On defence policy
In December, I wondered if the recent spike in defence spending had something to do with the government’s insecurity about disturbances in the forces. Turns out that within weeks, there was some rumbling in the uttorpara. In a rather banal piece in the BDnews24 on the alleged coup plot, Afsan Chowdhury said: Bangladesh’s problem is also in having an army that really has little to do.
That reminded me about a 2010 Prothom Alo piece on defence policy by Maj Gen Amin Ahammed Chowdhury.
Gen Amin writes well, and the piece is a good read. It’s not about what the defence forces do. It’s a normative analysis about what the defence forces should do, and how they should do it. It’s (relatively) free of polemics and nationalist chest thumping. Anyone interested in Bangladesh should have a view about defence matters, and it’s good that Gen Amin is articulating his in the country’s largest daily.
The second part of the essay, concerning the bureaucracy/management of the defence forces/department, is particularly interesting. I am not sure whether I agree with his recommendations, but that’s partly because I haven’t read/heard much else on the matter.
It’s in the first part of the essay, on the strategies that should be adopted by the army, navy and the air force to defend the country, where I think the general goes a bit awry. I think there is a fundamental inconsistency in what he recommends.
The general discusses the navy first. He says we need a deep sea port that could be accessed by north east India, Nepal, Bhutan and even China’s Yunnan. Defence of that port, and the maritime resources, is the navy’s mission. He says given the shallowness of the Bay of Bengal, we don’t need submarines. He says a hundred or so fast, missile-loaded gunboats are better for us than frigates, which would be a sitting duck without a proper fleet. And a proper fleet is very expensive. Instead, in addition to lots and lots of gunboats, we should get radars and coastal and riverine boats.
So far so good.
Then he says something a bit more interesting:
ভারত মহাসাগরে ভারত আর বঙ্গোপসাগরে বাংলাদেশ—এই নীতিকে ভর করে বাংলাদেশ তার নেভিকে সাজাতে পারে। ভারত মহাসাগরে ভারত আক্রান্ত হলে বাংলাদেশ নেভি তার সাধ্যমতো পেছন থেকে সব ধরনের লজিস্টিক সাপোর্টসহ পূর্বাঞ্চলে কোস্টাল ডিফেন্সের ব্যূহ রচনা করে ডিফেন্স ইন ডেপথ পজিশনে অবস্থান নেবে। আর শান্তির সময়সহ সর্বদা বাংলাদেশ নেভি বঙ্গোপসাগরের উপকূলের সব পার্শ্ববর্তী রাষ্ট্রসমূহের সঙ্গে মিলে তার আধিপত্য বজায় রাখবে, সেখানে বিশেষ করে ভারতীয় নেভি আউটার পেরিমিটারে প্রতিরক্ষা-ছাতা সৃষ্টি করবে।
(Bangladesh could deploy its navy on the basis of the policy “Indian Ocean for India, Bay of Bengal for Bangladesh’. If India is attacked in the Indian Ocean, Bangladesh navy can provide rear guard logistical support and can take defence-in-depth position in the eastern coast. And during peacetime, Bangladesh navy will maintain its domination of the Bay of Bengal in collaboration with all neighbours, with the Indian navy providing the defence-umbrella in the outer perimeter).
This implicitly assumes that formal acceptance of Indian hegemony in the region is in Bangladesh’s interest. Never mind whether this is, indeed, in the national interest. Let’s assume it is. Is the Indian foreign and defence policy establishment up for it?
Here is what Robert Kaplan says in Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power:
Take relations with Muslim Bangladesh, surrounded on three sides by India. People and goods could get from one part of India to the other most easily by passing through Bangladesh. This would aid economic development in India’s unstable northeast, as well as earn Bangladesh significant transit fees. In fact, a natural gas pipeline will be built bringing gas from Burma across Bangladesh to India. Because Bangladesh’s political system is in ruins, its only hope is through greater economic involvement with India. But that is precisely what people in Kolkata fear. Whereas an older generation that includes refugees from the 1947 partition harbors nostalgia for a lost hinterland, many others – especially the younger generation – see Bangladesh the way many Americans see Mexico: as a place you should literally erect a wall around. “Keep all those radical mullahs locked up on the other side of the border,” one prominent Kolkata journalist told me. With more than ten million Bangladeshis living in India as economic refugees, Indians do not want more. There is also a certain historical comfort with the current border near Kolkata; as for many decades stretching deep into the nineteenth century, the Hindu elite in Calcutta and West Bengal looked down on the Muslim peasantry in East Bengal. By contrast, in the Punjab, there is an ecumenicalism of sorts toward fellow Punjabis living over India’s western border in Pakistan. In general, though, India is struggling with the borders of partition.
