, unlike India, US and some other powerful states, China has never interfered in the internal affairs of Bangladesh.
Unfortunately, India has unresolved border disputes with not only with Bangladesh but also with China. And mainly because of these disputes in India's north east and north west, it fought a short-lived but devastating border war with China in 1962, with Russian and US help (for details of India-China conflicts, see Indias China War by Neville Maxwell, Penguin Books, London, 1972). During the last two decades the border has remained peaceful and diplomatic and trade relations between the countries have improved, but India has been trying very hard to catch up with China's economic and military might. And in this process, the US and Israel have been helping India by providing diplomatic and public relations help, as well as with state-of-the-art military hardware and strategic support. Thus an effective India-US-Israel power configuration has come into existence as a component of â€˜Contain Chinaâ€™ policy. Although at the present time, there is no prospect for any armed conflict with China, such a possibility can not be ruled out in the future.
In the event of any future India-China armed conflict in the north east Himalyan region or in the eastern Bay of Bengal, the Indian army would demand the use of Bangladesh territories on the excuse of countering Chinese aggression. This task would be easy if the Hasina government puts all its eggs only in the Indian basket and signs any agreement for Indo-Bangla joint taskforce without making sure that Bangladesh is not involved or its territories not used in any of India's wars with China or other countries. The people of Bangladesh must not lose sight of the fact that the proposed anti-terrorism taskforce may have a hidden purpose, i.e., to serve the Indo-US game plan with a much bigger political and geo-strategic dimension, especially to contain and limit the gradually expanding Chinese economic, military and strategic intrusion in the south and south east Asian regions including the Bay of Bengal.
Lessons from Pakistan's war on terror
It is better for Sheikh Hasina and her government to take lessons from other examples where some developing countries have joined (or been forced to join) the imperialist war agenda for ideological, strategic or other reasons. For example, one may look at the mess the US rulers and their Pakistani friends have created for the people of Pakistan. The country, in fact, is on the verge of losing its sovereignty and heading for possible disintegration. For many years, the Pakistani rulers worked for the strategic interests of the US, rather than being dedicated to the service of its common people. It joined the US war agenda in Afghanistan, at first by providing logistics to the Mujahedeen against the Soviets, then by supporting the Taliban forces against the Mujahedeen, and now being forced to wage wars on its own people in the Pak-Afghan border and its tribal areas.
The friendly US drones are dropping bombs from the air and the US commandos are carrying out regular raids within Pakistani territories - all in the name of fighting al Qaeda or Taliban terrorism and promoting democracy. And the two regional allies of the US - Israel and India - are clamouring for total war against Pakistan, to dismantle its armed forces and stripping it of its nuclear assets. The lesson here is that the Bangladeshi people can not, and must not, rely on the so-called friends with hegemonic and imperialist agenda to protect their sovereignty and national interests. It is only by their own rock-solid national unity and efforts that they can protect their sovereignty and freedom as an independent nation.
The taskforce would be a disaster for Bangladesh
From India's perspective, it is perhaps good to have Bangladesh's active support to fight against the insurgents in the north east, for which the so-called transit facilities over Bangladesh are also demanded by India, but the danger for Bangladesh lies in the fact that it would then get involved in India's internal civil wars. If the Indian forces use Bangladesh territories to launch attacks against the insurgents in the north east or elsewhere, or if the Bangladesh forces are also somehow involved in the campaign, then the insurgents would naturally strike at Bangladeshi civil and security targets. Can Bangladesh afford such an eventuality? Can Bangladesh security forces including the army, BDR, police and the intelligence agencies cope with the consequences of joining Indian military and security forces in their war in the north east?
As for Bangladesh's own internal security threat from the so-called Islamic or other terrorists, whatever may be the disinformation dished out by its enemies, the country has been able to contain and reduce their violent activities. Many top leaders of JMB, HUJI-B and similar organizations were put to justice (some of them being executed) during the last Khaleda and Fakhruddin governments. And this was possible by dedicated work and skill of Bangladesh's own security forces without any need for assistance from India or other countries. At the present time, there is no significant security threat from the so-called Islamic terrorists (unless imparted by external agencies), which may be used as an excuse to invite Indian or US forces on Bangladesh soil.
Maintaining law and order as well as containing the threats from any existing or potential militant group inside the country is the job of Bangladesh security forces, and in this task they have performed much better their counterparts in India or the US. Whatever may be the pretensions, formation of a joint Bangladesh-India Taskforce for fighting terrorism would not only be ineffective, it would also be counter-productive. It would definitely cause more misunderstanding and bitterness in the already strained relations between the two neighbouring countries.
The Indian and Bangladeshi leaders should both realise that despite sweet talk on official level, there exists tremendous public concern about India's hegemonic intention on Bangladesh. Truth hurts, but let us be honest and truthful. No body should have the illusion that the people of Bangladesh would welcome or tolerate Indian soldiers to carry out armed campaign against either the so-called Islamic militants in Bangladesh or ethnic insurgents of India's north eastern region. If Sheikh Hasina's government is shortsighted enough to allow the Indian Armed Forces on Bangladesh soil on the pretext of fighting terrorism or if the Bangladesh Armed Forces are engaged against the Indian insurgents, then it would be a disaster not only for Bangladesh but also for the whole of Asia. Involvement of Bangladesh in any of India's wars would inevitably bring in other powers, China not excluded.
The most sinister aspect about the SAAT is its linking with the so-called war on terror. While the false premises, on which the neo-con inspired war on terror was launched by President Bush and Premier Tony Blair on Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003), have now been exposed as â€˜war on Islam and neo-imperialist adventures for control of energy resources and market opportunities, it is a shame to see Sheikh Hasina willing to side with the US-Indian war-mongers against the people of Bangladesh and of India's north east (also potentially against China, Pakistan, Nepal and Bhutan). Although the rulers of most Muslim countries are unwilling or impotent to challenge and prevent the brutal imperialist wars on different Muslim lands (the latest example being the US-Israel barbarity in Gaza; December, 2008), nobody should ignore the fact that the common people everywhere are solidly against such imperialist wars and that their collective moral and physical resistance will ultimately triumph. The people of Bangladesh, in particular, may have other shortcomings but they have historical tradition to rise against all forms of foreign domination and aggression.
Dr. K. M. A. Malik is a former Professor of Chemistry, Dhaka University, and a Lecturer in Chemistry, Cardiff University (UK). He has published about 370 research papers in chemistry journals. As a freelance columnist, he also writes regularly on contemporary political and social issues. His published books include: Challenges in Bangladesh Politics – a Londonerâ€™s view (2004); War on Terrror – A pretext for new colonisation (2004), and Bangladesher Rajniti - Mookh O Mukhosh (2003). His e-mail contact: kmamalik[at]aol.com]