Pilkhana: Armchair Hostage Rescue

Mashuqur Rahman

Mashuqur Rahman

The above is a Google Earth image of the sprawling BDR headquarters at Pilkhana in Dhaka [click the image for a larger image]. Pilkhana is a sprawling compound surrounded by densely populated neighborhoods of Dhaka. Take a moment and ponder the size of the BDR compound.

After a 33 hour standoff with the government, the so-called BDR mutiny came to an end earlier this week. During the standoff, according to newly lowered estimates from the Bangladesh army, at least 59 army officers were killed by those inside the BDR compound. It is estimated that about 4000 heavily armed BDR soldiers were inside the compound holding, it was assumed, around 160 hostages. It is not known exactly when the army officers were killed, but reports from surviving officers suggest that they were killed within the first hour of the BDR soldiers’ rebellion.

The government, seeking to avoid massive bloodshed in the middle of Dhaka city, chose to hold talks with the BDR soldiers inside the compound. This led ultimately to the release of the remaining hostages and the end of the standoff after 33 hours.

Now, however, it is being argued by many in Bangladesh, within and outside the military, that the government should have allowed the army to launch an assault on the BDR headquarters. It is being argued that such an assault may have saved the lives of the army officers who were killed. Apparently, the government’s failure to order an assault caused the deaths of the army officers.

I am no expert in hostage rescue, but it seems to me that an assault with 10 or 12 tanks of the army, APCs, anti-aircraft weapons (!), and other assembled weapons of war against a heavily armed force of 4000 holding up to 160 hostages in a sprawling compound (in the middle of a densely populated city) would be neither quick nor easy. It seems to me that such an assault would have been a mass casualty event. I would think an assault on such a large target without knowing where the hostages were or what their condition was would require a great deal of planning – planning that would not be measured in minutes, but in hours and perhaps days. As a reference, one can look at the many long hours it took Indian army commandos to flush out only a handful of lightly armed terrorists from three buildings, an area of operations that is dwarfed by the BDR headquarters (and its many buildings). These things are only quick within the span of a 2 hour movie. In real life, it takes a little longer.

So, take a look at the image at the top of this post again. Does it look like an easy take down?

Mashuqur Rahman [http://www.docstrangelove.com] is one of the highest read Bangladeshi-American bloggers. Critically acclaimed for his incisive analysis on Bangladesh, US foreign policy and dedicated advocacy of human rights.


21 Responses to “Pilkhana: Armchair Hostage Rescue”

  1. Mohammad Iqbal

    So you mean to say the best thing to do was to cut a deal with those criminals and let them commit their crime and be allowed to escape. And probably it did not matter if it took them 34 hours or64 hours to fulfill their dirty mission. Unconditional amenesty sortof, with no time line was was win-win for the rebels.
    It is hard to believe that Bangladesh army do not have the skills or technical knowledge to over power the rebels witin shortest possible time with minimum loss of lives in any situation. For God sake this supposed to be their job!. Sure some army would have to lay down their lives. But then we want them to die for a great cause instead of being butchered by those criminals.

  2. Engr Khondkar Abdus Saleque( Sufi)

    Very intelligent assessment of situation.Who oes not know that million peole live around Peelkhana could be directlyimpacted by confrontation of heavily armed desperate mutineers an Army assault force.40officers rescued, almost all innocent BDR jawans including rebels and thousnads of civilians could be killed. It is definitely sa that 60talented officers we lost .But now the facts emmerging, most of them were killed within first hour of the incident.
    Military operation coul have killed the mutineers alright but we might have lost the opprtunity to catch them alive andd dig into the conspiracy behind this henious act.DAD Towhid and others now arrested has given us opportunity to find out who were behind the blue print.
    We must wait an see how Government handles the situation. But all must remain vigilent.The conspirators may cause crisis anywhere anytime.

  3. Engr Khondkar Abdus Saleque( Sufi)

    Ignore ommission of D in some words .It does not often print in my PC.

  4. IMRAN - Washington

    I think Hasina made a very intelligent move thus avoiding serious and ADDITIONAL civilian casualties. I also believe that it was stupid of Sahara Khatun to have had herself as the chief of the investigation committee. The majority of the officers were killed within about an hour/hour and a half of the so-called mutiny.
    Now I believe elements of the conspirators are still active in the cantonments, trying to raise confusions and doubts to further destabilise our country. We should exercise patience and let the investigations proceed. At the same time, the government should not act in any way that would raise doubt about the ongoing probes. That is exactly what the anti-Bangladesh elements still trying to make this latest conspiracy a success is looking forward to. This is a time for all Bangladeshis to hold firm together and make way for the truth to come out.
    My condolence for the bereaved families. We have lost too many good officers.