(Longer quote below. Thanks Nofel W).
Why should we listen to a neo-con like Robert Kaplan, you ask. Fine, let’s ignore him, and assume that Gen Amin’s naval strategy would work.
How would that affect our army and air force?
If we can work out with India that they will leave us alone in the Bay of Bengal, then surely we don’t face a risk of land invasion by India. But let’s see what he says about the army:
সেনাবাহিনীকে ক্ষিপ্রগতিতে প্রতিরক্ষাব্যূহ রচনা ছাড়াও রিভারাইন যুদ্ধ ও রিয়ার গার্ড (লিপ ফ্রগিংসহ) এবং শত্রুর ডিফেন্স লাইনের পশ্চাতে অপারেশনসহ কাউন্টার অ্যাটাক অ্যাকশনে পারদর্শী হতে হবে।
In addition to creating rapid defence positions, the army will need to be expert in counterattacks including riverine warfare and rear guard (including leap frogging) and behind-the-enemy-line operations.
And the air force:
সীমান্ত থেকে ঢাকা আক্রান্ত হওয়ার জন্য সময় লাগতে পারে মাত্র তিন থেকে পাঁচ মিনিট।
It can take only three to five minutes to attack Dhaka from the border.
He further says:
বাংলাদেশের স্বাধীনতা ও সার্বভৌমত্ব রক্ষা করবে এ দেশের আপামর জনগণ। পেশাজীবী সশস্ত্র বাহিনী সেখানে ক্যাটালিস্ট হিসেবে কাজ করবে, যেমন করেছিল ১৯৭১ সালে মুক্তিযুদ্ধ চলাকালে। এই ধারণাই বাংলাদেশের প্রতিরক্ষানীতির মূল চালিকাশক্তি।
The mass people of the country will defend the independence and sovereignty of Bangladesh. The professional defence forces will act as catalyst there, as they did during the Liberation War of 1971. This idea is the main driver of Bangladesh’s defence strategy.
Let’s think about it then. He figures, in case of a war, the defence forces will act as a catalyst for resistance — like the East Bengal Regiment was in 1971. But in 1971, Pakistanis occupied (or re-captured) the territory after 26 March. For the analogy to work, Gen Amin’s recommended policy presupposes not just a ground invasion, but a foreign occupation against which there would be a ‘people’s resistance’ supported by the professional army.
Who’s capable of a ground invasion and occupation of Bangladesh? Presumably not Myanmar. And the general has recommended a naval strategy where Indian hegemony is accepted. If we accept the hegemon, presumably we don’t have to be worried about having to fight a war of resistance against the hegemon’s occupation forces?
And conversely, if we accept the risk of an Indian occupation as the basis of our defence policy, then the naval strategy makes no sense. There is something fundamentally inconsistent here.
I am glad that Maj Gen Amin Ahammed Chowdhury wrote about this issue. Yes, his idea lacks internal consistency. It’s time other pundits — including civilian political analysts — debate the defence forces, without spouting banalities or poliemics.
More detailed quotes from Kaplan:
‘Neo-Curzonism is a tendency among those Indian strategic thinkers who anticipate continued economic growth in their country, and a foreign policy that should follow from it. It might be tempting to compare it to American neoconservatism. After all, it is an imperial-like vision that desires national greatness based on big ideas. But whereas neoconservatives seek to impose America’s ideals and system of governance abroad, neo-Curzonians are content with alliances with nondemocratic systems different from India’s own. Neo-Curzonians understand limits. They seek a return to Indian preeminence mainly from India’s geographical sphere of influence.
This is a vision less crude in spirit than the Greater India (Akhand Bharat) wished for by Hindu nationalists, and should not be confused with it. Whereas neo-Curzonians are more oriented to the Subcontinent’s western frontier, seeking to expand India’s influence in the Middle East, Hindu nationalists are oriented towards the east – to Southeast Asia and Indonesia – which have been heavily influenced by India’s Sanskrit culture. Curzon enjoyed especial prestige during the Hindu nationalist government of the Bharatiya Janata Party in the 1990s, when he was quoted frequently.
