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Security Environment

Bangladeshi defense planners have long regarded India as a regional bully, a perception shared by the Bangladeshi public in the late 1980s. According to this perception, governments in New Delhi continued to regard South Asia as an integral security unit in which India played the dominant role because of its size and resources. Thus, New Delhi's ability to project power gave India a self-assigned responsibility for ensuring the security of smaller states and maintaining stability and peace in the area. Aside from the potential threat of direct military intervention, Bangladeshi leaders also believed India had the capacity to destabilize the country by extending covert assistance to tribal insurgents, the Bangladeshi Hindu minority, or the regime's domestic political opponents.

Bangladesh has been the object of three main Indian security concerns since independence: Bangladeshi internal stability, its strategic position in relation to China, and Dhaka's alleged involvement with Indian tribal insurgents. India denied any intention or desire to destabilize Bangladesh and argued that a stable Bangladesh is a critical component of India's eastern defenses. Bangladesh was strategically located near the India-China disputed frontier in the north. In the event of a border clash with China, Indian lines of communication would be restricted to the narrow Siliguri corridor between Bangladesh and Nepal. Moreover, as a worst-case scenario, Indian defense planners feared that a desperate regime in Dhaka might grant military base rights to the United States or China. These security concerns were compounded by Indian charges that Dhaka turned a blind eye to Indian tribal insurgents using safe havens in eastern Bangladesh and allowed a tide of Bangladeshi emigrants to move into the Indian states of Tripura and Assam. India also expressed the concern that serious instability in Bangladesh could trigger another exodus of refugees into India.

Bangladesh's capacity to mount a conventional defense against India was extremely limited. India supported the world's fourth largest army, a sophisticated arsenal of weapons for all three service branches, and a population and economy larger than those of the six other states of South Asia combined. By necessity, any government in Dhaka had to rely primarily on diplomacy to deter India.

Bangladesh's only military defense against a potential Indian attack was based on limited deterrence. Bangladesh's armed forces would try to stall an Indian advance until international pressures could be mobilized to bring about a cease-fire and a return to the status quo.

Geography also limited Bangladesh's capacity to mount a conventional defense of the nation. A paucity of roads, bridges, and railroads impeded cross-country military movements, particularly during the monsoon months of June through September. The army's lack of bridging equipment was a severe liability, especially for the armor brigades. In the mid-1980s, there were eighteen airports suitable for military transport operations, although the lift capacity of the Bangladesh Air Force was extremely limited. As Indian, Pakistani, and Bengali partisan forces discovered in 1971, however, Bangladesh provides ideal terrain for conducting guerrilla warfare. The country's primitive lines of communication would slow an enemy advance and frustrate an occupying force. Jungles, rivers, and isolated villages would allow locally based guerrillas to hold out almost indefinitely. There were no indications, however, that Bangladesh had developed a guerrilla war fighting doctrine; the nation's defense rested primarily on a strategy of deterrence by conventionally equipped regular forces.

The 2,400-kilometer border with India was patrolled by a paramilitary force called the Bangladesh Rifles (see Auxiliary Forces , this ch.). During peacetime, Bangladesh Rifles commanders have authority to conduct "flag meetings" with their Indian paramilitary counterparts whenever stray firing incidents occur. For instance, in April 1984 a Bangladesh Rifles jawan was killed when India began construction of a barbed wire fence along the Indo-Bangladeshi border as part of a campaign to curb illegal immigration into Assam (see Foreign Policy , ch. 4). After conducting several flag meetings, Bangladesh Rifles commanders and their Indian counterparts agreed to withdraw some of their forces from the border area and submit the legality of the fence to a bilateral committee. Under this mechanism, Indian and Bangladeshi regular forces avoided a confrontation that could have escalated.

Throughout its existence, the Bangladesh Army has had to contend with severe shortages of weapons, communications equipment, spare parts, and transport vehicles. One 1982 report maintained that target practice--a basic military skill--was restricted because of ammunition shortages. Under these conditions, it is doubtful the army could fight a conventional war for more than a few days without massive assistance from a foreign power.

The country's 600-kilometer coastline was patrolled by the tiny Bangladesh Navy, whose missions were to protect Bangladeshi fishermen, ward off foreign poachers, and assert sovereignty over the nation's territorial waters. A potential challenge to the Bangladesh Navy occurred in 1983, when a char--a speck of land formed by alluvial deposits-- emerged in the Bay of Bengal along the maritime boundary with India. Both India and Bangladesh dispatched patrol boats to stake their claims to the island and to the expanded 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone that went with it. The two sides avoided a military confrontation, and the matter was remanded to diplomatic negotiations. It was clear, however, that Bangladesh's coastal defense force was not in a position to challenge the Indian Navy. As part of its policy of nonalignment, Bangladesh allowed foreign naval vessels to conduct routine port visits at Chittagong. Bangladesh has not granted naval base rights to any foreign power.

Data as of September 1988

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Bangladesh Table of Contents