News has recently appeared that DGFI or Bangladesh’s military intelligence agency has recommended that a Qaumi University be set up. The Qaumi stream of education is Islam/religion based education of the fundamentalist variety which has steadily supplied the most conservative section of Bangladesh society from which jihadist political actions have also been generated. Local US embassy staff has been involved in this project along with proponents of madrasa education in the country.
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DGFI or the US embassy is not keen about improving education but to stop militant Islamic activities. Apparently, 300 to 400 crore taka arrives every year and is channelled to these institutions and the government has no supervision over spending these fees. The idea is that if a madrasa is opened under DGFI scrutiny control and US advice, all the money that flows in and the people who have militant interests can be contained and the funds can also be used as a tracer of sorts leading to those who resort to terrorist activities.
This is a move that has been going on for quite sometime and the US embassy has been supporting a number of DGFI-friendly outfits in modelling this strategy. Most of them are active in the Chittagong area and the US embassy staff have been closely involved with the DGFI in this. It is not a unique proposition but if jihadists are to be contained, new ways must be found and explored. The problem is that there is no evidence that the DGFI, going by record, has the competence to run such activities. And the US has such a long and dismal record in counter-terrorism that one fears that a mess up is almost inevitable. And neither the DGFI nor the US embassy will pay a price. It will have to be those who have nothing to do with the decision, the voters of Bangladesh.
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The US counter-terrorism activities have mostly failed whether in Iraq and Afghanistan and other parts of the Middle East. Of course these are the two main centres of action in the world but while the frontal war has been won in Iraq, stability is very far away. In Afghanistan, the war is far from being over, fatigue has set in and several NATO countries have declared their intent to withdraw troops by certain dates hoping that trained Afghan police and military personnel will be up to the job, the combined forces of NATO have failed to do.
Winning an assault war is not difficult for a superpower like the US against a ragtag band of Saddam forces in a frontal war with an even more disabled Taliban military, but the Taliban guerrilla forces have proven too wily to be put down. A great advantage of the Taliban has been the corrupt and incompetent Karzai regime which is totally incapable of managing the situation on its own which the US set up.
Although the West has claimed that securing Afghanistan is in its urgent interest, there is no evidence that it has made any progress in that direction so far.
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Neighbour Pakistan on which the US pinned a lot of hope in carrying out Afghan actions has proven to be a hugely unreliable ally. Not only has the US failed to obtain a workable relationship going with Pakistan, but Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI — DGFI’s dad of sort — has acted on its own, often working in favour of the anti-US forces there including the Taliban. It obviously doesn’t see the war the same way as the US does. Not only has the ISI swelled with power because of such relationships, its grip on Pakistan has enhanced enormously and it has emerged as the main political player in Pakistan. If there is any beneficiary in the whole Afghan fracas, it is the ISI and the armed forces. Pakistan’s losers are obvious.
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I had a very candid interview with Benazir Bhutto at her residence after she had lost power to Nawaz Sharif in 2000. She was very bitter and said that Pakistan had always needed the US for survival. In the earliest days, it was the anti-Communist SEATO –CENTO pacts as Pakistan emerged as US’ loyalist ally in the region. Subsequently, China filled up a major space and ultimately it was as the broker of US-China rapprochement that it benefited. Then came the Afghan invasion of the erstwhile Soviet Union in which Pakistan became involved. Benazir was frank and said that many Pakistanis benefited from the resultant drug trade as well. “But now what will save Pakistan?” She had felt that at this stage, Pakistan was not able to offer anything to the US and would therefore suffer.
On September 11 2001, the US was bombed and in October 2001, Afghanistan was invaded by US-led forces.
Pakistan was ‘saved’ if that is the appropriate word.
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DGFI or its sibling’s success record is not good. In the early days, it was more known for its elaborate questioning and torture methods of the state opponents and essentially, it has always been above scrutiny and law befitting most agencies of this sort in South Asia. It failed to prevent any of the coups that killed Sheikh Mujib, Zia and many others. One is informed that it was part of Ershad’s takeover but in the end it produced a civilian government that has proven to be iconically unpopular. It has built an international reputation through its actions in the CHT causing state embarrassment. It has a formidable list of ‘friends’ particularly from amongst the politicians and journalists but they hardly matter in Bangladesh because what does it matter who is in power in this town and how. It has been accused of involvement in many activities which have proven to be counter-productive including its involvement in the Indian north-east. If this has been done to gain leverage against India, it awaits to be proven. Instead, the Chittagong arms haul case shows how such operations can fail leading to arrests and the players looking like fools.
It tried to cow down Hasina and Khaleda and failed forcing the army to negotiate with the politicians.
It doesn’t look impressive.
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A DGFI chief once told me that its strategy against India was like this. “We look upon India as a brute who wants to rape beautiful Bangladesh. When it will grab us, we will scream, that is defend ourselves — militarily. This will give a window of a few days.
That will bring our allies to our rescue.”
Suppose they don’t come to our rescue? Excuse me but this is what the Pakistanis did in 1971! They thought if they could defend for two weeks, the US and China would arrive. They didn’t and Pakistan paid a pretty steep price fort this miscalculation. It is the continuity of this kind of ancient Pakistani thinking that has influenced the army and the DGFI the most. It is not Pakistan but the tradition of adopting plans that are so full of loopholes and proven disasters that causes concern.
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If the government including the DGFI has no way of even knowing how 3-400 crores are flowing in every year to the madrasa system from the Arab countries and don’t have a handle on the affairs at all, it seems extremely doubtful that just by setting up a university all control will happen. It is assuming with the support of US advisers that the jihadists are so dumb that they will immediately put themselves up for scrutiny and allow the network to be traced by joining the University.
The DGFI has assumed the responsibility of guarantying the safety and security of Bangladesh. This is the standard practice in many places where civil and democratic forcers have failed to emerge and the military calls the shots. It is not what the DGFI is doing but what the political institutions have failed to achieve and deliver. Since coming to power is not done without the involvement of the security agencies, it is only natural that they should feel that politicians really don’t have it.
In Pakistan the rise of ISI was because it wanted a convenient ‘save’ hoping the US would pay their bills. Pakistan also played dirty in Afghanistan treating it as its backyard and hoped that the Taliban would cause pain to India. Many Pakistanis also don’t mind the ISI’s power as their primary objective in life is to contest India.
Bangladesh has no such compulsion and its principal objective is poverty alleviation and growth of democratic and participatory polity not fighting with an external enemy.
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The US government is very focussed in its objective which is however hampered by its inability to find good plan. The DGFI has an unviable track record and has gone along with US advises using its rather archaic methodology. By organising the Qaumis, it will be providing a great deal of support and skills to the very people it plans to monitor and counter. It is hoping to achieve success in a sector in which both the US and Pakistan failed.
Afsan Chowdhury is a journalist and researcher.