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Dhaka Tribune

A brief history of Dhaka-Washington ties

Bangladesh’s ties with America have largely rested on the foundations of wariness

Update : 28 Apr 2023, 05:19 PM

Foreign Minister A K Abdul Momen is evidently happy that during his stewardship of the Foreign Office, he has been invited thrice to Washington by the US authorities. 

He noted that he considered himself fortunate in being the recipient of such an honour. His meeting with Antony Blinken, the US Secretary of State, in Washington a few days ago was a satisfying one, or so the impression conveyed to us here at home.

It does not take much imagination to imagine the range of subjects that may have been discussed at the Momen-Blinken meeting. The forthcoming elections in Bangladesh were certainly top of the agenda. 

Alongside that, the matter of the Rapid Action Battalion, specifically the sanctions imposed on some of its officials, serving and former, must have come up. Dhaka would clearly want the sanctions to be lifted, naturally. For its part, Washington has its own perspectives on the situation.

The Bangladesh minister did well to raise the matter of an assassin of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman finding refuge in the United States. We would like to think that Momen reminded Blinken of the principle ingrained in the concept of rule of law, which is that criminality anywhere must be punished everywhere. 

When therefore the Americans seek to speak to us, and rightly so, of the need for the rule of law to operate in Bangladesh, we are also keen on knowing from them of the manner in which an assassin finds shelter in the United States. 

When we speak of the law, of the need to uphold it, we know too that everyone who has committed a crime must pay for the act. The Americans have never enlightened us under what law or convention Bangabandhu's assassin has found safe havens in their country.

Bangladesh's ties with America have largely rested on the foundations of wariness. It all goes back to the pro-Pakistan tilt President Nixon and his national security advisor Henry Kissinger adopted during Bangladesh's War of Liberation, primarily because Washington was in little mood to upset the tempo set by the services rendered to it by the Yahya Khan junta in its opening to China. 

Moral principles were superseded by unethical policy. Here was a nation under brutal assault by Yahya Khan's army and there was the Nixon-Kissinger team cosying up to that regime. 

It is this earliest of stages in Washington-Dhaka ties that has lingered. When Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, in surprising bluntness, told the Jatiya Sangsad the other day that the US can overthrow any foreign government it has no liking for, she was simply reminding us of the many ways in which the American role in Bangladesh's politics has been perceived over the years. 

Washington's attempts to drill a hole in Bangladesh's aspirations to sovereign statehood through undermining the Mujibnagar government in 1971 by getting Khondokar Moshtaque, on his planned trip to New York, to repudiate the guerrilla struggle and opt for a maintenance of Dhaka's links with Islamabad are part of history. Prime Minister Tajuddin Ahmad decreed that Moshtaque would not travel to America.

Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's government, eager to earn for Bangladesh wider global acknowledgement and respectability, remained desirous of establishing proper diplomatic ties with the US. 

The recognition of Bangladesh by the Americans in early 1972 was an acknowledgement by Washington that the emergence of the new nation was a fait accompli. 

Even so, the unhappiness in Washington was palpable. U Alexis Johnson's snide reference to Bangladesh as an “international basket case,” wrongly attributed to Kissinger, was to persist through the decades.

In the early 1970s, Bangladesh was clearly an object of US displeasure. The reasons were not hard to decipher. Dhaka's strong links with Delhi and Moscow underscored the formulations of its foreign policy. In a season of the Cold War, the Soviet Union and India had won out, with Bangladesh being the trophy. 

An equally important reason was Bangladesh's move toward a socialist political structure, one which Finance Minister Tajuddin Ahmad regarded as a necessary means of developing a truly self-reliant economy. 

The Americans were never happy with Tajuddin, who was in little mood to have anything to do with the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund. They were certainly pleased when he was eased out of Bangabandhu's cabinet in October 1974. It is intriguing that a mere four days after Tajuddin's departure from government, Henry Kissinger flew into Dhaka on a whirlwind visit. 

Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman called on President Gerald Ford at the White House following his address before the UN General Assembly in October 1974. The meeting between the two leaders was more one of getting acquainted with each other than with any substantive measures toward strengthening bilateral US-Bangladesh links. 

It came in the aftermath of the crisis caused by Washington's decision to pull back a shipload of food grains for Bangladesh from the high seas on the ground that Dhaka had been engaging in jute trade with a sanctions-locked Cuba. PL-480 was the weapon Washington brought into application. The US move only exacerbated the plight of Bengalis, then engaged in a battle for survival through a famine and a grave economic crisis. 

In recent times, the 1974 image has somewhat been revived in Bengali perceptions with the Biden administration making it hard for Bangladesh to engage in bilateral trade with Russia. Western, essentially American, sanctions on the movement of Russian ships have come in the way of raw materials being supplied by Moscow for the Rooppur nuclear power plant. 

In these past many weeks and months, Washington has been keen about Dhaka's participation in Western-led alliances against China and Russia. To its credit, Bangladesh has staved off all such attempts to draw it into the American geopolitical orbit. Dhaka's foreign policy is today a measure of the country's ability to strike a purposeful balance in its links with India, China, Russia, and nations beyond.

To get back to Sheikh Hasina's point about Americans having the power to overthrow governments overseas, it is a fact of post-war US history. 

When Pakistan's Zulfikar Ali Bhutto spoke of the threat hurled at him by Washington -- Kissinger's “will make a horrible example of you” warning -- one does get to have an idea of American power. Likewise, the sabre-wielding Imran Khan's argument that the United States wanted him out of office cannot be dismissed out of hand.

And Bangladesh? In the months prior to the carnage of August 15, 1975, the men who would murder Bangabandhu and his family remained in touch with American diplomats based in Dhaka. Surprisingly, none of these diplomats thought it important to warn Bangladesh's leader or his government of the conspiracy afoot against him. 

The late journalist Christopher Hitchens was convinced there was an American hand in the plot to eliminate Bangladesh's founding father. His arguments were persuasively set out in his book, The Trial of Henry Kissinger.

It is a curious situation. While Washington has put Dhaka on the defensive on the human rights and election issues, Dhaka has now, through its prime minister, thrown down the gauntlet before Washington over this old matter of powerful men in America taking it upon themselves to push foreign governments out to pasture. 

The US will not have been pleased by the Bangladesh leader's outburst. Its statement that it does not support any particular party in Bangladesh but would like to see free and fair elections take place in the country is food for thought, perhaps an attempt at reassuring the Bangladesh government that it will stay clear of any intervention in Dhaka's internal politics. 

Seriously, however, it is hard to believe that the United States will rest easy with nationalist governments operating overseas. Assertive politicians abroad have always been a headache for successive administrations in Washington.

Syed Badrul Ahsan is Consultant Editor, Dhaka Tribune

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