This was the first instance of abdication of political responsibility by the politicians where they failed to provide purpose, direction & control to both the Nation & its military; this was also the beginning of politicization of the Bangladesh Military.
Mahmud ur Rahman Choudhury
DATELINE: Chittagong Circuit House, Zonal Martial Law Headquarters, evening 17 March 1971. Four Bengali Army Officers namely Lt.Col M.R.Choudhury, Major Zia Ur Rahman, Captains Oli Ahmed & Amin Ahmed Choudhury, sat discussing what course of action they need to take under the circumstances then prevailing in East Pakistan. It was decided that they would execute a coordinated revolt against the Pakistan Army; the exact timing of the revolt depending on the situation. It was also decided that communication & liaison with the Awami League (AL) leadership would be established & maintained.
East Pakistan was in turmoil since January 1971. The Bangabandhu, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on 7 March 1971, in a mammoth public meeting, had virtually declared the independence of Bangladesh, calling on the people to resist, to the utmost, any attempt to exert control by force by the Pakistan Government. The people were in open revolt although discussions continued between the representatives of AL & the Pakistan Government, aimed at a settlement acceptable to both parties.
After the meeting on 17 March 1971, attempts were made to establish contact with the AL leadership. At first, there was no response and then a feeble & cautious response to “to hold on as political discussions were continuing”. Bengali members of the Pakistan military, engaged in Martial Law duties, were fully aware that the Pakistan military was reinforcing itself, in East Pakistan, with men, material, armaments & ammunition. They also knew fully well that the Pakistan military would soon “go into action” in East Pakistan - all these were passed to the AL through various channels and still there was no decisive response to revolt. Sure enough starting from the night of 25/26 March 1971, the Pakistan Government took the road of forceful suppression by genocide, of the people of East Pakistan. Caught totally unawares, the people, including Bengali members of Pakistan military, Police & East Pakistan Rifles were killed “en mass”. Left to fend for themselves, Bengali Officers & men analyzed situations, took decisions & executed the design to revolt against Pakistan. This was the first instance of abdication of political responsibility by the politicians where they failed to provide purpose, direction & control to both the Nation & its military; this was also the beginning of politicization of the Bangladesh Military.
Throughout the Liberation War, from 25 March to 16 December of 1971, the Bangladesh Military not only organized itself & fought but also organized, trained, motivated & led at least a million men & women in a brutal & ruthless war to liberate Bangladesh. Men in uniform were shoulder to shoulder with civilians, from every walk of life, fighting, bleeding & dying imbued with the same purpose & zeal & some of the same politics too. The ideal of Bangladesh was a political ideal & the liberation of Bangladesh was a tribute to the success of that political ideal - men in uniform were a part of that.
The immediate aftermath of Independence was chaos - social, economic & political. A very small Bangladesh Army, an even smaller Navy & Air Force pulled themselves back from the chaos by taking refuge in cantonments, garrisons & bases. In order to arrest the chaos, the AL Government abandoned the path of persuasion and took the path of compulsion deploying the military in “Aid of Civil Power” to disarm the many guerilla bands still roaming about the countryside, to curb militant & armed leftist movements and in general to establish & maintain law & order. Finding the military not as pliable & as responsive as they would have liked, the AL set about rapidly organizing an alternative in the form of a para-military force called the Jatiyo Rakkhi Bahini or JRB with its manpower recruited from AL cadres, activists & party members. Many of the military’s better Officers were deputed to it to train & lead the force. The Military was not in the least bit pleased; it had initiated the armed revolt of the Liberation War, it had fought the war to a successful conclusion and it expected its classical role of National Defense to lie with it; it did not want to abdicate this role to anyone, least of all to a political upstart called the JRB.