  5. Between The Devil and the Deep Sea

    Iqbal , who are the criminals ? and what do you mean by deal? I don’t know about the capability of Bangladesh army and all but It is obvious that you are depending on too much hypothesis and assumption.
    Do you feel Bangladesh Army is a James Bond or some thing?

    Do you have any idea if any operation is going on pilkhana how many civilians do have risk besides this area?

    what about those BDRS who were not involved in so called mutiny? Do you feel If they are attacked by army they will not try to protect themselves. Don’t forget Both BDR and Army are trained force and if they face each other there was the chance of massive blood shed.

    Basically some of you people thought there is no value of Civilian’s life. you people thought we Civilians are just animals.

    For your kind informations we Civilians are even more sad than you guys to loose some brilliant officers.

    But I am sorry to say some indications of last few days indicate that some military and so called Elite people are crazy to establish justification of more blood shed. who cares we civilians are died.

    Basically It is ill motive to divert the war criminal issue in other site.

    So stop all those Blanket comments.

  6. Engr Khondkar Abdus Saleque

    Yes Mr Imran. Home Minister should never have been made Chief of the Committee. BDR is under Home Ministry. BDR week was a home minstry affair also.The failure of BDR’s own intelligence unit to police what its personnel was doing over the last few days is one of the major lapse. We can give her sometime to get into thick of things. But she should never have been made chief of investigation team.
    Leader of the opposition has asked for resignation of Home Minister .Why? Is she responsible for it? Did She ask Lutfuzzaman Bbar to resign after 21 St Ausgust Carnage of countrywide simultaneous Grenade explosion by HUJI/JMB?
    We should keep patience till two inquiry committee completes works and submits report/.It is good that press is kept informed. It is question now when DAD Towhid was actually arrested?

  7. Swapan-Canada

    I do not agree with above assessment. Only few hundred mutineers were active there. Many neutral/innocent BDR jawans was there who was under pressure to support mutineers as there was no other choice available to them. They would have taken the side of Army if were instructed to do so, in case there was an attempt to storm the BDR headquarter.

    DO NOT FORGET one thing. The mutineers were morally down. They could easily be defeated.

  8. adnan

    Just copy-pasting a relevant part of my email on the topic.

    The history of military strike force is full of failures, be it the Iran contra crisis or the Moscow hostage situation. In case of Iran Contra crisis, A US military strike force failed to free 52 hostages held by 500 students (yes, students) in an embassy. The operation(called ‘Eagle Claw’) was marked a failure.
    Now compare an Embassy with the whole Pilkhana, 500 students for 500 heavily armed paramilitary goons and 14,000 confused armed paramilitary men, 52 hostages for 200 hostages scattered around whole Pilkhana.

  9. kamal

    Let celebrate for hasina’s success!

    1st, Intelligence fails, so chief of DGFI must be resign… but Hasina keeps him at office as before. (really good job done by hasina)

    2nd, BDR soldiers revolt and capture arms store room means shara khatun fails. but Hasina keeps him at office as before. (really good job done by hasina)

    3rd, DG shakil and other got time to call PM and army chief and others, means at that time rebels were not so disorganized (if they are organized they will not allow them to call)

    4th, its not a political crisis to resolve. So there is no way to waste the time, see, Army took the position but did not get permission from PM. then Gen moyeen has no option to disobey the PM order except to resign immediately. but Moyeen did not do that!

    5th: what Moyeen said to PM must be investigated. and proper investigation Moyeen should resign from his post!

    6th: How/Why PM offer amnesty while army officers and their families are hostage! The gross failure of PM. She fails to save the lives including the army officers (its not a zoke at all)

    7th: Not only that PM should tell the name of people whose she taked during the crisis time (25 to 26th Feb)

    8th: its a national crisis, PM should call for a multi party discussion. Why she did not call that, does she think, she is a GOD, everybody will follow her without any arguments.

    9th. why foreign media, specially Indian media got the precisely information from Bangladesh, and used those information to agitate the Bangladeshi citizen.

    10th. Its not a zoke, or its not a BNP & AL political game to blame each other to divert the issue. Its not a time to blame each other by using their past misdeeds or corruption. Its a time to SAVE Bangladesh.

    11th: by using help, foreign countries like to send peace force in Bangladesh, to proof a fail state.

