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US Sanctions Retired Bangladeshi Army Chief, But It Will Have Little Impact

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US Sanctions Retired Bangladeshi Army Chief, But It Will Have Little Impact

With General Ahmed no longer in active service, the sanctions’ direct impact is limited, serving more as a symbolic gesture than a catalyst for significant reform.

US Sanctions Retired Bangladeshi Army Chief, But It Will Have Little Impact

File photo of Chief of the Bangladesh Army, General Aziz Ahmed, in New Delhi, August 1, 2018.

Credit: Wikimedia/Ministry of Defense, India

On May 20, the United States government announced that it was imposing sanctions on a former Bangladesh Army chief, General Aziz Ahmed, due to his involvement in “significant corruption.”

“His actions have contributed to the undermining of Bangladesh’s democratic institutions and the public’s faith in public institutions and processes,” the State Department said, adding that Ahmed and his immediate family members were now ineligible for entry into the United States.

The sanctioning of a high-ranking Bangladeshi military official, albeit a retired one, has left many pondering its implications and effectiveness. The U.S. often employs sanctions to exert pressure and drive change in a government’s policies. However, how effective they are in forcing real change is debatable.

In December 2021, the United States announced sanctions on Bangladesh’s Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), an elite paramilitary force, for serious human rights violations. When Washington sanctioned the RAB, it drew international attention to human rights issues in Bangladesh. There was reportedly a dramatic decrease in extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances by the RAB following the sanctions. However, whether this led to substantial changes or bolstered democracy in Bangladesh is debatable.

The focus now shifts to Ahmed, who is no longer in active service. It raises the question: What does sanctioning a retired official achieve?

Such a move can be seen as symbolic, signaling disapproval of corruption and human rights abuses. However, its direct impact on current affairs and governance might be limited.

Sanctioning a currently serving official could potentially have more immediate effects, such as disrupting the status quo, prompting internal discussions, and even leading to policy changes. Nonetheless, this approach also risks straining diplomatic relations and may have unintended consequences.

The sanctions on Ahmed are particularly significant in the context of the recent general elections in Bangladesh on January 7, where the ruling Awami League (AL) won a fourth consecutive term amid controversies and oppression of opposition parties. Much scrutiny and debate has centered on the United States’ reaction.

In the run-up to the elections, the Biden administration had expressed concern over their fairness. However, its stance changed after the polling, as reflected in President Joe Biden’s letter congratulating Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on her victory.

More recently, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Donald Lu visited Bangladesh. The visit was widely seen as aimed at resetting Bangladesh-U.S. ties, which suffered during the elections. After the meeting with Lu, Hasina’s Private Industry and Investment Adviser Salman F. Rahman told the media that Lu had conveyed to the Hasina government that the U.S. would support lifting sanctions against the RAB.

However, things shifted course thereafter.

On May 16, the U.S. State Department said it was not retracting the sanctions placed on the RAB. Vedant Patel, principal deputy spokesperson at the department, said that sanctions are meant to induce behavioral change and uphold accountability. A few days later, the State Department imposed sanctions on Ahmed.

The mixed signals from the U.S. suggest internal debates or varying priorities within its government regarding its approach to Bangladesh.

By imposing sanctions on Ahmed, the U.S. may have aimed to signal its continued concern for Bangladesh’s democracy and corruption issues. Or it could be aimed at placating Bangladeshi civilians and opposition political parties.

These sanctions could instill fear among corrupt government officials and politicians of Bangladesh. But would it prompt a change in high-ranking retirees? It could, as many own property and settle in the U.S. or are keen to secure their children’s futures there. Sanctions would crash those ambitions.

But sanctions may not work to force a change in policy, conduct, or course of action in the AL government. If they did, the sanctions on the RAB would have prompted the AL to hold free and fair elections this year.

Bangladesh is not afraid of U.S. sanctions because it has strengthened relations with China. Indeed, for Bangladesh, China is fast becoming an alternative to the United States.

Not only is China a key military partner – it provided Dhaka with two refurbished submarines in 2016, financed a submarine base worth $1.21 billion, and will begin joint military drills with Bangladesh soon – but also Beijing has invested over $25 billion in various Bangladeshi projects and is Bangladesh’s top trade partner too.

The U.S. sanctions on a retired general, while symbolizing a stance against corruption, are unlikely to change Bangladesh’s political landscape. With Ahmed no longer in active service, the sanctions’ direct impact is limited, serving more as a symbolic gesture than a catalyst for significant reform.

Moreover, Bangladesh’s strengthening ties with China reduce the influence of U.S. actions. Hasina’s indifference to these sanctions and the country’s pivot toward Chinese military and economic support suggest that U.S. measures will not alter the ruling Awami League’s governance or reduce corruption.