Discard after use: Why Washington parted ways with RAB
Should the fact that sanctions against RAB came only months after de-prioritization of counterterrorism by the Biden administration be taken as a mere coincidence?
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On March 3, 2021, 42 days after he was sworn in into the office, US president Joe Biden released what can arguably be identified as the first major policy framework of his administration, the Interim National Security Strategy Guidance (INSSG). The 28-page document provides a glimpse of the changing contours of America's security priorities and is heavily influenced by two factors in particular: US' intensifying geopolitical rivalry with China, and Biden's administration's electoral promise to reclaim his country's leadership on issues such as human rights, climate change etc.
However, what made Biden’s policy stand out is the absence, rather than addition, of the top national security priority of at least the last three of his predecessors: Countering terrorism. Whereas his immediate predecessor used the word “jihadist” at least 31 times in his comparatively voluminous 68-page national security strategy book, Biden’s INSSG makes no mention of “Islamist” or “jihadist” terrorism. Even Al-Qaeda and ISIS were mentioned only once each, crammed in a phrase, as a rather minor part of POTUS’ Middle East strategy.
What is the backdrop?
It is not difficult to understand the backdrop from which Biden’s unique national security strategy has emanated. Since 2017, a series of tactical successes has shattered the ISIS’ proto-state or “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria. Al-Qaeda has been reduced to skeletal remains in lands where it once thrived.
In addition, Biden’s INSSG came out five months prior to the US’ chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan. Much like his hands-off approach in counter-terrorism as depicted in INSSG, Biden’s strategy to deal with terrorist threats following withdrawal has also elicited serious questions from Washington-based security experts. On August 16, addressing a nation awestruck by the rapid unravelling of two decades of intervention and the Taliban’s sweeping victory, Biden said: “We’ve developed counterterrorism over-the-horizon capability that will allow us to keep our eyes firmly fixed on any direct threats to the United States in the region and to act quickly and decisively if needed.”
The “over-the-horizon” capabilities Biden mentioned is a mere euphemism for the US’ obsession with the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), or drones. However, Biden’s “birds-of-blunder” (probably a more fitting choice of words) failed their master terribly in less than two weeks’ time, when a retaliatory drone strike, intended to eradicate a IS-K (Islamic State – Khorasan Province) base in Kabul in response to airport attack, killed a US-affiliated aid worker and nine members of his family instead.
This is the current state of US’ commitment to counterterrorism. For countries that cooperated closely with the US in its counterterrorism drive across the world, such shifts in priorities and tactics cannot be overlooked.
RAB: Human rights violators or flag-bearers of law and order?
The recent US sanctions on Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) and several of its current and former top officials must be interpreted on the basis of the diminishing focus on countering terrorism and Washington’s renewed preferences. Formed in 2004, RAB was truly the product of its time. RAB’s inception was triggered by a spree of Islamist terror attacks all over the country, an evil previously unknown to this land.
On August 17, 2005, as RAB was only one year into its being, the country experienced a synchronized bombing campaign in 63 of its 64 districts. A decade and a half later, an assault of such egregious scale may now appear unimaginable. However, Bangladesh’s counter-terrorism capabilities were still in baby steps. Over the years, as RAB grew, Bangladesh’s counterterrorism competence grew with it and so did the shadow of mounting controversies surrounding the force. By 2007, RAB managed to capture almost the entirety of the top leadership of Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB). The same year, Human Rights Watch released its first report (three more followed over the course of 13 years) on RAB, bringing out allegations of grave violations of human rights and extrajudicial killings.
However, despite controversies, the general perception of RAB at home has always differed from the concerns of external observers. In 2010, UK-based organization Saferworld released a report titled “Security Provision in Bangladesh: A Public Perception Survey” which said: “There is very strong public support for RAB. Almost all respondents (98%) believe that the introduction of RAB has helped to tackle crime and violence, and 98% also believe that RAB is necessary as additional support to the [p]olice to address serious crime.”
The US embassy correspondence leaked by Wikileaks also showed Washington almost coming in terms with the reality that necessitated the existence of RAB:
“A strong message from many civil society interlocutors was that the RAB enjoys a great deal of respect and admiration from a population scarred by decreasing law and order in the last decade … According to some NGO sources, people in remote areas, particularly women, feel more comfortable coming forward to the RAB because they think their complaints will be dealt with in a more effective and honest manner.”
Should the fact that sanctions against RAB and its officials came only months after de-prioritization of counterterrorism by the Biden administration be taken as a mere coincidence? One may wonder, considering that despite persistent allegations, at the height of its counterterrorism drive, the US’ security apparatus cooperated closely with the elite paramilitary force.
Between 2015 and 2019, RAB procured at least 11 pieces of sophisticated technical equipment from the US. In the same period, 22 RAB officials visited the US for training purposes. The subjects of the training include explosive detection and handling, location-based social media monitoring, and forensic and chemical analysis, among others. Such training was intended to increase the capacity of the force to reduce militancy and conduct efficient drug operations.
In 2012, two Bell-407 helicopters, manufactured by the US company Bell Tetron, were added to the Air Wing of RAB. One of the US’ closest allies, the UK, also provided training to RAB members on several occasions. Moreover, as a part of the US global counter terrorism strategy, New Zealand's security agency, Government Communications Security Bureau, shared counter-terrorism intelligence with RAB for years, an arrangement facilitated by the US National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency.
The US has also been a vocal partner in the reformation of RAB. With the help of the US Department of Justice in 2012, RAB formed its Internal Enquiry Cell (IEC). The emphasis the US put on such cooperation was quite apparent in the leaked US cables of 2008:
“Our multi-agency and multi-disciplinary team signaled the seriousness with which the USG views potential RAB engagement ... we may need to ensure that a few unenthusiastic bureaucrats do not foil plans for further cooperation that are strongly supported by the RAB and at least some senior government officials.”
RAB's full-fledged counterterrorism drive has made Bangladesh the most successful among South Asian countries in the 2020 Global Terrorism Index. Although blown out of proportion by a number of politicians and law enforcement officials following the declaration of sanctions for obvious reasons, the US State Department's Country Reports on Terrorism (2016, 2017, 2018, and 2019) did mention RAB conducting “significant raids,” “campaign of arrests” and introducing ' deradicalization and rehabilitation programs.”
The sanctions against RAB is more likely a ploy to support Biden's bid to reclaim his country's “moral leadership.” While geopolitical ambition may overshadow security priorities in Washington, for Bangladesh and countries in South Asia, the threat of terrorism is still very real, more so after the abysmal failures of US intervention in Afghanistan.
Sanctions against RAB will not only stifle and stigmatize its counterterrorism moves, but also impede robust intelligence sharing and cooperation with other agencies of mutual interest. As terrorism is seemingly no longer a major concern for US foreign policy, countries need to rely on these forces. Dialogue and sustained engagement, not coercive measures as sanctions, should be the way to realign these forces with the qualitative change in US policy and perception.
Tonmoy Chowdhury is an independent researcher and freelance writer. He can be contacted at [email protected]
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