    12th: so raise your hand, say we like to SAVE Bangladesh, and we want neutral investigation. and for neutral investigation, present PM must resign, and another AL MP can hold the PM position, to continue the parliament and Govt.

  10. IMRAN-Washington

    There are so many rumors floating around. Hard to keep track. Rumors & assumptions abound.

    I got to listen to some of the audio of Hasina’s interaction with the junior army officers after the incident. I commend Hasina for having the courage to attend this gathering and I also commend the officers for expressing their grievences not only regarding the handling of this sad incident(many of them based on rumors), moreover their attempt to bring about the reality of the politicization of the Services by both the major political parties. I believe that the junior officers are unhappy with the way politics has invaded their profession and they did a good job of bringing this to the notice of our current prime minister. I also believe that the top brass, at least, in thinking, is not in cohesion with its junior partners. I detected such a “distance” in the exchange with the PM at Senakunja the other day. I hope our politicians & the top brass of the Services will take note of this feeling in the near future and start acting accordingly to rectify the situation. The Services should be left out of political influence.

    One more item of confusion in me. Is it possible that this sad incident at BDR was conspired by some of the very corrupt elements in the army who has been very active during the last two years in corruption & other mischievious acts that the politicians & the general public has been talking about, both inside & outside of parliament lately? Could it be an attempt to divert and/or thwart attempts to derail uncovering of their sins & an ensuing attempt to clean up such mess? The probes should look into such possibility too, just to be sure; otherwise, if it is, what I am assuming, then such corrupts will slip through and rejoice at their success and the blood spilled by our decent army officers on the 25th of March, 2009, will be in vain.

    Just a thought.

  11. IMRAN-Washington

    Correction: Date should read, “25th of February, 2009.” Not 25th of March, 2009.

  12. Bereaved

    There is a time for war and a time for negotiations. This was no time for negotiations. The PM talked with Late Gen.Shakil himself at the early stages of the confilict and understood what he asked from the PM. There was a 30 minute window there before the senior officers were marched out from the back of the stage in a single line to be killed.

    By many accounts, there were only a core group of criminals among this BDR men who were the killers and organizers. If the army were to storm in and send commandos, these ragtag BDR men would have fled or surrendered and the Army would have been left to fight it out with this core gang of criminals.
    According to a surviving officer, most officers were killed by noon but the government had plenty of time before that to act.
    According to a captive in the quarter guard room who lost her husband — a lot of these core criminals had long orange beard and spoke in a funny accent and tended to use words like ‘Aurat’.
    I will let you make your own conclusions.

  13. Harun

    If one takes a look at the post-carnage behaviour of the criminal BDR crooks you will see that the first one to be apprehended was from Bogra. Only a born killer can loot booties, go home and then slip back in cold blood to the barracks.

    It was well-known during BNP-Jamaat alliance period that ‘cadre-ization’ of all branches of the government was done shamelessly and even ‘purchaseable’.

    Criminals like Tareq and Babar may have infiltrated the supposedly most secure institutes with fugitive murderers, arsonists, rapists and killers of the worst kind.

    I cannot imagine in my wildest dreams that soldiers of a disciplined force can perpetrate such inhumane immoral acts. I still cannot believe what has happened.

    THE GOVERNMENT SHOULD IMMEDIATELY TAKE A DEEPER LOOK INTO THE ENTIRE RECRUITING PROCESS of law enforcing agencies FOR THE LAST 5 YEARS TO GET A BACKGROUND CHECK ON THE ANIMALS WHO SLAUGHTERED SO MANY OF OUR OFFICERS AND GENLEMEN.

  14. Shahriar Javed

    The following is an excerpt from a book on Sierra Leone, a country where our soldiers are tirelessly working to give that civil war-torn country a national identity:

    Democracy by force: does it work?

    Although democracy, the rule of law and respect for fundamental human rights are the defining idioms of contemporary state governance and international relations, they are hardly commonplace in Africa.

    In domestic environments severely degraded by abuse of power and rebellion, what kind of existence do African leaders give to their people? Can they proclaim rights for their citizens in international instruments but behave in ways that are diametrically opposite? What future has democracy when the last election was a rogue one and the incumbent regime the beneficiary? Sierra Leone, whose civil conflict enters its tenth year in March 2001, carries the unenviable status of playing host to the world’s largest peacekeeping force. Yet there is still no lasting peace in a conflict that has determined not so much who is right or wrong as who is left.

    How tragic that our troops who have been hailed there fell prey to the spray of bullets by our own treacherous traitors!

