Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA): Strategic Concerns of Bangladesh

26 Oct, 1999    ·   276

Alok Kumar Gupta looks into the SoFA which has generated great concern amongst different concerns inside Bangladesh

The post-cold war strategic considerations have witnessed a renewed interest by the United States in the South Asian region, an area that is being accorded an even greater importance since its nuclearization. The Status of Force Agreement (SOFA), was proposed by the American diplomat Bill Richardson in early 1998, and was later reiterated during the visit of the American Army Chief to Bangladesh. 

As far as American interests are concerned, the Agreement seeks to facilitate the following: 

·                     Unhindered entry of U.S. troops during times of emergency.

·                     Exemption of military personnel from visa or passport formalities.

·                     Unrestricted entry of equipment and supplies, without being subject to custom formalities. 

·                     Provides a framework for the movement of U.S. personnel and supplies into a host nation for exercise. 

·                     Specifies a particular legal code to be applied in case of damage inflicted to the host nation by  U.S. military personnel during an exercise.

The Agreement as envisaged would not provide similar facilities to Bangladesh defence personnel who would be sent to the U.S. for training and related purposes, according to Bangladesh’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. 

The proposed agreement has generated great concern amongst different sections of the intelligentsia and media being subject to nation-wide deliberations. The pro-liberation forces and the Left leaning parties have vehemently criticised the agreement as its acceptance would tantamount to a sell-out of national sovereignty. The anti-liberation forces in alliance with the fundamentalist groups have strongly supported the proposed agreement, justifying the military cooperation agreement as an essential security shield in the nuclearised sub-continent to pre-empt any nefarious Indian design, “even if it meant that one of the islands in the Bay of Bengal would have to be made a base for U.S.

The Sheikh Hasina government feels that apart from being a looser, the agreement would be detrimental to national interests as: 

·                     The issue of granting unhindered entry is not only politically inexpedient but also requires a constitutional amendment. 

·                     Being an active member of SAARC the country owes it to the region not to allow the entry of foreign forces “which may have profound and far reaching consequences”.   

American military assistance to Bangladesh has steadily risen since the 1980’s. More than 300 Bangladesh military personnel have received training in the U.S. since then. There have been three major joint military exercises in the past 10 years. From 1982, a joint group comprising the Pacific command of the U.S. and the Bangladesh military has been in operation to coordinate various activities in the Indian Ocean Zone ranging from natural disasters to breach of peace and hostility in the region.

Operation Sea Angels was the code-name assigned to a temporary (year long) SOFA signed between the two countries under which 7,500 military personnel and civilians participated in rescue and relief operations when the 1991 cyclone swept through Bangladesh. U.S. also provided financial aid to the tune of $120mn as part of emergency relief. In July, 1999, the two countries concluded an MOU as a part of which 25 volunteers of the US peace corps would work towards improving the level of primary teaching in Bangladesh after receiving training on Bangladesh’s history, culture, language and educational system. 

The two major international military activities in which Bangladesh troops have participated alongside U.S. troops are:

·                     The 1991 Gulf War in which Bangladesh contributed a force of 2,300military personnel.

·                     The 1994 Haiti mission in which a Bangladesh contingent participated.

American officials view the proposed SOFA as a logical extension of the MOUs so far concluded in order to determine the status of US troops during the conduct of joint exercises. The various areas the joint exercises cover are as follows:

o                    Combating the narcotic trade,

o                    Organising disaster relief, 

o                    Conducting air and sea rescue operations,

o                    Building schools and other infrastructural facilities,

o                    Providing medical training and treatment, etc.

American authorities thus argue that SOFA was not conceived as a military pact and that it would not facilitate the establishment of U.S. military base in Bangladesh. They also claim that Bangladesh would be the looser for rejecting the accord as it was designed to help countries during times of natural disasters and such other instances and not to use the country as a base for stationing military troops and military deployments, as US already has a base in the Indian Ocean in Diego Garcia. America has SOFA agreement with 50 countries the world over of which four countries of Asia are signatories to the agreement.

Strategic analysts, however, argue that since the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the Clark and Subic Bay bases in the Philippines, Bangladesh may serve as a ‘half-way house’ for US forces in the region. 

India has expressed serious concerns and unhappiness at the agreement construing it as a “threat impinging on India’s security and its environs” because of its serious geo-political implications. Never before has such a development taken place in the South Asian region even though Pakistan was once a member of SEATO and CENTO.

As for the present, the agreement has been kept in abeyance after considerable deliberation and discussion by the ruling Awami League government.