Bangladesh Opinion Bangladesh’s fragile national security

Isa Khan

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Anu Anwar

September 20, 2022 4:06 AM

The word “national security” is taboo in Bangladesh. There is no discourse -- public or private -- about Bangladesh’s national security threats.

Bangladesh spends billions of dollars on defense each year, but since its existence for 50 years, Dhaka has not produced a national defense policy.

Currently, Bangladesh is pursuing “Forces Goal 2030” with the aim of modernization of its armed forces, but the sole purpose of this effort, the defense goal, is absent.

Given the presence of an asymmetric nuclear-powered neighbour India, will Bangladesh pursue a deterrence posture to secure its territorial integrity?

Or a counteroffensive strategy against belligerent neighbour Myanmar, should it launch an amphibious invasion over the Naf River?
There is no existence of official or unofficial policy document that outlines Bangladesh’s defense policy, military doctrine, or warfighting strategy, should it come under attack.

Yet, Bangladesh is spending over $4 billion each year on defense, possessing a force of about two hundred thousand.

Dhaka is vulnerable

This vulnerability is now exposed as Dhaka failed to deter recurrent but sequential incursions over its land and air from Myanmar.

Recent news suggests that Myanmar mortar shells killed one and wounded six inside Bangladesh (including Bangladeshis).

Dhaka’s pursuit of diplomatic protests in response to a military provocation has apparently done little to dissuade the Myanmar military from intensifying its attack on Bangladesh’s territory.

Myanmar is a rough state ruled by a group of military dictators over decades. They have committed genocide against Rohingya minorities, over a million of whom are currently sheltered in Bangladesh.

The argument of restraint with the ostensible aim of not derailing the Rohingya repatriation process, even after the encroachment of the border, is unpersuasive. Bangladesh has pursued the diplomatic channel for decades to make this repatriation happen, but almost all efforts went in vain, and amounted to little more than a drop in the bucket.

Bangladesh has little leverage over Myanmar to compel repatriation, but using that mirage in exchange for compromising territorial sovereignty is a mistake.

Bangladesh also has a long history of border skirmishes and limited warfighting with the Myanmar military.

The vicinity of the Bay of Bengal that Bangladesh shares with Myanmar is valuable geo-strategic land. The actor in this Bay of Bengal vicinity is not only regional countries such as Bangladesh or Myanmar, but this sub-region also is in the deep strategic interest of superpowers such as the United States and China.

Keeping all these in mind, Myanmar is carrying out sound military planning albeit with brutal tactics against the Rohingya population in order to do what it perceives as necessary to secure its strategic province Arakan.

But as of now, Bangladesh has done little to stop the influx of over a million Rohingyas or secure its territory in the event of a full-scale war against Myanmar.

Thirty years ago, the Myanmar military attacked Bangladesh’s border guard post in the Gundum area.

In response, the Bangladesh military launched the operation Naf Rokha (Protect River Naf) under the command of BG M Shawkat Hussain, in which Bangladesh’s armed forces achieved tactical advantage over the Myanmar military along the Naf River.

In 1991, there was little to no military establishment in the Arakan state. Bangladesh’s military along the CHT was well prepared against Myanmar.

But over the last 30 years, Myanmar established three full-scale military bases in Arakan equipped with a long runway, short-range ballistic missiles, and effective air defense systems.

In the event of a conflict with Bangladesh, this establishment will launch the initial strike against Bangladeshi forces.

Chart 1: Comparison of Bangladesh vs Myanmar national power


Source: Compiled by author from Global Firepower, World Bank, Macrotrends etc

Bangladesh’s preparations

Although Bangladesh has expanded one cantonment, acquired submarines, and an air base in Cox’s Bazar under construction -- we still lack a coherent deterrence strategy to prevent a Myanmar attack.

Bangladeshi officials overcite a decades-old dictum of “friendship to all, malice to none” in its foreign and defense policy pursuit but have never articulated what the policy is in here.

A dictum is not a policy, but a principle based on which a sound policy should be formulated.

As maintaining peace and stability is the national priority of Bangladesh, nothing but credible deterrence posturing could ensure such stability along its border.

But recurrent violations of Bangladesh’s territory suggest Myanmar is not deterred. In other words, Bangladesh has failed to effectively deter Myanmar aggression.

In an ideal situation, Bangladesh’s defense policy against Myanmar should be grounded on credible “deterrence by denial strategy.”

“Deterrence by denial” strategies seek to deter an action by making it infeasible or unlikely to succeed, thus denying a potential aggressor confidence in attaining its objectives -- deploying sufficient local military forces to defeat an invasion, for example.

These fundamentals may be straightforward but Clausewitz’s warning about the inherent friction in war is a useful caution: “Everything in war is very simple, but the simplest thing is difficult.”

What we are experiencing on the Bangladesh-Myanmar border is a classic example of deterrence failure, along with insufficient handling of what amounts to an incipient national security crisis.

First, this is a military affair. The Ministry of Defense or Armed Forces Divisions should take the lead in response, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Home Affairs should support the efforts.

But as of now, we did not see any public initiative from MoD or AFD. The standard response to airspace violation is sending a warning and interceptor when hostile airplanes are in the air defense identification zone.

In a failure to comply with a warning, a sovereign country has the right to shoot down the violator.

For example, in 2015, Turkey shot down the Russian Sukhoi Su-25 warplane. Despite asymmetric Russian military might, Turkey did not hesitate to shoot down a Russian plane in the event of its airspace violation.

Because this is the standard procure, and every country has the right to defend its territory.

Why does Bangladesh fail to shoot or even send an interceptor to Myanmar aircraft? Would we lose a life or sustain the severe injury of innocent Bangladeshi citizens if Bangladesh was able to shoot down the Myanmar fighter plane that violated Bangladesh’s airspace on September 4?

Wouldn’t Myanmar think twice next time if we could respond proportionately?

Doesn’t our silence expose vulnerabilities that encourage more attacks?

The sole purpose of armed forces is to protect national territorial integrity. This should be a matter that is out of a question of compromise.

Bangladesh is a rising middle-power in Asia. It is a country of 165 million people that now commands South Asia’s second-largest economy. The geo-strategic location of Bangladesh along the Bay of Bengal poses an abundance of potential, but all could be jeopardized if it fails to secure its territorial sovereignty and maintain peace and stability on its border by deterring potential aggressors.

As the geo-political landscape in the Indo-Pacific region is undergoing a profound change in the aftermath of the Ukraine war, Bangladesh is at a crossroads.

Unless Dhaka changes its course and maintains a credible deterrence strategy that is grounded on sound national defense policy, the hard-earned achievement of the last 50 years could unravel sooner than we think.

Anu Anwar is a fellow at the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Harvard University, and a PhD candidate at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.


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