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Is Pakistan developing 'strategic assets' in Bangladesh?

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  • July 18, 2016

    It is no secret that Pakistan has a dual approach to terrorism. While it takes certain terror groups as threat to Pakistani state and wants to uproot them, at the same time it also wants to use another set of terror groups as strategic asset against its next door neighbor India. Under this strategy it launched Zarb-e-Azb against Teherik-e-Taliban considered a threat to Pakistan but keeps nurturing Taliban active in Afghanistan. It also nurtures Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) and other similar groups which have chosen India as their target. The Indian state seems to be fighting a continuous battle against the Pakistan sponsored terror groups. However, Pakistan despite its nefarious acts does not seem to be succeeding in its design. To cause further trouble to India, Pakistan is now trying to open another front using terror groups liked by Pakistani state. This new front is from the side of Bangladesh, using Bangladeshi extremists as insurgency in northeast India is almost dead.

    Pakistan has been uncomfortable with the Sheikh Hasina government after she took over power in January 2009. This discomfort was for two reasons. First it disrupted the cozy relationship with Bangladesh that it had built during the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) – Jamaat regime as Sheikh Hasina decided to go after the terrorist groups of all variety. She acted against Islamists groups of Bangladesh as well as against groups like Let and JeM who were Pakistani but were trying to develop base in Bangladesh or at least link with the Bangladeshi terror groups. She also acted against northeast insurgents. In fact, her actions resulted in giving death blow to groups like United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA).

    Secondly, she was also disliked by Pakistan because she showed her desire to go for war crime trials and wanted to prosecute Jamaat-e-Islami leaders. The Jamaat-e-Islami had supported Pakistan during the Liberation War and still remains the most important constituency for Pakistan in Bangladesh. Though the BNP has also been pro-Pakistan in the past, it is somewhat difficult for the party under present circumstances to be as brazen as Jamaat has been all along. What was worse for Pakistan, Sheikh Hasina also wanted to try some of the Pakistan army men who were engaged in brutality against the Bangladeshi people during the Liberation War.

    To stop Sheikh Hasina from proceeding ahead with war crime trials, then Pakistan president Asif Ali Zardari had sent his special envoy Zia Ispahani to meet her. In the meeting Sheikh Hasina however expressed her determination to complete the war crime trials which was a long-standing issue in liberated Bangladesh. After that Zia Ispahani met Khaleda Zia. Interestingly, immediately after his return there was mutiny in the para-military force Bangladesh Rifle (BDR). This mutiny is known for the brutal killings of BDR officers who were mostly from the Bangladesh army and reminded people of the brutality of Pakistani armed forces during the liberation war. It was widely believed in Bangladesh that Pakistan was behind the BDR mutiny which nearly swept away the Sheikh Hasina government.

    Both BNP and Jamaat have been friendly to Pakistan and in fact during the rule of the BNP led four-party regime (2001-06) the Pakistani High Commission in Bangladesh acted as a base for the ISI. Though ISI activities in Bangladesh are still intact to a great extent, ISI does not enjoy the same freedom. Moreover, both the BNP and Jamaat have been under pressure in recent time. Top BNP leaders are being prosecuted for corruption or inciting violence. Its senior vice chairman Tarique Rahman who is also political heir to Khaleda Zia is in London facing several charges. Most of the top leaders of Jamaat were prosecuted for war crimes and hanged. With BNP and Jamaat under pressure, it is no surprise that Pakistan would have lent a hand in recent terror attacks in Bangladesh including the most sensational one that took place in a Dhaka café.

    The hanging of Jamaat leaders has led to a considerable decline in Bangladesh – Pakistan relationship. Pakistan has invariably criticized every such hanging. In Bangladesh this kind of Pakistani criticism was seen as interference in the internal affairs. It also indicated that Pakistan has still not reconciled to liberation of Bangladesh. Both sides lodged complaint with High Commissioners of each other. Bangladesh even considered withdrawing its High Commissioner from Pakistan.

    In Bangladesh, a Pakistani female diplomat was seen liaising with Bangladeshi terrorist groups. The role of the female diplomat became very controversial and she had to be withdrawn once her identity became public. It is hardly surprising that Pakistan has used the services of Bangladeshi extremist groups for recent terror attacks in that country. After the first Afghan War (1979-89) against the Soviet Union nearly 2000 battle hardened Bangladeshis had returned to their country. They had formed terrorist organizations like HUJI and JMB. These groups indulged in a series of terrorist attacks from 1999-2005. Militant activity of the JMB declined considerably after its top leadership was hanged by the caretaker government in 2007. Under pressure, actually a number of JMB cadres moved to Indian side of Bengal. Some of these cadres are also probably behind the recent revival of JMB in Bangladesh.

    According to Hasanul Huq Inu, information minister of Bangladesh, in another wave recently 8000 Bangladeshis trained in camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan have returned to Bangladesh. One can well imagine what kind of havoc these trained militants are going to cause to Bangladesh who are likely to share a close relationship with the ISI and the terror groups it supports within Pakistan.

    The displeasure of Pakistan with a secular and progressive regime in Bangladesh is quite obvious. In these circumstances it would not be surprising that Pakistan would try to create political instability in Bangladesh. And the best way to do it is through the Islamist extremist groups who now claim to be aligned to al-Qaeda and ISIS. Pakistan can also subsequently use these terror groups to launch terror attacks against India without being blamed. The terror groups like Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) have shown intention to attack India and Myanmar from Bangladesh. Pakistan would be only too happy to use Bangladeshi terror groups for the strategic advantage on India’s eastern border.

    The article was originally published in the South Asia Monitor.