Written by Abu Rushd
It was the end of 1985, we were in our fourth term in Bangladesh Military Academy, preparing for the toughest exercise in our two-year long training regime, which was rightfully named as the “Acid Test”. We had to attend this same trial in our third term as shadow enemies to our senior course. Indeed, it was stressful and hectic in ways more than one as the name of the trial suggests. Suddenly we were notified that the “Acid Test” had been canceled for us, the fourth termers, and the time for that would be dedicated to practicing for our passing out parade... ...
All of us who were cross-belt holders (under officers) were both elated and sad at this new order. We wouldn’t have to go through the stressful inconvenience of the “Acid Test”, so it was good news in actuality but preparing for the last stage of getting commissioned, the passing out parade, for more than the allotted time was something that caused our displeasure, like it was double edged sword: you either live through the “Acid Test” or prepare hard for the passing out parade.
In my third term, I commanded the senior most company, Jahangir Company, as corporal in the passing out parade of the 12th Long Course, who were a course senior to us. It was a pretty complicated matter as the burden of command cannot be taken lightly, especially when it is a passing out parade so we were concerned about it naturally; I was a bit irritated about the whole matter.
Unsurprisingly, all of us were curious to know the reason as to why such an important exercise was canceled and the passing out parade was prioritized over it. Our most senior cadet who was also the course’s Battalion Senior Under Officer, Humayun (now presiding over the office of the Adjutant General at the AHQ), asked around and came to know that the defense minister of Saudi Arabia along with his entourage would be present to witness our passing out parade. Our relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia – especially for the army, was very important, thus the authorities wanted to ensure and present a flawless and magnificent parade to the guests.
We went on to practice the drills and routines for the parade all around the day, morning-afternoon-evening. On the 19th of December the actual parade took place. The Saudi guests arrived in a number of helicopters along with the other VVIPs. President Hussain Mohammad Ershad presided over the ceremony as the Chief Guest and took our parade. Thanks to the extra time dedicated to the preparation, it was one of the most splendid events at that time.
Before all of these, when we joined the military academy as new cadets on 18th January 1984, the cadet accommodation that we were assigned to were newly built and fitted with the latest amenities of that time. Before us, no other courses were assigned these accommodations since the beginning. They were rather assigned to the old barracks. After a few days into our first term we came to know that these new infrastructures were all built with the financial assistance of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The four buildings of the four companies—Bir Srestho Jahangir, Rouf, Hamid and Mustafa Companies still stand tall to this day, giving witness to the close relationship that we share with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Considering the geopolitical reality of that time Saudi Arabia didn’t recognize the formation of Bangladesh till 1976. Though in 1974, the then Saudi King, King Faisal had a closed-door meeting with Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman during the OIC Conference in Lahore. After General Ziaur Rahman took power, he concentrated on increasing the military infrastructure of Bangladesh. As a journalist I had the privilege to interview at around twenty of the senior officers including the ex-services chiefs who were at or near the helm at that time. Through them I came to know as to how the military infrastructure was increased at such a fast pace in the late seventies and eighties. According to them, when General Ziaur Rahman assumed power, our army was only a division strong, that too lacked any notable heavy weapons. There were two major obstacles to acquiring heavy weapons and expand our military infrastructures. First, there was an issue of economics, as a country which was born, figuratively, day before yesterday, we lacked the financial muscle to exercise our will in this matter; second, the constant pressure from Certain regional and International powers to keep Bangladesh subdued to make sure that it stays in their sphere of influence. Due to these reasons it was nearly impossible to increase our military capability from a lone division to five. It was at this time Saudi Arabia and other Arab states stepped in to rescue us from these dire straits with financial support while China supplied us with tanks, artillery pieces and other warfighting effects and along with the United States of America helped to remove the geopolitical obstruction. It wasn’t an easy task to raise an army with a strength of five divisions within a span of three and a half years but it was done. At the same time a number of frigates, missile boats, torpedo boats and submarine chasers were acquired for our Navy and brand-new Shenyang F-6 fighter planes from China and Bell helicopters from the United States arrived for our Air Force.
Alongside this military cooperation from Saudi Arabia and its Arab neighbors also opened their labor-markets for us, the benefits of which we still enjoy due to a constant flow of remittance. Regardless of all the military aid that Saudi Arabia helped us with it will not be possible for us to know the extent of their assistance due to their tight-lipped nature in matters like this but the assistance extended by the Arab countries and Turkey is undeniable in the overall development of our military capacity as a nation. The flow of assistance continued at the same pace even after General Ershad assumed power. Bangladesh, in exchange of training Iraqi combat pilots, received funds to buy at around 36 aircrafts from Iraq in the 1980s. The next event was significant in deepening our military ties with Saudi Arabia and the other Arab countries.