  15. Shahriar Javed

    There is no peace to keep,” said the blue-helmeted soldier. Such has been the experience of the United Nations in its nearly 40-year-long effort to find the way to peace. Was Mahatma Gandhi right when he declared that there is no way to peace but that peace is the way?

    We live in a world where no one—neither the one remaining superpower, nor the weakest of peoples—lives in security. “There is no peace to keep”—indeed! The person capable of peace has been replaced by the armed person. The manufacture and sales of arms confirm this as do the many thousands of people who die every day as a result of armed conflicts and their legacies.

  16. Bereaved

    @Shahriar

    Inaction in the form of not sending force to defend the trapped army officers inside the BDR compound was an act of cowardice on the part of the PM and the decision makers. Gandhi said “Where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence.”
    This was cowardice and capitulation of the highest level by the government. I do not have a conspiracy theory of Hasina being involved behind this plot, nor am I a fan of BNP – but this government failed miserably and trying to justify government’s action won’t fly.

  17. Anonymous Greek Philosopher Aesop

    I bumped into the following great piece of writing while surfng the net.

    I want the honourable PM Sheikh Hasina, her cabinet, and all our military officers to read it and reflect on its contents. I am not only impressed by the political acumen and decision-making maturity shown by the PM but also stunned by the army’s disciplined calm and restrained response to the tragic chain of events on that fateul day.

    There’s one question that I want to throw at the Banladesh Army. It has haunted me ever since February 25.

    WHY WAS THE SECURITY OF THE ARMY OFFICERS WHO NUMBERED PERHAPS IN THOUSANDS OR LESS WERE LEFT TO A OVER 50,000 PARAMILITARY BORDER FORCE?

    SECOND, WHY WAS PEELKHANA NOT A WELL PROTECTED FORTRESS WITH 20-METRE TALL WALLS? THE EVENT EXPOSED BY THE MEDIA TO THE NATION THAT HOW POROUS THE TERRITORY OF PEELKHANA WAS? I AM SURE PEOPLE FROM OUTSIDE REGULALY GOT INTO THE COMPLEX WITHOUT ANY KNOWLEDGE OF THE ARMY OFFICERS.

    The writing by the anonymous Greek philosopher goes like this:

    THE COMPLEX AND SOMEWHAT ill-defined relationship between the military establishment and constitutional government is a subject that has made many Americans uncomfortable, especially in the modern era when the United States has assumed a leadership role in world affairs. American Cold War era culture, after all, cautioned us about the intrinsic anti-democratic nature of top-ranking military officers, whether in cinematic portrayals like Seven Days in May or Doctor Strangelove or the very real inflammatory politicking of retired generals like Douglas MacArthur, Curtis LeMay, or Edwin Walker.

    In reaction to these Cold War and Vietnam-era fears, scholars such as Samuel P. Huntington (The Soldier and the State) and, more recently, Eliot Cohen (Supreme Command) have written insightfully about the proper relationship between civilian and military authorities in a constitutional democracy like ours. These scholars generally agree that the delicate balance was sometimes upset in our past wars when politicians did not have much knowledge about military affairs. Sometimes, out of insecurity, they blustered and bullied officers, or at other times, in recognition of their own ignorance, civilian leaders ceded too much control to the Pentagon.

    Under the Clinton administration it was felt that an increasingly alienated military exercised too much autonomy, whether in lecturing civilian authorities that gays simply would not work as fully accepted members of the armed forces or in voicing strong initial opposition to the prospect of humanitarian intervention in the Balkans. Militaries for their part understand that during “peace-keeping” exercises the rules of engagement change, the cameras intrude, and they are asked to assume civilian roles where their target profile increases, while their ability to fight back without restrictions is checked.

    During the current Bush presidency, by contrast, the charge was often just the opposite: a compliant Pentagon had been bullied by its civilian overseers into keeping quiet about doubts over the feasibility of neoconservative nation-building. In fact, in 2006 we witnessed a “revolt of the generals” against civilian leadership of the Pentagon. Top brass came forward out of recent retirement to lambaste Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld over the entire civilian conduct of the war in Iraq. They complained that there had been too much micromanagement of the war, too many policy demands placed on a military that was stretched too thin to carry such burdens, and too much utopian ideology guiding the conduct of the war at the expense of realistic judgments of what in fact was possible.

