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OP-ED: Winning wars and keeping peace

  • Published at 03:16 pm September 5th, 2020
Dhaka Tribune

Effective policing requires dedication, restraint, and trust

Back in 1993, Mogadishu, the capital city of Somalia, was burning when the Bangladesh army sent in an infantry battalion as part of the UN force. The situation was very volatile as there was fighting between the UN forces and those of the Somali militia. It was worse than a battlefield -- there was no clear line of demarcation and no place was safe.

The most dominating element of the UN forces was spearheaded by the US. The irony was that in spite of having their finest trained marines and state-of-the-art weaponry, they still relied upon the Bangladeshi contingent with its humble, traditional small arms, and soft-skin vehicles.

Every day, there were incidents of ambush, mine blasts, and the famous “Black Hawk Down,” staged right in front of our eyes. The Bangladesh army did not even have armoured personnel carriers (APC), which was a bare necessity in a situation where bullets whizzing by was very common. So, despite the limitations, what made the US forces rely on the Bangladesh army for safety?

Within just a few weeks of landing in Mogadishu, our contingent made sure that they had established contact with the local Somali society and did their best to address their perennial problems. The contingent provided limited health care, arranged drinking water by setting up pumps, renovated schools, and even trained Somalis in the rudimentary knowhow of growing vegetables and computer skills, thus enabling them to make earnings. They were also allowed to come and join us for Friday prayers.

We maintained contact with the local Somali elders of prominent clans who played key roles in controlling their area. This had established a rapport -- the Bangladesh contingent was really here to help them.

This developed a tacit understanding, so even when a US convoy was being escorted by us, the Somalis would not open up. Otherwise, US forces were their number one target because of the former’s indiscriminate use of force and their killing spree.

Later, it was in Somalia that the Bangladesh army procured its first batch of APCs. Now, even the Bangladesh police have APCs, and their own helicopters. Equipping law enforcement with sophisticated armaments is required to build material capacity. But these alone do not necessarily make them any more efficient in their duties, which is to maintain order and let common people enjoy their civil, economic, social, and political rights. 

It is claimed that Bangladeshi policing has become “pro-people, pro-active, community-oriented, technology-based, and sensitized to issues regarding human rights, gender, and children,” and also that police have “undergone radical changes in terms of professional amelioration, capacity building, and service delivery.”

Yes, there are visible changes in the police service: They are better dressed and equipped; there have been substantial increases in their perks and privileges; the police stations are no more dull red, corrugated sheet structures, they have been equipped with lethal and non-lethal weapons and communications equipment. But as far as community service is concerned, we cannot be sure that they are really helping people.

Having popular support, winning hearts and minds, and creating an environment of trust and confidence is a must for effective policing. The police can ill-afford to distance themselves from the common people in their capacity as safety providers.

Winning the hearts and minds of people in hostile environments and warlike situations was not easy. Yet, the Bangladesh army did this because of their well-thought-out strategy, correct visualization of the situation, a good understanding of the Somali psyche, and constant contact with the locals. The sentiments of the locals were correctly read and duly exploited, enabling us to perform our duty with confidence despite limitations.

Though there cannot be any comparison between the roles of the army and the police, there are complementarities. The role of one is to safeguard from external threats while the other helps maintain law and order.

For both, winning the hearts of common people is a must. This needs to be earned through dedication, restraint, placing service before the self, and treating every life with dignity. The police are doing a tremendous job, but it is rather detrimental to their image when they try to dupe people through stories, even about “isolated incidents.”

Brig Gen Qazi Abidus Samad, ndc, psc (retd) is a freelance contributor. He can be reached at [email protected]

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