|Volume 6 Issue 01| January 2012|
Bangladesh Armed Forces:
ISHFAQ ILAHI CHOUDHURY highlights some of the issues that would prepare the Armed Forces to face the challenges of the 21st century.
Bangladesh Armed forces, born during the War of Liberation in 1971, marked its 40th birthday on November 21 last year. Forty years is a long time for an organisation to look back at its achievements and shortfalls, take stock of successes and failures and plan for the future. This article aims to highlight some issues that would prepare the Forces to face the challenges of the 21st century.
The Armed Forces that emerged from the ruins of the Liberation War as a battle-hardened guerilla force had to be reorganised into regular forces with its various components. The Army was initially organised into three infantry brigades, but lacked essential equipment like tanks or artillery, vehicles or communication gears. The Air Force had virtually no aircrafts and the Navy no battle ships. Everything had to be built from scratch. If we look at our forces today, we can see that a vast development had taken place over the years. The Army has expanded into many divisions, and tanks, artillery and other heavy equipments have been procured to give the army the firepower and mobility it needs. New air bases have been constructed; modern fighter and transport aircraft and helicopters have been procured. In the same way, Bangladesh Navy today is much better equipped to defend the sea lanes of communications and the vast sea resources that the country is endowed with. While we had inherited virtually no military training institutes in 1971, today we take great pride in our training establishments that not only cater to our needs, but have been able to attract trainees from friendly countries around the world. Over the last 40 years, the Armed Forces of Bangladesh had been at the forefront of the relief and rehabilitation effort whenever a natural or man-made disaster took place in the country. They had worked tirelessly, shoulder to shoulder with other governmental agencies, to rescue disaster affected people, bring comfort to them and mitigate their sufferings. The experiences gained on civil-military cooperation in disaster management are now being replicated in many other countries. Our Armed Forces had been the nation's goodwill ambassador across the world as UN Peacekeepers. They have been working to prevent war, bring peace, establish order and set up elected democratic governments. Over the years, Bangladesh had been the largest contributor of troops under the UN flag. For a relatively new country on the world map, this is no mean achievement.
SK ENAMU HAQ
Having said all this, it also must be admitted that there had been a number of serious breaches of military discipline and leadership failures within the military hierarchy, the price of which had been paid dearly by the members of the Armed Forces, and indeed, the whole nation. From the assassination of the Father of the Nation on August 15, 1975 to the assassination of President Ziaur Rahman on May 30, 1981, there had been series of acts of violence and indiscipline that had smeared the image of our Armed Forces. As a fall-out of these incidents, we had a decade and a half of martial law or quasi-martial law in the country. This brought the Armed Forces directly in the political arena which resulted in an erosion of military values and principles on one side and impeded the progress of democracy in the country on the other. Despite this rather dark phase of history, our success and achievements comparatively outweigh the failures and debacles. It is with this backdrop that one can plan for a military force that is committed to, and capable of, defending a modern democratic state.
I want to see a military establishment in Bangladesh that would operate under the political control of a democratically elected government. Political control of the military does not mean that the government will play politics with the military nor will it use military forces to achieve political advantage. Political control means the government will ensure that its decisions are implemented by the military, but the details are largely left to the military leadership to work out. It is expected that while the military will not meddle in politics, the politicians too will not drag the military into their arena. In our own neighbourhood, military's involvement in domestic politics is one of the prime reasons of the failure of democracy in Pakistan, while India, despite having one of the largest and most powerful military forces, had kept the armed forces outside the political fracas. India is not only a stable democracy, but emerging as a major political, economic and military power in the region. While we expect every member of the armed forces of Bangladesh to be politically conscious, they must not be involved in party politics.
Organisational structures of the Armed Forces need to change with the changing times. The task of higher defence management is today shared by the Ministry of Defence (MOD), which deals with budget and routine organisational matters, and the Armed Forces Division (AFD), which deals with the operational, training and logistical aspects of the forces. The two organisations function under the Prime Minister, who holds the defence portfolio too. This dichotomy of administration, a legacy of Martial Law period, is unique not only in South Asia, but probably in the world. A merger of the MOD and AFD into an effective MOD is long overdue. This reorganisation would be in line with the modern democratic states, where top civilian bureaucrats and the military leadership share offices under a Defence Minister. We need to have a full-time Defence Minister, who would be a senior civilian political figure, able to deal with diverse demands from different Services and interest groups. As an apex body we may have a Cabinet Committee on National Security, composed of senior ministers and headed by the Prime Minister, where Services Chiefs would be called in for advice, whenever necessary. Such an initiative would be more in line with the practices in the USA, UK or India.
