A look back on the war that was never fought

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Some sort of trial was going on for the Pilkhana massacre of 2009 that killed about 74 people including 57 smart officers belonging to Bangladesh Army. 847 people were charged with murder in a Dhaka civil court. Trial started on August 24 2011.  847 people were tried over a period of nearly 300 days. The verdict was announced yesterday. 152 people were given death sentence while 161 were given life in prison. 362 defendants got various jail terms while 271 were acquitted.

If one wants to put the stats of the trial process – it will be like this –

1 judge
847 defendants
300 plus days of trial
<.5 days for each dependent
152 lives to be taken by state
161 lives to kept behind bars till death
262 will be behind bar on various terms
271 will get Scott free

Wow!

This judge must be a super super superman!

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The above stats are sufficient to show the political nature of the trial. Awami League government needed a political gimmick to keep people and the army happy. A major strategic blunder was committed 4 years ago that took 74 lives including 57 of our brightest and the best military officers. If PM Hasina could act swiftly and smartly on the ill fated morning of February 25 2009 – this gimmick of blood feast would not be needed.

The following piece written originally a couple of days after the Pilkhana massacre described how our government failed on February 25 2009.

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In February 25-26, 2009 a group of violent soldiers of the Bangladesh border security force, BDR, revolted. They occupied the part of capital Dhaka where their garrison is located and held hundreds of military officers, general soldiers and civilians hostage. During this occupation of nearly two days, the marauding soldiers committed one of the worst massacres in the history of Bangladesh. During this rebellion, 57 senior officers of Bangladesh Armed forces were murdered.

In response, instead of a bold decisive action against the soldiers involved in the killing spree, the one-month old government of Awami League opted to negotiate with the mutineers, thus indirectly giving those soldiers enough time to hunt and kill the senior officers trapped inside the occupied Peelkhana campus and commit an array of other crimes including loot, arson, rape etc.

Immediately after the incident, considering the sensitivity of the issue or out of political indecisiveness, while the main opposition party refrained from being overtly critical of the government’s stand, the media gave the government a free ride by not critically discussing the government’s handling of the mutiny.

The media spin that was most widely used during the immediate aftermath was this — by sacrificing 57 senior army officers, the government prevented an even bigger civilian casualty in the heart of Dhaka. This logic is based on a hypothetical scenario that a group of paramilitary soldiers without heavy weapons will fight a fierce artillery gunfight and war with a combined force of the army, navy and the air force and thus endanger the safety of residents living nearby.

Although the government’s decision got a free ride with the media and civil society at the time of the incident, it is imperative that we discuss the decision from a critical point of view. This kind of discussion is very important for formulating a national strategy for any such problem in the future.

First basic flaw in the civilian casualty spin is the hypothetical nature of the consequences. It is very difficult to believe that a group of BDR soldiers will be able to fight such a fierce war against an all-out ground, aerial and naval assault by the conventional forces. This sort of situation is not unprecedented in Bangladesh. Since independence there are instances where similar occupation/hostage situation in the heart of Dhaka or other parts of the country were dealt with decisive military counter-offensive without any civilian casualty. Examples that can be cited include the 1977 occupation of Dhaka Airport at Tejgaon, 1994 occupation of Ansar HQ in Khilgaon, 1977 revolt in Bogra cantonment.

Second logic was that it was a hostage situation and the government had no option but to give in to the demands of the killers. Examples of Pakistan Lal Mosque, aircraft hijacking, and lately, Mumbai Taj Hotel incident, etc. were cited. But one has to understand that Peelkhana is not an aircraft or a mosque or a hotel. It is a part of Bangladesh, double the size of Vatican City. This area of Dhaka has two graduate level colleges, three schools, several mosques, a botanical garden with rose/orchid sections, paddy fields, markets, shops and even a zoo within its walled boundary. In addition, there are residential quarters, lush green fields and a sports complex. It was not a hostage-like situation; it was occupation of a part of Bangladesh. A war was declared. A soldier, called to duty by the government, was shot and killed on the morning of Feb 25 in front of BDR gate without provocation and another soldier was wounded who later died. Civilians were also shot at indiscriminately and killed by the rebel BDR soldiers.

Although heavily armed military units were deployed within 30 minutes of the first shot at Peelkhana, the forces were kept idle and later withdrawn. While the supreme commander and the army chief is expected to be in a secure war room in defence HQ, our army chief was seen sitting all day at the unsecured civilian residence of the PM that was also within firing distance from Peelkhana.

