The entire visit was all about military soft power and its ability to work more instantly then any formal diplomatic engagement
Sounding like an oxymoron, ‘Military Soft Power’ is an unrealized weapon which can be used at all levels from the strategic to the sub tactical. The common understanding of the military in the public mind relates to the kinetic route of resolution of all problems. Among people with low strategic orientation the feasibility of employing the military’s non-kinetic capability is usually ignored because that characteristic is seldom associated with established perceptions which revolve around the romantic ideas about violence. Soft power is actually the most inexpensive way of establishing relationships, engage with parties/powers with who you have interest and enhance outreach to reluctant partners. It’s a generally ignored weapon in the quiver of the nation although in India its worth is just about being realized. Let me explain with a few examples.
At the beginning of November I was in Dhaka on a lecture tour at the invitation of two major institutions of Bangladesh; the Bangladesh National Defence College (NDC) and the Bangladesh Institute of Strategic Studies (BISS). Both are high class institutions where it was a pleasure and honor to address audiences of deep intellect and be subjected to some grilling in the interactive sessions. Little did I realize that perhaps I was the first Indian Army officer who was addressing the NDC of friendly Bangladesh. By any sense India should have stepped in with the initiative to set up and finance Bangladesh’s NDC way back in 1972 (ultimately it is the British who did it). We would have the benefit of a faculty at the institution as an outreach to officers of all three services. That it took all these years for an Indian Army officer to speak at the NDC is a reflection of our poor strategic outlook. Luckily, in this well connected world I was not unknown to the Bangladesh Army and many of its officers had read my jottings on strategic issues.
The Indian Army has been serving with many units of the Bangladesh Army in UN operations all over Africa and elsewhere. There is fair bonhomie between our officers and the heritage of the Commonwealth gives us many commonalities. So there is no reason why we should not be engaging at more levels. Someone may extend the argument that relations between the two countries have been tentative at times and that has prevented a natural course of growth of military to military relations. No doubt, this is true but the political and diplomatic relationship could have ridden on a military relationship instead of the other way around.
I had the major advantage of having served with two UN contingents of the Bangladesh Army and was therefore comfortable with the basic characteristics of my hosts. However, even I was surprised by the latent power that the Army exercises in Bangladesh. It is a deeply respected institution and soldiering is a very honorable profession there. The profession is a much respected one in Pakistan too but the Bangladesh Army carries itself with greater dignity and less brazenness quite unlike the Pakistan Army which displays its power quite unabashedly. The Bangladesh Armed Forces, in fact, appear to have some very efficient systems, and pay a lot of attention to troop and officer welfare. They are extremely appreciative of the Indian Armed Forces so there really is no reason why the two sets of armed forces cannot have greater exchanges beyond the routine exchange of officers on training courses. I do feel exchanges need to be extended to visiting faculties, joint training of contingents and lots of talks by military professionals in each other’s countries. The natural bonds of the liberation struggle have not been sufficiently nurtured for any explicable reasons. India was mature in its approach to its claims of how far it went in assisting Bangladesh during that period but relations always remained tentative except whenever the Awami League was in power. There is no point sweating on the inability of making it happen in the last forty five years. We have huge opportunities before us and after the Prime Minister’s visit and the land boundary agreement there is flow of positive energy which must be exploited. The military to military route is an excellent one to take this forward. It can start with seminars on experiences of UN peacekeeping operations at different levels, something at which Bangladesh has been most proficient and professional.
My own experience left me quite elated. The outstanding Indian High Commission seems to be having the right spirit and balance and it is because of this that I was received with warmth beyond expectation even in an organization such as DG Forces Intelligence, the
all-powerful premier intelligence headquarters. A two hour interaction with the officers left me impressed; they seemed to have all the ingredients and orientation to understand the nature of threats. It was never timed that way but I was visiting Dhaka at a very crucial time. A spate of killings of foreigners and liberal intellectuals, which appeared lone wolf attacks, had been occurring at frequent intervals. Responsibility was being placed at the doorstep of Daesh (Islamic State or IS) with a notion being put around by the western missions that Daesh presence was of threatening proportions. There were travel advisories and families of diplomats were being advised to evacuate. All this spelt disaster for the Bangladesh economy as a specter of international terrorism will acutely affect foreign investments and the trade in apparels which sustains the Bangladeshi economy in a great way.
With that security background my interactions at the DGFI and BISS were keenly followed. The BISS event where I spoke on Counter Terrorism Challenges in South Asia, was packed with security experts, diplomats, media and even some businessmen. The High Commissioner of Sri Lanka also turned up. It appeared that they wished to hear an Indian Army perspective on Counter Terrorism and more importantly hear something from an impartial perspective about the security situation in Bangladesh. I did not disappoint them and was frank and forthright in my analysis which concluded that the events in Bangladesh had nothing to do with Daesh and were related to home grown right wing radical elements with a local agenda against the established government. I related my surmise to the lack of any evidence of Daesh presence in the subcontinent except in the attempts at recruitment which were anyway occurring worldwide. I did warn the authorities that the Daesh model of creating surrogates in target countries could well be followed here. The Dhaka media gave this wide and appreciative coverage with feedback coming my way of interest evoked even by the Prime Minister and the highest echelons of the Armed Forces some of whom were present at the talk. This is the interest with which Bangladesh looks at Indian opinion and we must be willing to proactively engage in giving them this at informal levels.
The next day was a visit to Mirpur the suburban military station of Dhaka which houses some of the best training institutions of the Bangladesh Armed Forces. Defense Services Command and Staff College (DSC&SC), National Defence College (NDC), Military Institute of Science & Technology (MIST) and the Bangladesh University Of Professionals(BUP) are located here on the lines of a mini Mhow. The Bangladesh Armed Forces follow the system of the British Defence Academy (not to be confused with a cadet training academy). The talk on the subject –‘Promotion of National Strategic Culture’ – was again well received at the well-established NDC. Some very searching questions came my way and I could only leave with the idea that we have been missing this engagement simply due to lack of initiative. The intellectual achievement from wider engagement can only be diplomatic gains for both nations and there is fair degree of intellect evident in the Bangladesh military.
The entire visit was all about military soft power and its ability to work more instantly then any formal diplomatic engagement. Military professionals have mutual respect and common ideas which help in appreciating problems from alternative perspectives. Unfortunately, in the entire gamut of our sorry state of civil-military relations in India military soft power has never really been given its recognition. It’s about time we did.