SK ENAMU HAQ
It is a common practice in most countries around the world to have all three Services Chiefs of the same rank and status. A modern war is invariably a combined military operation where each Service plays its own specialised role, but only through combined and coordinated operations can they ensure victory. In Pakistan, where for much of its history, Army was in power, the rank of the Chiefs of the three Services is of the same status. In Bangladesh, too, we started with ranks and status of all three Chiefs being the same. Later, during President Ershad's Martial Law regime, the Army Chief was elevated by one rank above those of the Navy and Air Force. This anomaly, which persists to this day, needs to be corrected.
There is a need to change the force composition in the future. We have to initiate efforts to increase the representation in the military of ethnic and religious minorities, backward classes and the indigenous people. In the same way, we need to recruit more women in the military and remove all gender discriminatory regulations that we have in force. For example, there is no reason for us not to allow women to join as pilots in the Air Force, whereas not only in India, even in a relatively conservative Muslim country like Pakistan, there are women Air Force pilots. In the same way, there is no plausible reason why women cannot be recruited in the combat arms of the Army or in the executive branch in the Navy. Only a few years back, no one thought that there will be women officers in the Armed Forces, but now it is a reality. So, it is only a matter of time before they will be able to choose any field of military profession, not only as an officer but as soldiers too.
I want to see our Armed Forces play an important role in upholding and safeguarding human rights in the country. In the past, there had been incidents of violation of human rights in which members of the Armed Forces were reported to be involved. A force that earns international accolade for restoring and defending human rights abroad must not be accused of violating the same principles at home. We need to include human rights issues in our military training curriculum so that there is greater awareness about it in the defence community. At the same time, the government and the military leadership must ensure that the basic human rights of the military personnel, as enshrined in the Constitution and the Military Laws are not violated. In this context, we might take up the issue of Military Law Reform, which is long overdue. We need to remember that the British Indian military laws were specially framed for the 'native' troops by the colonial masters. These laws were particularly repressive in nature compared to the Military Laws applicable to the British troops in India. However, we continue to practise these laws virtually unchanged, first during the Pakistan period and even now in independent Bangladesh. Meanwhile, in much of the democratic world including in India, Military Laws have gone through major changes. For example, in Bangladesh there is still no provision of appeal against a judgment passed in a Court Martial. Whereas in USA, UK, Europe and India, detailed procedure is laid out for the appeal. Only last year, India set up a separate Court of Appeal within the Indian Supreme Court to have speedy hearing of Court Martial appeal petitions. In the same way, the power of the government to retire any officer any time without assigning any reason has often been indiscriminately used in Bangladesh. We need to critically analyse and revise the Military Laws to bring those in line with the democratic nature of the state.
Our annual defence expenditure is nearly 2% of our GDP and about 7% of the total annual government expenditure. Next to education, defence gets the single highest allocation in the budget. Yet, people do not know how this money is spent. Unlike the West, there is no parliamentary debate on defence expenditure, or strong parliamentary supervision. In the name of national security, much of the defence expenditures remain outside public view. This gives scope for corruption and mismanagement. I would hope that in this age of “Right to Information”, the tax payers will be assured that their money is being spent in the best possible way. Whatever little we know from discussions and seminars, we gather that a very large proportion of the defence budget is actually spent in pay, pension and administration, leaving very little for operational activities, equipment procurement or training. This is like tail wagging the head. We need to restructure our forces in such a way that we are able to cut down on support activities and build our actual war fighting capabilities.
During the last four decades the Armed Forces have been equipped, trained and organised to fight a conventional battle against an external enemy. But the geo-strategic reality is such that there is little chance of a conventional warfare, whereas the danger of insurgency, terrorism, arms and drugs smuggling, etc., have increased in the region. Because these clandestine forces operate across and beyond national boundaries, it is not possible for any single country to effectively combat the menace. Therefore, our forces need to coordinate and cooperate with forces in the neighbouring countries to effectively deal with these non-conventional threats. Recent joint counter-terrorism exercises by the Indian and Bangladeshi forces were such steps taken in the right direction. Frequent joint exercises with the armed forces of India, Nepal and Myanmar will not only increase the operational efficiency, but will remove many doubts and misunderstandings among the forces. In the end, I look forward to a well-organised, well-equipped and well-trained military force to emerge in Bangladesh whose members will be dedicated to defend a happy, prosperous, secular and democratic Bangladesh.
This article in its slightly abridged form appeared in Bangla in the Daily Prothom Alo in its 13th Anniversary Issue on November 4, 2011.
Air Cdre (Retd) Ishfaq Ilahi Choudhury, ndc, psc is Registrar, Brac University.
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