In the meantime, the leftist movement, in the form of the Jatiyo Shamajtantrik Dal or JSD, very strong in the period 1974-1975, had infiltrated into every nook & cranny of the military, in particular its rank & file. So, when on 15 August 1975, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman with most of his family and a few of his closest colleagues were murdered by a group of Army officers, for reasons still not clear today, the Nation went into a tail spin. At the same time, the JSD instigated and initiated a “Sepahi Biplob” adding to the chaos & setting in motion a chain of coups & counter coups within the military. With great brutality & ruthlessness, chaos was controlled & Martial Law imposed. Meanwhile the politicians abandoned everything & ran for their lives; thus, for the second time abdicating political responsibility & failing to provide direction, purpose & control to the Nation & its Military.
With the imposition of Martial Law and as a response to events, quite unconsciously, the Military as a corporate body had decided not to be a party to politics but to control & direct politics itself and so for the next 5 years set about governing the state. Nation-building became a part of military vocabulary. From 1975 to 1980, all institutions of the state were strengthened and the people were motivated & imbued with the zeal to build the nation. With the Military participating in nation building activities & firmly standing behind, politics was indeed becoming difficult just as General Zia Ur Rahman had promised.
The coup that led to the murder of General Zia Ur Rahman, the President, was short lived. The BNP, the party formed by Zia Ur Rahman, was in government but it failed to take “control of the situation” preferring to leave it to the military to “sort itself out”. Consequently the military without a pause imposed a 2nd Martial Law & assumed the “reigns of government”. Not until 1990 was a serious challenge mounted to the control & domination of the military on both politics & government.
For 15 years from 1991 to 2006, democracy or some form of it prevailed. Politics, elections & parliament became big business. Lacking leadership, foresight, abilities & acumen, politicians & political parties got themselves busy in looting both public & private wealth leaving the Nation to fend for itself. Politics became a “zero-sum game”, where the party in power took everything leaving nothing for the vast majority of “others”. Not surprisingly politics became confrontational. Subjected to either neglect or manipulation every social, political & economic institution of the Sate simply broke down. Hectic attempts at reaching an understanding, which would pave the way for elections in January 2006, broke down. All avenues were now closed and the Military was once again called upon to fill a role that was not theirs to fill, this time in the form of an Emergency Government. For the third time politicians had failed to shoulder their responsibility in providing direction, purpose & control to the Nation & it’s Military.
Carl von Clausewitz, the chief & the most famous theoretician of the Napoleonic wars (mid 18th century), in his book “On War’ states: “War is not merely a political act but also a real political instrument...” The military which fights wars, is thus by association “a real political instrument” guided & controlled by policy -when this fails the military is constrained to decide “policy”. One common red thread runs throughout the 38 years (1971 - 2009) of the history of the Bangladesh Military and that is: a complete absence of political direction & control during times of crisis and “troubles”. Taking this analysis as a background, we shall discuss the reorganization of the Military, one of the 4 Core State Institutions.
The Reorganization of the Bangladesh Military
The Bangladesh military is as structured, organized, as equipped & armed and as trained as any military can be within the limited resources available to it in a Country like Bangladesh. Instead, I would like to focus on the “Higher Direction & Control” aspects of the Bangladesh Military - the whole tenor of our analysis & arguments has led us to the consideration of this single aspect. Again, in suggesting a “Higher Direction & Control” of the military I would concentrate on the functional rather then on the structural aspects of the issue.
Higher Direction & Control ipso facto implies political control of the military at the highest levels of the government through at least a Ministry of Defense (MOD) with the chain of control passing through the MOD to the Prime Minister (PM), thence to the President. That is what our Constitution specifies & that is what exists in theory. In practice, the MOD is moribund and all major & minor policy decisions are taken by the PM.
Recommendations, by the Chiefs of Army, Navy & Air Force, is passed on either directly or through the Armed Forces Division (AFD), to the PM. The President, who is the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, is not even consulted. When the Presidential system of government was in vogue, during & after the martial law regimes, the President was the fountainhead of all decisions regarding the military.
