How to Overthrow a Brutal Dictator


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.

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12 responses to “How to Overthrow a Brutal Dictator

  1. I agree with the 3d point the most, NATO are so confused its as if they want this episode to spread to all other middle east countries and then take action !

    • True. The problem is they’re not getting a clear signal from the ground, from the rebels. Hence they are in a state of confusion on how to proceed. They’ve effectively enforced a no-fly zone. Now they’re sitting twiddling their thumbs wondering what to do next and how to end this civil war.

  2. Is that it? How did E Pakistan become Bangladesh?

    • On 16th Dec, when Pakistani troops surrendered, Bangladesh was born. Sheik Mujibur Rehman and the Mukti Bahini were fighting for an independent Bangladesh. They did not see themselves as part of Pakistan where the establishment was dominated by Punjabis and Pashtuns of the West and the Bangladeshi’s of East Pakistan were discriminated. Hence they fought for freedom and were crushed by Yahya Khan and the Pakistani military. When India intervened and the Pakistani forces surrendered, Bangladesh became independent and East Pakistan ceased to exist.

  3. US isn’t as strong as it was financially as it was during war on Iraq & Afghanistan. That coupled with their previous bad experiences in Iraq & Afghanistan is making sure that they are not in the war in their full flow. Even the Europian countries are just recovering from recession. So they might be feeling the pinch financially.

    • I think its more of a lack of strategic focus rather than lack of finances. The cost of a prolonged air campaign is surely much more than having a swift decisive end to the war which can be finished in mere weeks. Here were seeing the possibility of a long drawn out conflict unless the situation is resolved internally.

  4. The US is right to put Europe in the middle of this. The Bush administration’s policy was aggressive unilateralism and neocolonialism. This has done nothing to further American interests and to the contrary involves the Americans in unpopular adventures. Libya’s oil goes mostly to Europe and China and it is just that the local powers are perceived as the keepers of the peace in the middle East.
    I argue that Libya can be judged by its deeds over the last 40 years. Blowing up civilian aircraft and German discos as well as sending hit squads abroad and attempting to get nuclear capability are signs of sociopathic behavior. If he manages to survive in Libya how long do you think it will be before he decides to exact revenge on those nations and people who oppose him? His national resources are virtually unlimited and revenge is second nature to him. He is a cancer in N Africa that must be eliminated regardless of who the rebels may be. It could be a year or more for the ferment of revolution subsides.

    • True. I agree that Obama has done the right thing so far by not being at the forefront of the war and letting NATO lead the attack. But this is no excuse for NATO not having a clear military strategy in place. The problem comes if NATO gets stuck in a quagmire and a long drawn out conflict a la Afghanistan. This is what the near future is looking like. A swift victory is always most desirable. NATO is having a lot of fuzzy areas in its strategy which is stopping it from achieving clear set goals.

  5. You have captured the kernel of the problem in Libya – while the will is there, the conditions required, even when present, are far from clear. The biggest problem seems to me that an air-only campaign cannot be either focussed or decisive enough. One can only hope for the people of Libya that this is achieved fast! Bangladesh shows it is possible.

    • True. The air campaign is only a half measure. It seems like a hasty move on the part of NATO to make it look like it is doing “something”. However, the recent targeting of Gaddaffi and the resultant death of his son maybe signals a change in strategy.

  6. Clear set goals and objective are necessary for victory. NATO seems lost. Is this a political war conducted by politicians again? They need to get out of the way and let the generals run the operation! Excellent post!!

    • Thanks!! You’re right. This does seem to have hints of it being a political statement by NATO, eager to show they are doing something but not going the full breadth. But, I think because of the reasons iv mentioned in my post they will find it difficult to find strategic focus even if they gather the will.

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