Thursday, July 03, 2008

With U.S. forces preoccupied in Pakistan, Al Qaeda affiliate gaining power in Bangladesh

Get a grip on Dhaka


WHILE THE CIA and the Pentagon search in vain for Osama bin Laden in the mountains of northwest Pakistan, an Al Qaeda affiliate has been quietly building up terrorist bases in the jungles of Bangladesh under the protective aegis of a new military regime in Dhaka allied with Islamist forces.

The founding leader of the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami in Bangladesh, Fazlur Rehman Khalil, was one of the six signatories of Bin Laden's first declaration of holy war against the United States on Feb. 23, 1998, and a U.S. State Department study reports that Harkat "maintains contact with Al Qaeda in Afghanistan."

Bush administration officials privately endorse mounting Indian evidence that Bangladeshi Harkat agents spearheaded a series of terrorist attacks in India -- in Mumbai and Banaras in 2006, in Hyderabad in 2007 and in Jaipur in May. But the United States has conspicuously failed to press Bangladesh's military ruler, Gen. Moeen U Ahmed, for a crackdown on Harkat and for the removal of highly placed intelligence officials with Islamist ties.

Ahmed staged a bloodless coup in January 2007, forcing a figurehead president to give him emergency powers. He has pledged to hold elections in December and return power to a civilian government. The Bush administration, while formally urging him to hold the elections on schedule, has so far ignored his increasingly blatant efforts to rig them.

Ahmed is maneuvering to break up the two biggest secular political parties, the Awami League, which actively opposes Islamist influence, and the Bangladesh National Party. He barred political activity by their popular leaders, Sheik Hasina Wajed and Khaleda Zia, and is organizing a new army-controlled political party to challenge them. Invoking his emergency powers, he is rounding up grass-roots leaders of the two parties and muzzling the media. Harkat, Jamaat-i-Islami Bangladesh and other Islamist groups that support the military regime are operating unhindered.

By its silence in the face of Ahmed's power grab, the Bush administration is signaling that it sees little hope of ending direct or indirect military rule. But it is much too soon to write off the prospects for democracy in Bangladesh, where almost everyone was politicized during the independence struggle against Pakistan. Since then, three free elections have been held, and two previous military regimes have proved to be short-lived.

As the fourth-largest Muslim country in the world, with 150 million people, Bangladesh matters to the United States in security terms because Harkat and its allies have direct links to anti-U.S. Islamist forces in Pakistan. These links predate the secession of Bangladesh from Pakistan in 1971. The Islamists in Bangladesh supported Islamabad during the independence struggle and have subsequently been used by Pakistani intelligence agencies to harass India.

When respected Bangladeshi journalists have attempted to write about Islamist sympathizers in the military regime and their links with Islamabad -- naming names -- they have faced death threats and assassination attempts. This has been fully documented by the U.S.- based Committee to Protect Journalists. The most notorious case is that of Tasneem Khalil, who worked as a correspondent for CNN and others in Dhaka. Khalil was held incommunicado last year for 22 hours, beaten and forced to leave the country after exposing Islamist influence in the military intelligence agency.

Defenders of the military regime point out that four Islamist leaders were executed last year, but they gloss over the fact that the executions occurred after the four had contacted the media to expose their links with the intelligence agency.

The army contends that past civilian regimes were hopelessly corrupt and practiced only a "feudal democracy" in which corruption, cronyism and the use of private militias by leading politicians were rampant. The military takeover in 2007 was unavoidable, it says, because the last civilian government, headed by the BNP, was rigging forthcoming elections.

But the Bangladesh Constitution requires elections within 90 days of the dissolution of Parliament and allows for only one 90-day extension of emergency powers. Parliament was dissolved on Oct. 27, 2006; thus, the army regime has been unconstitutional since April 2007.

The U.S. and other aid donors should use their powerful leverage to push hard for an immediate end to emergency powers and for elections by December. It would be a bitter irony if a new Musharraf should emerge in Dhaka just as Pervez Musharraf finds himself increasingly embattled in Islamabad. #

First published in the Los Angeles Times, July 2, 2008

Selig S. Harrison is director of the Asia program at the Center for International Policy and a senior scholar of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars