The South Asia Channel
Escaping the Shadow of Pakistan
The current diplomatic row between Bangladesh and Pakistan is about more than opening old wounds from 45 years ago – it is about the threat to pluralistic democracy in South Asia posed by Pakistan’s security policies.
Pakistan’s dysfunctional relationship with India and its symbiotic relationship with the Afghan Taliban often overshadow the country’s troubled relations with other regional neighbors. Iran has long complained about militants carrying out cross-border attacks from Balochistan, and even Pakistan’s “all weather friend” China has blamed it for Islamist terrorist attacks in Xinjiang province. Recently, though, tension has risen to dangerous levels with another South Asian country: Bangladesh.
Relations between Pakistan and Bangladesh have been uneasy since before the latter’s secession from Pakistan in 1971. The refusal by political leaders in West Pakistan – what is now modern Pakistan – to accept the outcome of the 1970 elections that would have given then-East Pakistanis (now Bangladeshis) a majority in parliament was the final straw for the almost 67 million Bengalis who felt they were being treated as a West Pakistani colony. That suspicion has continued, and many Bangladeshis believe that, despite signing an instrument of surrender in 1971, Pakistan continues to carry out covert operations that undermine Bangladesh’s sovereignty to use the country as a base of anti-India operations. Far from a conspiracy theory, there is significant evidence that Pakistan employs a Bangladesh policy that is dangerously similar to its destructive Afghan policy.
In February of last year, Bangladeshi intelligence outed Mazhar Khan, a diplomat at Pakistan’s embassy in Dhaka, as an agent of its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), and accused him of using forged currency to funnel money through the Pakistani embassy to several Islamist extremist. Pakistan quietly withdrew Khan, refusing to comment on the allegations publicly posed by Bangladesh’s foreign ministry.
Later, in December, Pakistan withdrew another diplomat, Political Secretary Farina Arshad, from its Embassy in Dhaka after an Islamist militant implicated the Pakistani diplomat in an ISI operation to provide aid to anti-government extremist groups in Bangladesh. In response, Pakistan expelled Bangladeshi diplomat Moushumi Rahman over allegedly “anti-Pakistan activities,” a charge widely viewed as a retaliatory move based on anger as opposed to substantive evidence. The Pakistani media even admitted that “Pakistan has not provided any credible reason for expelling the Bangladeshi diplomat,” and criticized Islamabad for “behaving in a petulant manner.” Bangladesh reassigned Rahman, after which Pakistan has carried out a steady campaign to harass Bangladesh’s diplomatic corps. Embassy staff have been picked up by Pakistani police, and at least one press staffer was kidnapped by unnamed assailants who hooded him and dumped him in a remote location, fortunately alive.
In February, Bangladeshi Foreign Minister Abul Hassan Mahmood Ali floated the possibility of severing diplomatic ties with Pakistan completely. This is not the first time the government has considered such an idea. In 2013, protesters in Bangladesh demanded that the government suspend diplomatic relations with Pakistan.
Bangladeshi War Criminals, Pakistani Heroes
A major point of contention between the two nations is the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT), a Bangladeshi court constituted in 2009 to investigate and prosecute war crimes committed during the country’s 1971 war of secession from Pakistan. The U.S. State Department and British Foreign Office support the trials, and encourage Bangladesh to continue working to improve the process.
Procedural issues notwithstanding, there is no doubt that Pakistan’s armed forces and proxy militias formed by members of Jamaat-e-Islami, the transnational Islamist organization that opposed secession, committed atrocities against the Bengali people in an effort to put down the rebellion. From the famous 1971 “Blood Telegram” written by U.S. diplomat Archer Blood, to the words of Pakistani army officers themselves, firsthand accounts of rapes and mass murders are readily available. In 1972, the government of Pakistan constituted the Hamoodur Rahman Commission “to find out the circumstances in which the commander, Eastern command, surrendered.” The Commission found that “during and after the military action excesses were indeed committed on the people of East Pakistan.” Islamabad ordered all but one copy of the report destroyed, and the findings were hidden from the public until a copy was leaked to the media in 2000. Two years later, then-Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf acknowledged the Pakistani army’s responsibility for these atrocities during an official visit to Dhaka.