2nd of August 1990, Iraq started its military invasion of Kuwait, to that end it succeeded within a very short time, and captured all of Kuwait. Neighboring Arab countries felt threatened and Saudi Arabia was deeply concerned that the Iraqis might invade them next. The world went haywire protesting this heinous move by Iraq and as a result of which a military coalition was established with the United States at its helm, starting Operation Desert Shield. The objective of the operation was to establish a coalition by coordinating with the other countries in the world, complete the deployment of troops and to ensure the security of Saudi Arabia. At that time, Bangladesh was one of the first countries who sent soldiers to deploy in order to help Saudi Arabia. An entire brigade was sent under the command of the then Brigadier Hasan Mashhud Chowdhury, that detachment also had Major Iqbal Karim Bhuiyan, both of whom later appointed as Chief of Staff of Bangladesh Army. ‘It is wrongful and unjust of the larger neighbor to invade a smaller one and the world community will not idly watch by’ – Bangladesh joined the coalition with this particular mindset. General Ershad decided this firmly going against many internal and regional adversities. As a result of the participation of Bangladesh in the US-led coalition Bangladesh’s diplomacy succeeded in achieving its objective of establishing Bangladesh’s image as an international entity and it improved the overall international image of Bangladesh.
After the coalition partners have finalized their deployment plan, the second phase of Operation Desert Shield was launched. The phase titled as Operation Desert Storm, was planned to drive out the invading Iraqi forces out of Kuwait in order to free it and to that end the US led coalition entered the theater in full force. Even though Bangladeshi forces didn’t take part in the offensive directly, it played an important part of supporting and assisting the offensive and the other coalition partners who took part in it. The Bangladeshi contingent later on was involved in mine clearing operation in Kuwait. Taking part in this coalition effort proved the professionalism of the Bangladesh Army and thus for this the chance for participation in UN peacekeeping missions opened up. At the same time, for assisting a brotherly country in a time of distress, the Saudi authorities presented Bangladesh Army with some of the heavy weaponries captured from the retreating Iraqi forces, which included tanks, which were later used to help raise two tank regiments in Kholahati and Mymensingh (which was later transferred to Ghatail) and many others were distributed between other armored units. Besides, Bangladesh Army officers are still deployed in ‘Operation Kuwait Punorgothon’.
Recently, Bangladesh has decided to send its troops to Saudi Arabia. Chief of Army Staff of Bangladesh Army, General Aziz Ahmed during his recent visit to Saudi Arabia met with the Commander-In-Chief of Islamic Military Counter-Terrorism Coalition (IMCTC) General Raheel Sharif. According to sources, Bangladesh will send two battalions for mine clearing operation on Saudi-Yemeni border and four officers including a brigadier general is to be posted in different positions in the IMCTC headquarters. During his visit General Aziz Ahmed was also awarded the King Abdul Aziz Medal of Excellence.
Bangladesh was invited to join in an active role in IMCTC when it was formed but Bangladesh politely refused saying the it would send troops only if the Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina are affected or attacked. Now, this decision has been reversed and there might be controversies surrounding the decision to send the troops and their role in the Saudi-Yemeni conflict. Some might say why our army will fight against another Muslim country, Yemen? There can be casualties in the line of operation. Different opinion on the matter has surfaced in the social media platforms and other platforms, many of which seems to question the decision saying why will Bangladesh align itself with a side in Saudi-Yemeni conflict? Many also opined as to why Bangladesh will help Saudis when it was the Saudis who launched an invasion on the people of Yemen and imposed sanctions for which millions are now suffering through one of the worst famines. There are multitudes of discussions like this going on in many forums. But it’ll not be unreasonable to say that Bangladesh never sided in an unfair manner in any conflicts in the world, especially in the Arab world.
The Saudi-Yemen conflict is a paradoxical one as no one side can be blamed for the conflict. On one side there is Saudi Arabia who feels threatened by the fact that pro-Iranian groups/governments are surrounding them. There’s Iraq with a Shi’ite majority and pro-Tehran government in one border and Yemen in another where Saudi Arabia has enacted harsh measures to contain the Houthi threat, the effect of which is affecting millions of common Yemenis. On the other hand, the Houthis who were colluding with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC) for a long time and received training and logistics to attack and engage pro-Saudi targets in Yemen and also to launch offensives targeting Saudi Arabia itself are not saints. It’s a long discussion by itself but that is not the purpose of this piece.
Getting back to the responsibilities of the Bangladeshi detachment, it has been known that they will not be taking part in any active engagements against the Houthis. They will be only concentrating on the removal of land mines from the border. The concerned authorities should clarify their stance and steps regarding this decision to send our troops to avoid any negative notion in the public’s mind. Doing so we should also remember that we have a labor-market of 2.5 million Bangladeshis in Saudi Arabia and if we don’t keep a good relation with the Saudis, we might lose access to that labor-market and other Arab countries might follow suite as Saudis are the de facto leader of the Arab world. We must prioritize the national interest above all others. Negating our emotions, we should consider as to siding with which Coalition and which country will benefit this densely populated small country of ours.
I believe it was a wise decision to join the Muslim coalition to combat terrorism in a larger extent and commit our troops to that cause. In 1990-91, our army by joining the US-led coalition for Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm established itself in the eyes of the international community and through that crucible has give shined the light of their professionalism to all, and through that they let the world know that a small third world country, which handles natural disasters on a regular basis, can build and have a strong, well-trained army. It was the deployment of troops in Saudi Arabia which opened the doors for us to serve in the UN peacekeeping missions and has blessed us with the well-earned reputation in the UN Headquarters and also among other peacekeeping nations. What the government has decided this time deserves an applauding appreciation and it will definitely enrich Bangladesh Army with experience and will open new gates to new opportunities.