The rest of the story is more pathetic. Frantic SOS calls from the brightest officers stopped one after one. Mysteriously, after two days of permissive killing, a large number of mutineers fled the campus under the cover of darkness. No effort was made to prevent them from fleeing. Two days later when mass graves, charred bodies were being discovered, most of the killers were out of reach with an unknown amount of weapons and ammunition.

A frequently made point is that bloodshed had been avoided by the government’s ‘cool headed’ act. It is painfully difficult to understand what this school of thought tries to say. In any conventional war of modern time, loss of any general or other senior level military officer is seen as major debacle. In all recent war literature, loss of senior officers, especially generals, is depicted as one of the worst-case scenarios. We did not lose one general but more than 50 of our smartest, brightest and senior-most military officers. The whole of our army’s senior command got destabilised. How can one find solace that Sheikh Hasina’s able leadership had avoided blood loss? What about those 57 military officers’ blood?

In the coming years, there will be more discussion on the handling of Peelkhana massacre. This would look like a big failure of the prime minister and will keep haunting her.

During the wee hours of August 1975, When the killers were encroaching the Dhanmondi compound of PM Hasina’s father, Bangbandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, his frantic phone calls did not bring any help from the army high command or his paramilitary Rakhkhi Bahini. This has always been an issue of pain for Hasina. A 15th August style massacre was replicated under her watch. Children of Major General Shakil or Colonel Mujib lost both of their parents and hundreds of others lost their parents, husbands, brothers, sisters, sons or daughters. Even teen-aged domestic aids were killed.

This failure was not Hasina’s alone. It was a failure of total civilian and military leadership. There was an inherent problem among her advisers. In Pilkhana type situation, it was the job of the military chief to set up a command centre, devise a strategy, design specific plans and present the prime minister with the defence/military perspective in dealing with such scenario. In this regard, the person who failed most miserably is the then army chief. Post 1/11 role of this army chief created an uneasy relationship between him and the civilian leadership. The prime minister probably could not trust this army chief. Hence she kept him sitting in her living room all day under a house arrest of sort.

The government was very new too. It was the job of the chief of army staff to advise and convince the prime minister to take prompt action and present her with the strategy and the plans. But this chief’s post 1/11 activities handicapped his ability to perform his job with authority. This army chief had no moral or legal right to remain as army chief after his failed ‘coup’ of 1/11.

In an ideal world, there must not be any lack of trust between the head of the government and the army chief. If that develops, any patriotic army chief, who cares more for his forces and the country than his own job, should resign. But Moeen U Ahmed was so eager to keep his job that he totally failed to defend the country as well as protect his officers. He failed his army as well as the nation.

We must learn from our experience of 25-26 February, 2009. As a nation, we must know what we will do if Myanmar sends 500 mercenaries to take over Cox’s Bazaar, or the Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh takes over Bholarhat Upazila and impose strict Islamic law or the Maldives sends troops to capture Mongla port. Would we send the local MP with a white flag to negotiate with mutineers/invaders?

We always talk about the spirit of 1971. On the night of 25th March of 1971, EPR jawans/officers were attacked in the same garrison in Peelkhana. Those soldiers did not raise a white flag citing the case of neighbourhood civilians. As a war was declared, EPR jawans fought back. This was the spirit of 1971. A war was imposed on us on Feb 25-26, 2009. We raised a white flag without fighting. This was not in line with the spirit of 1971.

If we have to send local MPs with white flags to deal with occupation and mutiny and make the army retreat with their dead comrades, why do we build and maintain the armed forces?

A battle was imposed on us on Feb 25 2009. We failed to respond appropriately, thus losing 57 of our brightest military officers.

It is a shame. And it was a command failure of the civilian and military leadership.

2 thoughts on “A look back on the war that was never fought

  1. The logic of ur arguments are irrefutable. There was no chance of civilian casualty outside the perimeter. Some ‘Dolkana’ ex service people gives substance to such biased prediction.

    I agree some hostages would die (incase our forces have never trained for a hostage situation, which is hard to beleive about the largest force contributing Army in the world). If I was a lady whose husband was killed earlier that day by those lunatics, I would prefer to risk my own life in an operation conducted to save the rest. At the end I would either be with my husband in the other world, or come out with my head high as a wife of a brave soldier who sacrificed his life in performing his duty. Money would not solace my wound. Everytime I would think that the band of brothers did not go in to save one of them, would keep killing me from within. This is an irreparable damage done to the morale and image of our forces.

    Lastly if any one defends the decision with such lame excuse, I would ask them, dont u think the situation was similar on 15 August, when rest of the force did not respond for similar cause? How is ur feeling about that? i know ur feelings.. dont have to answer!

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