Time for a New U.S. Policy in Bangladesh

A country with much to offer is in the throes of a serious crisis. How will Washington react?

Although situated in close proximity to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Bangladesh has to this point somehow avoided becoming a major headache for Washington. Yet, given recent developments, Bangladesh could soon cause U.S. officials a migraine.

Bangladesh is currently suffering some of the worst political unrest in its history. After several months of unprecedented levels of political violence, a deeply flawed election took place on January 5, the ruling party and opposition are at loggerheads today. With no end in sight to this political crisis, street violence and other unrest is bound to continue—particularly in the wake of heavily politicized trials for war crimes committed during Bangladesh’s 1971 independence war. Washington needs to wake up before the powder keg of this country spirals out of control.

However, first it is important to understand what is at stake. Over the years, Bangladesh has transformed itself in marvelous ways, serving as an example to other developing nations. The Bangladesh Bank (equivalent to the Federal Reserve) has the second highest foreign currency deposits in South Asia after India, while the country’s garment industry has become the world’s second largest. Significantly, this multibillion-dollar industry—housed in the third largest Muslim country in the world—is largely driven by women. In Bangladesh, many more girls are in school than boys.

Furthermore, Bangladesh demonstrates an array of human-development successes, ranging from decreased mortality rates to increased average incomes and less poverty. A Bangladeshi institution, Grameen Bank, has pioneered microcredit financing. Additionally, the world’s largest non-governmental organization, BRAC, has become a globally active entity whose latest tasks include helping rebuild Afghanistan. Corruption notwithstanding, some state institutions—including the Bangladesh army—have an impressive record as well. Some may associate Bangladesh’s army with mutinies and coups, but in fact it has also been lauded for its extraordinary contribution to U.N. peacekeeping missions. In honor of the great services provided by Bangladeshi forces, the African nation of Sierra Leone has declared Bangla its second language.

Meanwhile, Dhaka shelters half-a-million registered Rohingya minorities in its territory. Similarly, ghettoes inhabited by people of Pakistani origin still dwell in the heart of Dhaka. Neither Islamabad nor Naypyidaw is willing to take back these descendants—making Bangladesh the de facto safe haven for these displaced people.

To be sure, Bangladesh is also accused of providing havens for more unsavory populations. Delhi thinks Bangladesh is a potential sanctuary for separatists fighting for the independence of the northeastern states of India. Bangladesh has also been accused of harboring militantssponsored by the Pakistani intelligence. Perhaps unsurprisingly, some in Washington are concerned that Bangladesh could fall into the hands of terrorists. This is a highly misplaced concern, however.

Bangladesh has significantly curbed religious-based terrorism in recent years. Furthermore, it has helped India by arresting some of its wanted extremists. Recently, Dhaka has signed a long-awaited extradition pact with India. India appears convinced that Dhaka will continue to clamp down on anti-India activities if Sheikh Hasina remains in power. Her administration’s demonstrated willingness to support Indian interests significantly reduces Indian security worries on its Eastern flank. This helps explain why India has supported Hasina’s recent controversial reelection.

Since human rights and promoting democracy have been cornerstones of U.S. foreign policy, it is understandable that America is unable to applaud the deeply flawed election of late that returned Hasina to power. Washington’s cautious efforts in recent weeks to help bring the government and opposition together—so that they can come to an agreement to hold a fresh election—are welcome. Nevertheless, much more needs to be done.