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Sheikh Hasina’s Regional Anti-Terror Task Force Unlikely to Takeoff

Dr Anand Kumar is Associate Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. Click here for detailed profile
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  • March 16, 2009

    Counter-terrorism and elimination of religious extremism were important parts of Sheikh Hasina’s election manifesto. But the concern about terrorism is not limited to top Awami League leaders and is also felt by a major section of the Bangladesh public. Many supported the Awami League in the hope of reversing the rising trend of extremism and terrorism in the country. In her very first press conference after winning the elections, Sheikh Hasina stated that she will not allow the country's soil to be used by terror groups and proposed a joint task force in the subcontinent to tackle terror. It is felt that this task force will help track down militants and bring them to justice as well as strengthen cooperation between the police forces and judiciaries of South Asian nations. Hasina also sought British support for such a task force during a meeting with the British High Commissioner to Dhaka. Terrorism was also a prominent topic that was discussed at the meeting with the American envoy James Moriarty and Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister Dipu Moni.

    However, Hasina’s proposal to establish a South Asian regional anti-terror task force may not fructify especially given domestic opposition within Bangladesh. The Awami League’s main political rival, Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), has expressed its opposition to the proposal. The party feels that other nations, particularly Pakistan, are unlikely to be enthusiastic about it. When Sheikh Hasina discussed the proposal with Indian foreign minister Pranab Mukherjee, the BNP launched a blistering attack against. BNP Secretary General Khandaker Delwar Hossain warned the government that “any bilateral mechanism” with India in the name of a South Asian regional anti-terror task force could turn Bangladesh into a “Gaza.” It could give rise to “complications and possibilities of armed activities of other countries spilling over to Bangladesh.” Hossain also said, “We firmly believe that our people, conventional laws, law enforcing agencies and the armed forces are capable enough to keep the country free from militancy and strife. Signing any deal with other countries outside international conventions to contain militancy is unnecessary and could prove suicidal.”

    Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh has also warned the Hasina government that it will only invite trouble by forming a regional anti-terror task force. Party chief Matiur Rahman Nizami said, "Our police, BDR, RAB and army are enough to prevent terrorism in the country. If foreign troops are called inside the country it will amount to inviting trouble." Nizami criticized the government for its impatience to sign "anti-people" agreements like the regional anti-terrorism task, transit facilities, the Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) with the United States, etc. Nizami also alleged that "….such a hasty move proves that they were put to power through a conspiracy only for signing such anti-people agreements."

    In addition to domestic resistance, the regional task force proposal also has to contend with the realities of divergent interests among South Asian countries. There is little doubt that to combat terrorism South Asia needs a joint effort. It was realized long ago that regional cooperation was necessary to address terrorism, and it was with this objective that South Asian countries had adopted the SAARC Convention on Terrorism in 1987. The convention was reinforced by the adoption of an Additional Protocol on terrorism at the 12th Summit whose modalities were finalised in the Dhaka Summit. The SAARC established a Terrorist Offences Monitoring Desk (STOMD) in Colombo to collate, analyse and disseminate information about terrorist incidents, tactics, strategies and methods. At the 11th Summit in Kathmandu in January 2002, leaders of SAARC had taken a pledge to make collective efforts to stamp out terrorism.

    But for regional efforts to bear fruit, all member states have to show equal commitment. In the past this has not been the case, a state of affairs that has not yet changed. If South Asia really wants to uproot terror SAARC should get down to implementing the declarations it has agreed upon at various summits. Hasina is also probably aware of the problem among SAARC countries, hence her call for good relations between Pakistan and India. But it is also known that relations between India and Pakistan are not going to improve in a hurry. Thus, it is all the more incomprehensible as to why the Hasina government wants to make counter-terrorism cooperation hostage to the creation of a regional mechanism.