Quoting him served as a rebuke of India’s foreign policy during the Cold War, a time when (according to Jaswant Singh, the foreign minister from 1998 to 2002) India had lost much of its influence over the shadow zones of the Subcontinent because of Nehru’s preoccupation with nonalignment and third world liberation. The upshot was that nations such as Oman to the west and Malaysia to the east no longer took India seriously as a source of security. But with the end of the Cold War, and the unleashing of Indian capitalism in a globalised framework, neo-Curzonians have sought to define a new “forward” stategy for India that concentrates more specifically on Asia and the Indian Ocean, rather than on the world par se.To be fair to Nehru, his foreign policy could emanate only from India’s domestic condition which in the 1950s and 1960s was one of recent freedom from the British, with the wound of imperialism still fresh. The result, explains Shashi Tharoor, a biographer of Nehru, was a foreign policy perhaps less appropriate for a state than for a liberation movement. But as the memory of British rule recedes, its more positive attributes can be appreciated. Hence a neo-Curzonian viewpoint represents much less an Indian variant of American neoconservatism than a return to the realpolitik of the viceroys who, while British, still operated from the same position on the map as India’s current rulers. Jayanta K. Ray of the Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Institute of Asian Studies of Kolkata told me that the viceroys “simply had great geopolitical sense in terms of projecting soft power throughout Asia, occasionally better sense than our own governments since 1947.”
A neo-Curzonian policy would seek to dimish the national borders of Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Burma not thorough conquest, but through the revival of commercial cooperation with these countries, abetted by the development of roads and regional energy pipelines. Burma, especially, will likely be a zone of contention between India and China. China’s deepening transport and commercial links with Burma have compelled democratic India, starting in the 1990s, to bid for development projects there, train Burmese troops, and do less complaining about the plight of Burmese dissidents, despite the odious nature of the military regime there. If Burma were ever to liberalise and truly open its borders, geography and historical tie might favour India over China (notwithstanding local hostility toward the Indian merhcant community early in the twentieth century).…………“Greater connectivity” with India’s neighbours, declared Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh, can transform “each sub-region of the Subcontinent” into a web of “mutual dependencies for mutual benefit.” Translation: India’s economy is so much larger than any nearby state that a soft hegemony would be the natural consequence of greater economic cooperation. Asserting political primacy would not only be unnecessary, it would be counterproductive as well.
The difficulty with this vision is that it requires a society secure enough in its own domestic situation so it can dynamically focus outward. But that only partially describes India. While the American media have focused on the country’s high-tech “Bangalore” phenomenon, the more immediate reality is of a tumultuous third world society where a third of the population live on a dollar a day. As noted in Chapter Seven, India is beset with political violence between the government and various disaffected groups and castes, as well as by periodic eruptions of Islamic terrorism. Its eight northeastern states are home to no fewer than fifteen insurgencies manned by local tribes seeking self-rule. The country simply lacks the internal stability to open its borders to its neighbours in return for greater influence in its near abroad.
Take relations with Muslim Bangladesh, surrounded on three sides by India. People and goods could get from one part of India to the other most easily by passing through Bangladesh. This would aid economic development in India’s unstable northeast, as well as earn Bangladesh significant transit fees. In fact, a natural gas pipeline will be built bringing gas from Burma across Bangladesh to India. Because Bangladesh’s political system is in ruins, its only hope is through greater economic involvement with India. But that is precisely what people in Kolkata fear. Whereas an older generation that includes refugees from the 1947 partition harbours nostalgia for a lost hinterland, many others – especially the younger generation – see Bangladesh the way many Americans see Mexico: as a place you should literally erect a wall around. “Keep all those radical mullahs locked up on the other side of the border,” one prominent Kolkata journalist told me. With more than ten million Bangladeshis living in India as economic refugees, Indians do not want more. There is also a certain historical comfort with the current border near Kolkata; as for many decades stretching deep into the nineteenth century, the Hindu elite in Calcutta and West Bengal looked down on the Muslim peasantry in East Bengal. By contrast, in the Punjab, there is an ecumenicalism of sorts toward fellow Punjabis living over India’s western border in Pakistan. In general, though, India is struggling with the borders of partition.A Greater India that projects its economic dynamism eastward into Southeast Asia, northward into China, and westward into the Middle East must do so first in its own subcontinental backyard. And that will take stores of courage and broad-mindedness that India presently lacks.”