While NATO grapples with the most effective road to victory in Libya and treads the fine line which borders supporting civilians and overthrowing a dictator, let me illustrate a very successful example of such an overthrow, in history, and see if we can learn some lessons from there. I talk of the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War.
At the time of Independence, British India was partitioned into 2 major countries. Secular India and Islamic Pakistan. Pakistan was further divided into East Pakistan and West Pakistan. These 2 sub divisions were separated by 1000s of miles of Indian territory. Being so apart geographically, the peoples of West Pakistan and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) were culturally very distinct. But the center of power lay in West Pakistan and there was rampant discrimination against East Pakistanis.
Eventually things reached a point when East Pakistanis started calling for independence in the 1970’s under the leadership of the charismatic Sheik Mujibur Rehman and a strong pro-Bangladeshi nationalist movement broke out in East Pakistan. They wanted to secede from Pakistan and form an independent Bangladesh. Pakistan was led by a ruthless military dictator called Yahya Khan. He swung the full might of the Pakistani military juggernaut against the hapless civilians of Bangladesh and carried out genocide in East Pakistan, targeting Hindus and the intellectual elite of Dhaka. Unable to bear the brunt of this brutal assault, close to ten million Bangladeshis fled to refugee camps in India. India appealed to the international community for help but none responded. India then decided to take matters in its own hands and started arming and aiding the rebels. Pakistan then attacked India and full scale war broke out on 3rd December 1971.
The Indian troops smashed through the Pakistani military defences in East Pakistan and raced towards Dhaka, the capital of East Pakistan. They knew time was not on their side. The US, the ever staunch ally of Pakistan, sent its nuclear equipped USS Enterprise into the Bay of Bengal to intimidate India into declaring a ceasefire. The Indians called the Russians and promptly there were Russian ships tailing the Enterprise. The world was dangerously close to a nuclear war involving US and USSR. The Indians raced ahead to defeat the Pakistanis before the situation got out of hand. On the morning of 14th December, 4 Indian Mig-21s, it’s pilots guided by tourist maps, tore across the skies of Dhaka and bombed the governor’s residence with uncanny accuracy. The governor was so shocked that he resigned and took refuge in the local Red Cross center. On 16th December the Indian Army blitzkrieg hit Dhaka and the Pakistani Army surrendered with India taking over 90,000 prisoners of war, the largest since World War 2. Bangladesh was free.
The above situation is not very dissimilar to what is happening in Libya now. But will NATO achieve success in the near future? From the above case analysis we can identify 3 reasons that generally make such operations successful.
1) A clear call for external help: The Bangladeshis actively supported the Indian role in the war and took economic and military aid readily. In contrast, in Libya, the rebels some times ask for more assistance and other times claim that they will overthrow Gaddaffi on their own. This approach confuses NATO and others about the extent to which the Libyans require their presence and hence are often wary to be more pro-active. In contrast, India went in confidently knowing full well that they had the support of the Bangladeshi people.
2) A strong opposition with a visible leadership: The Bangladeshis had Sheik Mujibur Rehman and his Awami League as political representatives and the Mukti Bahini which formed the military wing of the rebellion. This helped India to know who it was dealing with and let it focus on waging the war and then pulling out on victory, allowing Mujibur Rehman to focus on nation building. In contrast, in Libya there is a ragtag group of rebels and disparate tribal groups with no visible leader. This causes great discomfort in western capitals as they don’t know who exactly they are supporting. This also makes countries like the US loathe to put boots on the ground in the fear that after the war, with no clear leadership a civil war will break out and it’ll become Iraq and Afghanistan all over again.
3) A quick and decisive military operation: India acted swiftly and with full force to decapitate the Pakistani Army and had its goals clearly established. In contrast, NATO and others still seem to be fumbling over the boundaries of their operations and are hesitant to expand it to a full scale war for reasons mentioned above. This may only compound the situation further and turn the war into a messy quagmire.
Hence, NATO struggles with matching what India could achieve in a matter of 13 days against a strong adversary like Pakistan.