Bangladesh’s non-traditional security complex

Published : 16 Feb 2023 08:10 PM

The former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara in his book The Essence of Security (1968) commented, “Poverty, not the lack of military hardware, is responsible for insecurity across the southern half of the planet”. After nearly 50 years, the position of McNamara’s comment is still true in the South Asia region where non-traditional security (NTS) issues that can not be controlled by geographical or territorial boundaries are beheld as the priority concerns of South Asian security dynamics. Especially in a region where 35% of people live below the poverty line of US 1 dollar per day, economic disparity fact drives the major extent of the foreign policy of these countries.

From a traditional perspective, the security complex of South Asia is overshadowed by the two nuclear countries' uneasy tension, of which a threatening situation came to a close in 2019. Other traditional security threats include drug trafficking, violent extremism, transnational organized crime, etc. affecting both Central Asia and South Asia region. Despite the persistent nuclear risks, non-traditional security risks such as natural disasters, non-natural threats, poverty, unemployment, public health, food security, water security, terrorism, deforestation, and economic development are predominant issues that constitute the non-traditional security complex in South Asia. As for Bangladesh, economic security, health security, political security, environmental security, and energy security tops the priority list of NTS complexes. However, understanding of any non-traditional security issues requires a conceptual space for the ‘comprehensive security’ and ‘human security’ nexus on which possible securitizing models can be constructed. 

For the Bangladesh security complex, both traditional and non-traditional security issues comprise the agenda list. The traditional security issues such as national security, transnational security, arms trafficking, maritime security and terrorism are undoubtedly critical for Bangladesh’s security agenda. However, non-traditional security or non-military issues from health security to environmental security challenges are overriding concerns of the country’s security complex, a reason we can observe the country’s pro-active role in mitigating the latter embankments.  

Bangladesh being one of the most disaster-vulnerable countries in the world is more risk-prone to climate change, tropical cyclones, seasonal floodings, water-salinity intrusion, and river-bank erosion every year. In May 2019, Cyclone Fani caused damage worth USD 8.1 billion to both India and Bangladesh affecting their thousands of acres of croplands and urban-local households. To avoid frequent natural hazards and casualties, Bangladesh adopted in the 1990s a ‘hazard identification and mitigation’ community response to move away effectively from the focus on disaster management to reducing disaster risks. In the 2010s and 2020s, we have observed a number of government action plans BCCSAP (2009-2022), Bangladesh Delta Plan (2100), National Adaptation Plan (2022), National Plan for Disaster Management (2021-2025) which indicates a concentrated focus on mitigating the risks and costs of natural disaster and finding ways to adapting to changing climate-vulnerable world order. Food security is also a non-military concern for Bangladesh. According to USAID, food security refers to the people’s wide range of availability, accessibility and utilization of food resources at various levels. In 2003-2005, for an average person shares of energy intake in terms of protein and fat were relatively lower than 12% and 20% respectively. Since then Bangladesh has gradually improved as the country’s hunger statistics stood at 9.70% in 2021 compared to the 15.90% in 2001. Despite a positive trend in food security, 17 percent of households claimed to have trouble fulfilling their basic needs for food and non-food items in 2022. This shows for Bangladesh, a top development concern has been to increase food security from rural to urban level given the fact of food security’s large dependence on natural disaster, income disparity and other multifold social and economic factors. 

As for economic security, Bangladesh’s economic development has been one of the key agendas from the last decade. As a country graduating from the Least Developed Countries (LDC) category in coming 2026, Bangladesh has achieved robust economic growth within two decades. Poverty has declined from 49% in 2000 to 25% in 2016 with a notable increasing trend in income inequality. The GDP of Bangladesh has also increased from USD 115.3 billion in 2010 to USD 302.6 billion in 2019. The large growth in numbers is owed primarily to the country’s immigrant workers remittances and RMG sector fueling the economy. The international development assistance and NGO-level working have also been critical here in facilitating the growth story. However, the questions of debt-sustainability, development-sustainability and productive-investment outputs are inescapable for Bangladesh to continue its development success in long future. 

The lack of economic and political cooperation has featured South Asian small states with increasing political insecurity, especially with the isolation from one another. This has resulted into ethnic communalism, cross-border illegal migration, drug-trafficking, inter-communal violence and domestic political turmoil in every South Asian country. Bangladesh holding a small geographical portion in between India and Myanmar is heavily affected by the rocky India-Pakistan and India-China relations. Hence, one of key concerns of Bangladesh has been to ensure its political stability and strengthen national territorial integrity amidst regional power checkers. As small states like Bangladesh frequently hedge against regional power, Bangladesh’s chief priority is to continue its friendly-foreign-policy by balancing its role in relations with India and China. Since the 1990s, to overrule any possibilities of military-led regime, Bangladesh has observed periods of loosely-based democratic political systems with regional foreign policy of balancing, multilateral engagement and policy of neutrality.  

