Sheikh Hasina has accused the US of seeking a ‘regime change’ in Bangladesh. (Image credits: Pixabay)
The recent push by the US to ‘ensure democracy’ in South Asia has been in Bangladesh with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently announcing that any individual seen as undermining the democratic election process in Bangladesh would face visa restrictions. The US Assistant Secretary, Bureau South and Central Asian Affairs Donald Lu also reiterated the centrality of ‘promotion of democracy across the world’ in the Biden Harris administration.
Some have seen this move as a mere retaliation to the removal of police protocol of four diplomatic missions to Bangladesh, including the US. But not only Sheikh Hasina’s allegation against the US, where she accused them of seeking a ‘regime change’ but also the history of US interference across the world points towards a more complex situation.
The US has historically had an involvement in the functioning and focus on ‘regime change’ in countries across the world where either it deems the regime as authoritarian and in need for democracy or unsupportive of US interests. In the early days, their involvement was overt, such as in the case of Hawaii, Cuba and the Caribbean countries but after World War II and with the establishing of the CIA in 1947, their operations became more covert. There was Iran in 1953, Guatemala in 1954, South Vietnam in 1963 amongst many others through the decades.
In more recent memory, it was widely reported that the CIA was responsible for the Petooktobarska revolution and the subsequent ‘regime change’, engineering the overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic in 2000. In 2003, it was responsible for the invasion of Iraq but not before proposing a ‘regime change’ in the United Nations that was met with staunch opposition by many members. The former national security advisor to the US Zbigniew Brzezinski had also argued that George W Bush’s attempts to use democracy as an instrument against terrorism were risky and dangerous.
However, none of the interventions made by the US have been based on a singular factor. While the apparent motivations may be to counter human rights violations or democratization, in many cases the underlying reasons have been largely self-serving. In the past, global competition for influence has played a critical role. During the Cold War era the US and the Soviet Union competed for dominance, the US supported countries like Pakistan to counter Soviet aligned India.
Further, the US also has entered South Asia because of the geopolitical interests that are involved such as South Asia’s strategic location, its valuable resources, trade routes, markets, security and regional stability. Counterterrorism efforts in countries like Afghanistan, humanitarian concerns like in Bangladesh and economic concerns such as with China have all contributed to the US decision of intervention in South Asian countries.
However, in South Asia, India’s northwestern frontier has been left in a precarious position with both Pakistan and Afghanistan in turmoil. A mess so large that it could possibly be labelled the most prominent geopolitical collapse since Iraq. The US decision to exit Afghanistan after decades of trying to maintain a US friendly democratic government has not only let down the people of Afghanistan but jeopardized the whole security of the region. For the world, the US had reneged on its moral obligation, but for the US it had a been a job, that was completed.
As President Biden justified to the American people that their objective of entering Afghanistan had been accomplished by neutralizing Osama bin Laden and other anti-US terrorists. It didn’t seem of concern to the US that by the time they exited Afghanistan, the Taliban had been in the strongest military position since 2001, controlling nearly half the country, while the US had the lowest number of troops on the ground.
On the contrary, the US virtually handed over Afghanistan in a closed door deal without any concern for democratic rights of women and minorities, values that they professed to cherish above all. It was apparent that the US was not interested in building a safe Afghanistan for Afghans but to simply fulfil their counter terrorism interests.
Neighbouring Pakistan was not left untouched either. As Imran Khan once said that the US only finds Pakistan useful to clean up its mess. It used Pakistan’s access to Afghanistan for supplies and resources to support its troops in Afghanistan. It could not have had access through Iran because of their souring relationship nor through the Russia-aligned northern countries. But Pakistan has been a different story from the very beginning.
Heavily dependent on aid, the US spent nearly $30 billion dollars on Pakistan for their support in Afghanistan. The Bush administration, it is reported, had pumped in almost $10 billion dollars in aid during the Musharraf era with no deal regarding a democratic transition for the country which was under his dictatorship and not to forget that most of this aid went to the military. This is a situation that is a reminder of the US support to West Pakistan even as they were responsible for the genocide in the then East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). In the 1971 Bangladesh liberation war the US unabashedly supported a military dictatorship in West Pakistan and a regime that was entirely autocratic even though the then US consulate general in Dhaka advised otherwise.
The reality is that the US and other western powers see these regions through their over ambitious perception of themselves. They enter on moral grounds but leave for self-serving purposes. In Afghanistan it became clear that a third option, or a more nuanced exit was not even on the cards. The least that the Afghans deserved. And in the case of Pakistan , there was not only premature and miscalculated celebration of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan by the Pakistanis but today they have to contend with Tehrik- e – Taliban Pakistan and the new lease of life that it has given to Pashtun nationalism. Mostly a situation that is owed to the US intervention in Afghanistan.
The US is clearly seeking to ensure its dominance across the world. The Biden Harris administration has many times claimed the leader of the “free world” position rooted in the values of democracy. Their observations, pressure and sanctions against countries to ensure democracy however does not seem to apply equally across the world.
For instance, the Arab world is somehow kept out of the ambit of the US’s democratic and human rights dialogue. Their deafening silence on the Jamal Khashoggi death and the accountability of Saudi Arabia in the matter was only one such instance that was fortunate enough to be covered internationally. However, there are rampant human rights violations and legitimate concerns towards the treatment of women and minorities in these countries in addition to none of them being democratic. One would think the US would want to intervene and cement its position as the leader of the “free world”, instead one is pointed to the importance of the Persian Gulf in its security policy. According to one report, there are around 80 countries hosting US bases across the world and more than 50 percent of them have little or no democratic rule.
In the context of the chequered US history of intervening in countries to promote democracy it would be wise for Sheikh Hasina to tread carefully as the elections in Bangladesh comes closer. After the US imposed sanctions several members of Rapid Action Battalion, an elite paramilitary unit which the US alleges were sanctioned for alleged extra judicial killings and disappearances, followed by US Ambassador to Bangladesh Peter Haas meeting families of victims as well as opposition leader Sajedul Islam Sumon’s family, it appears that the US has set its sights on Bangladesh.
Sheikh Hasina, foreseeing imminent interference, has typically not minced her words, saying in Parliament that, “They are trying to eliminate democracy and introduce a government that will not have a democratic existence, it’ll be an undemocratic action.”
India too must keep a close eye on these developments. After US intervention in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the mess that has been left at India’s northwestern frontier has left New Delhi in a tricky situation. A similar situation on the northeastern border of the country would be much too complex. As for the US, the world does not need a global leader anymore. In a quick developing multipolar world, all that the US needs to do is have faith in the ability of people across the world to make choices for themselves. And if the US still insists at playing leader of the “free world”, then it would be advisable for them to begin with Afghanistan.
Writer: an Author, Anthropologist and a scholar of the North East region of India. She focuses on ethnic identity, tribal issues and insurgency. She also comments and keeps a track of developments on the Indo Pacific and current affairs. She is presently Distinguished fellow at India Foundation, New Delhi and Consulting Editor, Global Order