Pakistan’s current government, however, has attempted to reverse course, issuing blanket denials of any such acts during the 1971 war. Adding insult to injury, while Pakistan officially denies its responsibility, government officials and high-profile media personalities publicly characterize the accused perpetrators as “heroes.” Pakistan’s interior minister, Chaudhry Nisar, praised Abdul Quader Molla, a leader of the Al-Badr paramilitary group, for his “loyalty,” and Pakistani news outlets have described convicted war criminals as “pro-Pakistan militia fighters.” Pakistani journalist Rasool Darwar told New York Times reporter Ihsanullah Tipu Mehsud that he had been picked up by the ISI last March and interrogated about his opinion on Bangladesh’s independence. Those few Pakistanis who dare suggest that Pakistan bears culpability for crimes committed against Bangladesh have been threatened and branded as traitors.
Pakistan’s interest in the ICT may not be limited to what took place in 1971. After the Interior Ministry expressed “deep concern and anguish” over the execution of former Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) official Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury for war crimes, investigative journalist David Bergman reported that “multiple well-placed sources” had confirmed that the former BNP lawmaker had been recruited by the ISI “at some point after 1975” after which “he became a key agent in Bangladesh for Pakistan’s [ISI].”
Allegations of ISI collaboration with the BNP are not new. In 2012, during hearings in Pakistan’s Supreme Court regarding allegations that the ISI had funded right-wing and Islamist political parties to influence domestic elections, former director general of the ISI, Gen. Asad Durrani, informed Pakistan’s Supreme Court that the ISI also funded the BNP during the 1991 Bangladeshi elections in order to prevent the election of Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League, which they feared was too friendly with India.
Pakistani Terror Groups in Bangladesh
In addition to infiltrating the Bangladesh government, a growing body of evidence points to Pakistani support for jihadi militant groups in Bangladesh. In 2010, Bangladeshi security forces began carrying out raids that resulted in several high-profile arrests of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) operatives who were providing funds and training to local militant groups — including Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) and Hakat-ul-Jihad-al Islami (Huji) — that have been responsible for a number of terrorist attacks in Bangladesh. LeT was also working to radicalize and recruit Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh for terror operations in India. Law enforcement raids interrupted Lashkar’s operations in the country for a time, but only briefly. Last summer, LeT founder Hafiz Saeed was back, touring refugee camps on the Bangladesh border as part of efforts to radicalize and recruit Rohingya refugees for terrorist operations. Last November, four of seven JMB militants arrested in Dhaka were Pakistanis. Three more Pakistani nationals were arrested in anti-terrorist operations a month later. Four members of the Islamic State arrested in Bangladesh last year told investigators that they had been trained in Pakistan.
Despite concerns about a growing Islamic State presence, the government of Bangladesh has insisted that the greater threat is foreign support for local militants. There is reason to worry. In 2010, the U.S. Treasury Department designated three LeT financiers as Specially Designated Global Terrorists, including Mohammad Naushad Alam Khan who was arrested by Dhaka police in a counterfeit currency laundering in 2008. A 2011 U.S. State Department report stated that “India…faces an increasing inflow of high-quality counterfeit currency, which is produced primarily in Pakistan.” Last summer, a Pakistani national was arrested for currency smuggling at the Dhaka airport. In December, a Pakistani national was among a group of counterfeiters arrested in Dhaka with millions in forged notes. In fact, over 60 Pakistanis have been arrested for smuggling currency to Islamist terrorist groups in Bangladesh. Last August, The Hindu reported that Bangladesh had obtained credible evidence that foreign organizations are continuing to fund militant outfits, including a $2.2 million deposit by a Pakistani national into a bank account in Chittagong opened under a false identity.
More than “Old Wounds”
Since gaining independence from British rule, Pakistan’s national security policy has been defined by attempts to use covert operations to shape regional geopolitics in a manner deemed favorable to Pakistan’s interests. This has not only failed to make Pakistan more secure; it has fueled instability and cultivated international terrorism. Pakistan’s policy towards Bangladesh has been defined by a desire for a pliable government and the ability to use the country as an eastern launching pad for anti-India militant proxies. As with its Afghanistan policy, this has only resulted in distrust and resentment, further isolating Pakistan and providing space for extremism to flourish.
The current diplomatic row between Bangladesh and Pakistan is about more than opening old wounds from 45 years ago – it is about the threat to pluralistic democracy in South Asia posed by Pakistan’s security policies. As the Islamic State and other terror groups look to expand their footprint in South Asia, the world has an immediate and enduring interest in ensuring that Bangladesh’s efforts to defend its pluralistic democracy against the tide of Islamist extremism are not undermined by Pakistan’s regional ambitions.
MUNIR UZ ZAMAN/AFP/Getty Images