Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Military Seeks Money

A recent report submitted to the Defense Standing Committee, reported by the Daily Star on June 11, noted the lack of equipment available to UN peacekeeping contingents from Bangladesh. In addition to equipment shortfalls, the report also suggested establishing a new “Quick Reaction Force” and increasing efforts to allow Bangladeshi nationals to work in UN headquarters.

While the equipment shortfalls are imposing, they are obviously not a major impediment to Bangladesh contributing to existing UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) missions. As the report points out there over 8,000 Bangladeshi soldiers contributing to 11 DPKO missions in 10 countries. In addition to the international recognition that such a commitment usually brings, Bangladesh also derives a number of monetary and other intangible benefits from its soldiers serving abroad. Besides the 7,445 crore Tk. over the past seven years, the military also benefits from working alongside other UN peacekeeping units from around the world and additional on-the-job training and experience with non-standard equipment.

Whether this warrants increasing the military procurement budget is another story. Bangladeshi politicians, like most in South Asia, are particularly weary of their military leadership, given the military’s history of “political activism.” Generals Zia and Ershad are two names that immediately come to mind. Besides this unease, wouldn’t the millions of taka be better spent on services and programmes that would benefit the Bangladeshi citizenry? Universal schooling, sanitation, electrification, a transparent and uncorrupted bureaucracy, any of these items should receive priority i any budgetary increase.

This isn’t to say that the military doesn’t have good intentions, the Quick Reaction Force, if implemented properly, is one. First, a QRF would actually address two of the military’s most acute problems, transportation and logistics. Second, aside from the benefit to Bangladesh’s peacekeeping missions, a QRF would also benefit Bangladesh in maintaining stability in the Chittagong Hill Tracts or the Sundarbans. Any violent group’s encampment could be dismantled quickly after being found. Third the QRF could be a boon for bilateral India-Bangladesh relations. Bangladesh would have the opportunity and capacity to maintain its commitment to preventing violent groups from crossing into India.

The Bangladeshi government should proceed cautiously with the establishment of a QRF; such a force could also be utilized in a quick coup by the military in a moment of “instability.” Despite this threat, a well-managed QRF (independent of political party influence but unquestionably loyal to the Bangladeshi Constitution) would yield positive benefits to the stability of Bangladesh.

Finally, the Bangladeshi government should push for the inclusion of more Bangladeshi nationals in staff positions throughout the UN, but particularly in the DPKO. Few countries match Bangladesh’s level of commitment, and it is unfortunate that a nation with such vast experience in the field of peacekeeping operations is not able to share this experience through dedicated staff officers at UN headquarters.

Of course, staff positions at the UN cannot be allotted solely to gain political favor or to reward commitment. If the Bangladeshi military is serious about commanding greater positions at UN headquarters it must not only contribute “troops” but educated, experienced, professional, well-trained, and disciplined soldiers.

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