Is it possible to pursue and promote friendship among militaries?
Armed Forces around the globe are maintained at prohibitively high costs. They eat up a sizable chunk of a nation’s GDP. Whether it is a democracy, a kingdom, or an autocracy, nations invest in their military forces and do their utmost to maintain them at their highest state of readiness.
In many cases, they perform a duty rather ceremonial in nature, representing military might and the corresponding pride of the nation, preparing for war in peace, helping nations overcome emergencies, and the like. Irrespective of the size and strength, is it possible to pursue and promote friendship among militaries beyond their boundaries?
Back in 1993, when Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, was literally burning because of the US forces, and the Somali militia were engrossed in an unequal and seemingly neverending fight, as a young officer I was ordered to move there as a member of the Bangladesh military contingent.
The operation launched by the US military was code named “Operation Restore Hope,” ostensibly meant to bring back hope for the hapless Somalis. But actually, the Americans themselves lost hope in that very volatile situation and called upon the UN to take over and restore some kind of order, if not peace.
The Bangladesh contingent was equipped with soft-skin vehicles which were not at all safe to move about on the streets of Mogadishu, since Somali militia were apt at hitting rocket-propelled grenades. The UN very justifiably asked our contingent to get a required number of Armoured Personnel Carriers (APC) to be able to maintain a minimum level of operational efficiency. APCs were procured within a very short time, but the problem was driving them, as we had no trained drivers.
Fortunately, our commanding officer, the resourceful colonel, had one of his friends -- some Colonel Afridi, a Pakistani Pathan commanding one Pak mechanized regiment. The issue was quite a complicated one if we had to follow the usual channel. This was cut short -- unbelievably, the Pakistani colonel managed to provide training to 30 of our APC drivers within just 15 days. This was possible because of the cordial friendship at a personal level, which transcended all protocols.
In Somalia, we had forces both from Pakistan and India, and as many as 30 other nations. I was visiting an Indian unit where, to my utter disbelief, in the quarter guard I discovered a Rs500 Pakistani currency note on display on the wall. Below this was inscribed the name of a Pakistani general, who had recently visited this very Indian unit where he presented this Rs500 note to the guards who were turned out in his honour.
I wondered how members of the military belonging to these two arch rivals behaved in such a nice way in a faraway land.
In October 2006, I was on an official visit to Amsterdam with a delegation from Indian National Defence College. There was an Indian business community who invited us to a dinner at a restaurant owned by a retired Indian army captain, who had fought in our Liberation War. As we were introduced, the captain gave me a big hug and kept me in his strong embrace for some time once he came to learn I was from Bangladesh.
We were engaged in a friendly chat for several minutes. As he came to learn that I hailed from Sylhet, he became very emotional and nostalgic. He shouted out, “Man! I took part in liberating your hometown. I was just across the King’s Bridge over river Surma when Sylhet was liberated.”
Following the devastating cyclone Sidr in November 2007, the US forces sent a message to our government, saying they were three days of voyage away from our shore with two of their frigates, USS Tarawa, and USS Kearsarge. If our government would like to have them, they were keen to come and work hand-in-hand with our armed forces to provide succour to the distressed.
About 3,500 US marines stayed for one and half months and worked with us. They helped us transport relief goods, provide medical care, improve sanitation, supply water from their desalination plant, and much more. Following this, they even built schools in some of our villages.
In this there was diplomacy, strategy, and humanitarian aid. There could be questions as to whether Bangladesh really needed the help rendered at that time, how effective it was, and whether our own armed forces were good enough to take care of the crisis. Above everything, this was a humanitarian effort by an expeditionary force far away from our shores.
These were some random examples where armed forces provided scope to nurture and promote people-to-people relationships. Nations need to mull over utilizing their military beyond their traditional realms of activity, into more constructive, nation-building, humanitarian pursuits. And, above all, promote friendships beyond their frontiers.
Brig Gen Qazi Abidus Samad, ndc, psc (Retd) is a freelance contributor. He can be reached via email: [email protected]