1971 War

Analysing International Intervention as a Concept Today

16 Dec, 2015    ·   4946

Lt Gen (Retd) Syed Ata Hasnain reflects on the Bangladesh Liberation War and its relevance in today's international conflict-resolution operations

The UN Charter says, “[n]othing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state...” The principle does not rule out the application of enforcement measures in case of a threat to peace, a breach of peace, or acts of aggression on the part of the state. The 1948 Genocide Convention also overrode the nonintervention principle. Two major examples where the UN misread the situation and did not intervene were, Rwanda in 1994, and Srebrenica in Bosnia in 1995.

16 December 2015, the 43rd anniversary of India’s victory over Pakistan in the 1971 war and the creation of Bangladesh is an apt moment to recall the event as a classic case of positive military intervention to put a halt to a virtual genocide and aid in separating a people from ethnic domination despite being in majority. The unnatural make up of then Pakistan consisting of the East and West parts was considered as a geographical travesty, separated by two thousand kilometers of Indian Territory. The ethnic domination of the West over East for 24 years culminated in a standoff, over the formation of national government by a party of the East that had legitimately won an election, was in majority, and was yet being denied it’s due. What followed was rogue action by the existing military government located in the West resulting in a virtual genocide. The politics of Cold War did not permit humanitarian intervention by the UN even though this was a classic case for the same.

Nine months of waiting and ten million refugees on its soil later, India finally intervened after facing the wrath of the military government of Pakistan. A decisive military victory achieved in 14 days, controlled euphoria, immediate establishment of civil-military control, prevention of retribution against the defeated army and every tenet of conflict stabilisation characterised the handling of the post conflict events under the direct orders of an iconic military leader such as General (later Field Marshal) Sam Manekshaw. Whether such a thing can still happen in today’s world is worth an examination.

In the post-Cold War period, the power of the UN increased exponentially as the traditional balance of power in most regions broke down. UN intervention operations in Cambodia, Somalia and Bosnia were successful in bits and pieces but there were errors of judgment in Rwanda, and in Srebrenica in Bosnia.  Exit policies included conflict stabilisation via cantoning of soldiers, disarming, rehabilitation, and elections to form a national government. Unfortunately, since the turn of the millennium, intervention operations have not seen success. Afghanistan led to regime change as did Iraq but stabilisation remained elusive as classic resistance by irregular elements prevented that; and ideology was exploited to enhance resistance.

Long wars led to challenge to stamina, economic effects of trillion-dollar costs and poor conflict stabilisation before exit. Intervention was a grand failure as much as it was in Libya where the NATO intervention failed to protect civilians, used false allegations to justify regime change and did not retain presence for stabilisation – leading to chaotic descent of the state into principalities under no one’s control. It also led to proliferation of weaponry to the Islamic State (IS) via Turkish and Syrian territories.

The trend of intervention, which attempts destruction of forces/resources and infrastructure through aerial action without commensurate deployment of ground forces (boots on the ground), has not been found to be effective as a tool in the face of organised resistance of the irregular type.

Commitment of ground forces is expensive and rarely meets public approval because of casualties and longer terms of deployment. Syria is a classic case where the air war against the resilience and discipline of Daesh is not proving effective. Deployment of ground forces has completely different connotations in terms of intelligence, taking over of locations destroyed by aerial action, and provision of humanitarian aid. Yet, the militaries of the world are generally shying away from it.

Russia has demonstrated the deployment of limited ground forces in Syria but its logistics is already pinching.

With North Africa in economic ferment and with politico-ideological turbulence in West Asia, the humanitarian situation in the region bordering or in the vicinity of Europe will probably witness extreme violence and mass displacement of population with movement towards Europe. How will such threats be handled by conventional forces and UN agencies?

The model of the birth of Bangladesh will recede further in the background as nations and their armies find ways and means to intervene positively with civilian protection as the crux and not regime change. The handling of Syria and Iraq by the international community has been a monumental humanitarian failure.

Achieving success of any measure against similar threats from other nations and North Africa will need a completely different model of response, with formed troops, air power, aid agencies and NGOs all in tandem; a challenge the world should be prepared for.