Immediately after Independence, the Awami League (AL) government did not envisage a substantial role for the military because a war, even in the distant future seemed unlikely. Bangladesh was surrounded on 3 sides by India with a small stretch of border with Myanmar in the southeast. External threats were limited & whatever threat existed was taken care of by the 25 years Indo-Bangla Friendship Treaty. Internal threats there were but these could very well be tackled by para-military forces like the Jatiyo Rakkhi Bahini (JRB). Therefore, as far as the AL was concerned there was no need for Higher Direction & Control of the military. Subsequent governments, both military & civil, personalized direction & control in the person of the PM or the President. Thus, a formal process & structure of policy & strategic decision-making was never put in place in Bangladesh.
In putting in place a formal process & structure of Higher Direction & Control, one has to ensure a balance of two things: effective control of the military on the one hand and structured participation of the military in the process on the other. Having said that, I would now like to discuss, in the following paragraphs, the essential functional aspects of Higher Direction & Control in the form of a reorganized MOD:
(1) CONTROL OF POLICY & STRATEGIC DECISION MAKING. Policy & strategic guidance provides purpose & direction to the Forces & therefore, this must be the prime function of the MOD. Policy & strategic guidance also provides guidelines for the structuring, organizing, equipping, training & employing of military forces and as such, participation of the Forces ought to be ensured through Chiefs of the 3 Forces (Army, Navy & Air Force) within the process & structure of the MOD. Such organization as the DGF1, Doctrine & Training Command, and tri-service training institutes must be under such control as these provide information & feedback on policy & strategic issues.
(2) CONTROL OF MILITARY PROCUREMENT. Structuring the process of procurement of military armaments & equipment ensures that Forces are equipped for the tasks & functions they are set to perform. This therefore, is an important MOD function that must be incorporated in its organization.
(3) BUDGETARY CONTROL. This control ensures that demands for moneys by Forces are logically & practically constructed & processed. It also ensures that funds placed are utilized for purposes for which they had been demanded. Accountability & transparency is thereby ensured.
(4) CONTROL OF HIGHER COMMANDS. Control of higher command echelons, in our case army Divisions & Independent Brigades, Naval & Air Bases, ensures that such formation react quickly & effectively to directives & situations in peace & in war. It also ensures that such Commands are always deployed & employed with explicit sanctions from the government & never for purposes for which they are not meant. In order to do that the MOD must have the prerogative to promote & position Commanders to such Commands. The process for this must be structured to ensure participation by the Chiefs of the 3 Forces. At the same time, it also must be ensured that the Control of the MOD in no way interferes with Operational & Tactical control exercised by Forces Headquarters when forces are deployed in the field.
(5) PARTICIPATION OF FORCES. This must be ensured by placement of personnel from the 3 forces in every functional area of the MOD. The Chiefs as well as higher commanders of the 3 Forces must form part of appropriate Committees of the MOD, both permanent & temporary. The reasons for this is obvious: military functions are complex & continuous feed-backs are necessary from experts in many functional areas, if policy & strategy are to be practical, logical & executable; additionally a close understanding is necessary between those who formulate policy & strategy & those who implement them.
The Military with its legally sanctioned monopoly of organized violence is a potent instrument of politics but that must be seen in the wider context of International politics & inter-state relationships. Whenever the military is employed for purposes other then this, such as political interventions within the State, it looses both its physical & moral capacity & capability to perform its primary task of war-fighting in wars & deterrence in peace. As we have seen, the Bangladesh Military has for long been intervening, in one form or another, in politics & governance within the State. This has been possible because of the absence of structured Higher Direction & Control of the military at the highest levels of government. The function of political control of the military had been personalized in the person of the PM or the President and in the absence of strong personalities in these positions, control & direction disappeared leaving the military to do as it thought best. If we are to take lessons from history, we must tightly structure the political direction & control of the military in such a way that in peace, crisis & war, direction & control never fails.