In the domestic arena, Chittagong Hill Tracts remains a thorny political challenge for both the Bangladesh government and Jumma community. Even after the CHT Peace Accords 1997, the peace has yet to see its functioning form in between the Bengali and Hill-Tracts community. Long-disputed land control policy, mistrust between Jumma and settlers community, insurgency are key factors for an unsettled CHT issue in Bangladesh. The government has no alternative but to strive towards a working CHT land commission to settle down the ongoing disputes.

The CHT peace issue will be a critical concern for future as well, as the terrorism activities have shifted their place and attention to the border areas linked to Myanmar. Bangladesh has experienced Islamic militancy for almost two decades. However, a rigorous organized state-action against various militant groups such as Jama'atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), Neo-JMB, Allahar Dal, Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HuT) and Harkat-ul-Jihad-al Islami Bangladesh (HuJI-B) took rigorous form after the Holy Artisan Attack in 2016. Now, the CHT has become the primary base hub for Jama'atul Ansar Fil Hind Al Sharqiya, a biggest terrorism threat for Bangladesh in 2023-. Also, the Bandarban Tambru border region has become a combat-zone for ARSA and RSO, a future security warning for any protracted scenario of the Rohingya refugee crisis.  

Bangladesh sits in between three drug-trafficking regions- Golden Triangle, Golden Crescent and Golden Wedge comprising Iran, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Laos and Thailand. However, not as a narcotics-producing country, but rather drug-lords use the country as a transit point. Bangladesh initiated the War-on-Drugs in 2018 directed against the Yaba-drug dealers which is still going on. However, the emergence of crystal meth, narcotics flood from India’s North-East and shifting manufacturing hub of yaba signifies an opposite result of the War-on-Drugs campaign. Not only domestic security concerns, but human-trafficking concerns are also deeply entangled with drug-trafficking issues. According to the DNC report, almost 100,000 women and children are directly involved with drug-trafficking of whom many are sold or trafficked in different regions. 

Not to mention, Bangladesh struggles uneasily with the protracted Rohingya refugee situation where over 1.1 million refugees from Myanmar have taken shelter in various camps in Cox’s Bazar. The country is suffering from the cost of being a generous host as Myanmar is unwilling to recognize Rohingya people as their citizens and take them back. Now, the hosting country is in great need of an issuing repatriation agreement with Myanmar whilst grappling to maintain the supporting cost of Rohingya refugee growing over 1 billion per year. 

Aside from political and socio-economic issues, Bangladesh’s military is gaining global attention in recent years. According to the Global Firepower 2023 report, Bangladesh’s military currently stands 40th among 145 countries in the world. Bangladesh has also ranked 12th in GFP review’s list of “Powers on the Rise” highlighting Bangladesh military’s growth and strength trends. This development trend in military infrastructure highly resonates with the country’s Force Goal 2030, a national attempt to modernize the Bangladesh Army into a technologically multi-advanced force. The high level global military engagement of Bangladesh is more visible in UN peacekeeping operations, and in their current robust engagement in MONUSCO. The country is currently the top Troops and Police Contributor (T/PCC) in UN peacekeeping operations which suggests it is more willing to employ their military in humanitarian front-line than any politically turbulent confront-lines globally.   

A traditional security analysis can not fully explain Bangladesh’s non-traditional security complexes that discussed here. Especially, the threats can emerge from both military and non-military force and any separation between issue will not do any benefit to the understanding of the issues. Rather, issue-linkages between hard and low security issues can often overlap as seen in Bangladesh. For example, the Rohingya refugee problem can develop into terrorism and border security problems. The CHT dispute is even associated with natural disasters, rural-urban migration and terrorism issues. However, Bangladesh has been unique in its managing non-traditional security threats especially in a geographical location where two nuclear countries are its neighbors. The country has been holding a very ‘friendly’ and ‘humanitarian’ image in its foreign policy efforts exercising its soft power capabilities. In domestic level, there might be a complex relationship between development and military institutions that worth further future speculation and analysis in managing domestic non-traditional security threats. 

For Bangladesh how the future security landscape unfolds is a question of time. However, the non-traditional security complex has been a critical priority side by side with traditional security agenda in Bangladesh’s national security policy. Interestingly, this also aligns with the country’s foreign policy dictum- ‘Friendship with all, Malice towards none’ since its independence. Given the increasing volatility in the South Asian region both in politics and economy, it is to be seen how the policy of less prioritizing nuclear race and more focusing on non-traditional threats will substantiate the country’s national integrity and security requirements in near decades. 

Towkir Hossain is a Dhaka-based research analyst on international affairs and strategic issues.