Wednesday, March 5, 2008

National Security Council for Bangladesh

Published in The Daily Star, March 5, 2008

A US National Security Council in session

I once sat in a high profile meeting when the country had an elected government as a Director General in the Foreign Ministry. Those who attended that meeting were the Ministers of Foreign and Home Affairs with their respective Secretary and top level representatives of civil and military intelligence. Security issues were on top of the agenda of that meeting. I was astonished to learn at that meeting that on crucial national security issues, the Foreign Minister was in total darkness and that intelligence available to the military was unknown to the civil intelligence. At the Home Ministry, what the Secretary knew was not in his Minister's knowledge. Since that strange meeting, I always felt Bangladesh needed a National Security Council for a professional and transparent way to deal with national security and intelligence issues that are vital for formulating the country's foreign and defense policies.

A National Security Council or its equivalent is now an essential part of governments of most countries. It has become indispensable for professionally integrating intelligence and security issues into well considered foreign and defense policies for maintaining sovereignty and furthering national interests in an increasingly globalized world. It has been an integral part of Government in the United States since it was set up under the Presidency of President Harry Truman. In India, it was set up in 1998 when the BJP Government was in office. National Security Council of Pakistan in its current version was created in April 2004 by an Act.

Historically, National Security Council has followed a perceptible pattern in evolution. Countries with strong democratic foundations have evolved one type of NSC while a country where the presence of the military is strong has evolved a different type. The United States and India are good examples of the first type where the military and intelligence agencies are given a place in the NSC in advisory roles. Turkey is an example of the second type where its NSC called the Milli Guvenlik Kurulu has institutionalized Turkish military's dominance and influence over politics.

A NSC for Bangladesh is not a new idea. A circular was issued by the Cabinet Division in 1996 creating a 23 member NSC headed by the Prime Minister. It was given a wide range of responsibilities ranging from ensuring national security to accountability of the Government as well as dealing with internal problems tied to security. But the concept was stillborn and fizzled till this Government came to office. Going by what one reads in the newspapers, a NSC for Bangladesh seems imminent with a few suggesting that it will be in place as early as end of May.

Not everybody is of course excited that a NSC is imminent for Bangladesh. A great deal of doubt has arisen within the public as the concept has not been debated at any length by this Government. In the absence of the parliament, there is also no forum to debate this issue in a manner that can take all concerns on board. A few seminars by think tanks have attempted to debate the issue. Unfortunately, these seminars have added more doubt in the public mind. In one well-publicized seminar held recently, a sponsor went to the extent of stating to the media that a NSC should be constituted immediately in order to allow the country to benefit from all the positive developments that this Government has achieved after 1/11. His statement left no one in doubt that he was suggesting that unless the military is given a major role through the NSC, democracy would be in peril when an elected Government comes.

Therefore, in establishing a NSC in Bangladesh, a few issues must be settled first for such a Council not to be again stillborn like the attempt in 1996. Before it is delivered, it must be absolutely clear to the public that a NSC is not a civil versus military issue and that it is not a covert way of bringing the military into politics. It must also be made absolutely clear that, the mess into which the politicians have landed the country notwithstanding, the supremacy of elected representatives over un-elected ones is an undeniable fact in dealing with issues of sovereignty, security and intelligence. At the same time, a NSC should act as a reminder to elected representatives that they cannot put national interests and sovereignty into jeopardy by internal conflicts. Given our ethos as a nation where we perhaps stand uniquely on our own for sacrifices for establishing democracy, we should therefore chose as a model the US type of NSC with modifications to suit our needs (we need not have a very complex one as the US NSC is) while be careful in not going after the Turkish model that give too much prominence to the military.

A NSC for Bangladesh should be a two-tiered body. The apex tier should be headed by the Prime Minister. This body should meet at regular intervals to consider issues/papers/documents prepared by the second tier and give policy decisions on issues of national security. In addition to considering national security and intelligence issues that have direct relation to sovereignty or threat to it arising from external sources, the NSC should also be entrusted with internal crisis management that threatens sovereignty. The apex tier should in addition to the Prime Minister, have as members the Leader of the Opposition, Ministers of Foreign Affairs, Home Affairs, and Defense (why should the Prime Minister hold this portfolio? Is politics involved here?), the Chief of the Army (in place of a Joint Chief of Staff that we do not have in Bangladesh) and the Cabinet Secretary. Chiefs of civil and military intelligence should sit in NSC meetings as advisors. The second tier should comprise bureaucrats from the Ministry of Home Affairs, Foreign Affairs, Defense, Army, Navy and Air Force, the civil and military intelligence agencies, the Police and BDR. In developing such a NSC, the task of coordination and smooth flow of intelligence and information between the military, security and civilians in the second tier should be given utmost importance. A post of a National Security Adviser (NSA) should be created directly under the Prime Minister for this purpose. The NSA should be a very senior retired diplomat or an armed forces officer who should carry the rank of a Minister. In a Government structure already too bloated for reasons of rationality, the NSA could use bureaucrats at the Prime Minister's Office where a Director General with requisite number of officials could provide the NSA administrative support. Issues of national security and intelligence are matters that, despite the need for transparency, cannot be made public knowledge.

Then again, the NSC must not use such a necessity to become an extra-constitutional body. It must be accountable to the Parliament through the Prime Minister.

The inclusion of the Leader of the Opposition should allow bipartisanship in dealing with crucial national issues, something sadly lacking in our system of governance.

The military and intelligence agencies have always been dealing with security and intelligence issues keeping those in charge constitutionally to deal with such issues in darkness in the absence of an established procedure or structure. The BNP and the AL Governments allowed the military and intelligence agencies de facto veto power in security and intelligence issues in manner that was non-transparent and did not always serve the best interest of the nation. A NSC will allow a professional and transparent way of cooperation between the civil, military and intelligence agencies and integration of national security and intelligence issues into defense and foreign policies in the best interest of the country.

The necessity of a NSC cannot be over-emphasized. At the same time, it may not be wise to hurry in through because doubts have arisen in the public mind caused, no doubt, by some over enthusiastic people. Recently, Justice Habibur Rahman, former Chief Adviser, said in a seminar that military's interference in politics cannot benefit the country; his statement created substantial vibes in the public mind. Some politicians have also spoken publicly that the armed forces are seeking a safe exit for themselves given the fact that they have upset the politicians by their drive against widespread corruption in politics and governance. The Army Chief's most recent meeting with senior editors where he has cleared these misgivings categorically is very encouraging. Still doubts linger. Therefore, the imperative of a NSC for Bangladesh notwithstanding, it may be wise for this Government to draw the concept paper of a well thought out NSC and leave it to the elected Government to deliver it as an integral part of executive branch of the Government under the wings of the Prime Minister.