Can Bangladeshi foreign policy capitalize on our capacity to contribute to international peace and security
In 2020, Bangladesh once again became the largest contributor to the United Nations peacekeeping forces. Dispatching our soldiers on overseas missions has been a part of our foreign policy for decades. This aspect of Bangladesh’s foreign policy deserves much appreciation and scrutiny.
Overseas troop deployments are rooted in Bangladesh’s early history. The government of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman sent an army medical unit and 50 tons of tea to Egypt during the Arab-Israeli War in 1973. Egypt achieved territorial gains in the Sinai during this war. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was grateful for Bangladesh’s support. Sadat later became an Arab peacemaker by concluding a peace treaty with Israel in 1979 which ended the occupation of the Sinai.
In 1988, the tenure of the fourth parliament in Bangladesh saw the deployment of the country’s first contingent of UN peacekeepers. Bangladeshi troops were dispatched as part of a UN contingent to monitor the armistice between Iran and Iraq. The armistice brought an end to eight years of conflict between Ba’athist Iraq and a revolutionary Iran.
In August 1990, Iraq’s dictator Saddam Hussein launched an invasion of Kuwait which forced the Kuwaiti monarchy into exile. The UN Security Council condemned the illegal Ba’athist occupation. Despite cordial relations with Iraq, Bangladesh viewed the invasion of Kuwait as unjust aggression.
The Gulf crisis caused oil prices to soar and affected Bangladesh’s economy. Bangladesh also became concerned about the security of its expatriate population in occupied Kuwait.
The UN Security Council condemned Iraq’s invasion and called for the withdrawal of Iraqi forces. This was affirmed in UNSC resolutions 660, 661, 662, 664, 665, 666, 667, 669, 670, 674, 678, 686, and 687.
The occupation prompted Saudi Arabia to send a special envoy to Bangladesh to request erstwhile president Ershad to contribute troops as part of a multinational coalition to liberate Kuwait. The United States, Britain, and France led the chorus of international condemnation against Saddam. An American-led multinational coalition began to take shape in Saudi Arabia.
The repatriation of Bangladeshis from occupied Kuwait was another aspect of the country’s role in the Gulf crisis. Between August and September 1990, Bangladesh completed the repatriation process using DC-10s of Biman, a Boeing 747 provided by Saudi Arabia, and planes from Malaysian Airlines and Aeroflot which were funded by the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
Iraq also began to threaten Saudi Arabia. Bangladesh’s then foreign minister described the situation as “dificult and delicate.” Saudi Arabia was the custodian of the two holy mosques of Islam and Bangladesh could not idly stand and watch as Ba’athist forces threatened the kingdom’s territorial integrity. Saudi Arabia was also home to a large Bangladeshi expatriate community.
Bangladesh’s national interest dictated that it upholds the principles of the UN Charter, secure the safety of its expatriates in the Middle East, support the independence of Kuwait, and ensure the stabilization of oil prices. The Ershad cabinet authorized the deployment of 2,300 Bangladeshi troops.
Following the outbreak of the air war in January 1991, opposition parties in Bangladesh led by Sheikh Hasina of the Awami League and Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) affirmed their support for UN resolutions and called for the cessation of the conflict. The caretaker government in 1991 continued with the policy of supporting coalition forces in the Gulf.
The air war prompted Iraq to invade northeastern Saudi Arabia and launch scud missiles against Israel.
The Bangladeshi contingent was involved in logistical support for coalition forces. The largest contributors to the multinational coalition were the US, Saudi Arabia, Britain, France, and Egypt. Other countries in the coalition included Oman, Morocco, Pakistan, Canada, the Netherlands, Senegal, Spain, Argentina, Bahrain, Greece, Honduras, South Korea, Qatar, Italy, Norway, the Philippines, Niger, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Sweden, and the United Arab Emirates.
Prince Khalid bin Sultan, a Saudi commander of the coalition forces, remarked that “Bangladesh made a most valuable contribution to our logistics, sending us some of their best support units which, at that stage, I needed more urgently than combat troops.”
The Bangladeshi ambassador in Riyadh took the initiative to form a committee of four South Asian ambassadors, including envoys from India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, to supervise contacts with the South Asian expatriate community in Saudi Arabia. The committee allayed concerns over expat security.
Coalition forces achieved the liberation of Kuwait within February 1991. A ceasefire was declared. The retreating Iraqi forces pursued a scorched earth policy by setting oil fields ablaze in the desert. In the post-war period, the Bangladesh Army assisted Kuwait in clearing landmines left by Saddam’s forces. 270 Bangladeshi soldiers lost their lives while clearing landmines.
A Bangladesh Military Contingent has since resided in Kuwait as part of Operation Rebuilding Kuwait (ORK), which in Bengali is known as Operation Kuwait Punargathan (OKP). In 2016, the contingent included 639 members. In 2020, an army medical team was sent to Kuwait under the Kuwait Punargathan program to assist in tackling the Covid-19 pandemic.
Bangladesh made a strategic choice in its national interest to join the Gulf War coalition. Coalition partners such as the US, Britain, France, and Saudi Arabia have been important sources of development aid and foreign direct investment in the years following the Gulf War. Kuwait has been one of Bangladesh’s principal sources of crude oil.
One hopes Bangladeshi foreign policy can further capitalize on the capacity of Bangladesh to contribute to multinational efforts to uphold international peace and security.
Umran Chowdhury works in the legal field.