    This insurrection of top retired officers was not quite unprecedented, except in the left’s sudden muted silence in response to this rare emergence of like-minded critics of the policy in Iraq. Instead, it was more reminiscent of an earlier “revolt of the admirals” in 1949-50. At that time, in the early years of the Cold War, threatened postwar cutbacks in naval operations led to a similar expression of public outrage by admirals against their civilian overseers. The controversy brought down Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson and led to firings and resignations of top military officers.

    Why do democratic societies perennially worry about their own military’s periodic objections to civilian oversight and larger liberal values? Why, often in response, do military leaders conclude that they are either misunderstood or manipulated by civilian authorities whom they regard as naive or ignorant about military affairs?

    IT IS A FACT WORTH REMEMBERING that the armed forces are inherently hierarchical organizations based on rank and the chain of command. There is no opportunity in military units for decision by majority vote when war begins. Once bullets fly, soldiers can ill afford to debate the wisdom of assaulting the next hill. They cannot worry about the “fairness” of a brilliant glib private having no influence in the decisions taken by an obtuse or blockheaded commanding officer.

    Impatience, resolve, audacity — these necessary military traits are not necessarily those that democratic legislators and bureaucrats prize. Most politicians loathe a loud-mouthed George S. Patton in peacetime as much as they hunt out his swashbuckling style in time of war.

    Sometimes the voting public suspects that professional soldiers like violence and killing, or at least far more than civilians do. And supposed sheep always worry about giving orders to hungry wolves. One needs only to read the sad letters of poor Cicero to see how in his arrogance he fatally misjudged entirely the military minds of an Augustus or Antony. Civilian overseers in France and later in Germany sought to solve emerging problems by dispatching Napoleon to Egypt or by throwing Hitler in jail but found that in the end these steps were but the beginning and not the end of their troubles. They had fatally misjudged these “troublemakers.”

    Then there is the ever-present fear of militarism — that is, the fear of the cult of arms that transcends the battlefield and becomes an ideology that celebrates power, rigid discipline, fanatical devotion to a cause. Indeed, this exaggerated dimension of military life often draws the most zealous and dangerous of characters into its orbit. These can be truly scary folks, these Spartan krypteia, the Praetorian guards, or Hitler’s SS. Such groups in the past have often interfered with or intervened in politics under the posture of being models of rigorous asceticism for the nation.

    Anti-constitutional military coups, and not the idealistic promotion of democracy and liberal values, thus seem the more logical vice of military figures when they intrude into politics. History in some sense is the record of supposedly sober soldiers intervening in times of perceived social chaos to bring society a needed dose of their own order and obedience.

    That was the rationale in 44 B.C. when Caesar crossed the Rubicon and put a formal end to the Roman Republic, Napoleon dismissed the Directorate, Hitler ended the Weimar Republic, and the 20th-century Latin America caudillos, Greek colonels, and Middle Eastern Baathist and Nasserite officers staged their various coups. Communist dictators in the Soviet Union and China inserted their own commissars into their militaries to ensure that they were perpetual advocates for Communist ideology and indoctrination, at home and abroad.

  18. Rebuttal

    Whoever managed the chaos did a marvellous job.

    You never send in troops to a densely populated area around a well-armed fortress. The civilians would have been sitting ducks. In the first place, military installations should never be inside a city. Accidents can easily wreak havoc for the civilian population.No civilized nation would have done it. Only jackass blocheaded dictators who grab power through the barrel of gun would have dared to do it. The price would have been its own downfall.

    From what I have gathered the Bangladesh army is a D or E grade combat ready army for modern warfare. Besides it hardly has any special forces or commando units like the ones we have here in the US. It has no war experience since 1971 and instead has been too busy on meddling in politics.If you look at Bangladesh’s history the army had been the one and only source and cause of brutal murders of both civilians and soldiers and long-drawn internal rivalry within itself for lust of unconstitutional power.

    Consequently, the country continues to be a man-made poor state although it has enormous natural resources waiting to be exploited.

    Very specialized units like the 101 Airborne Division, the SEALS or Marines may have been an option but nevertheless it too would have suffered major casualties since several thousand troops in a mutinious mood were within the premises.

  19. Jedi

    This seems to be more a revenge on the army for 1975. What is sad is that the chief of army let a number of his officers be slaughtered to appease the blood thirst of a vengefull tyrant & made sure that the butchers have enough time to carry it out as per her directions with impunity and also have safe passage out. Afterwards the media is bending over backwards praising the great leader for her handling of her project. Now we have BDR witnessess dying of suicide & cardaic arrest (occupational hazard?). The army is being restructured to suit her whims & break its backbone so it can never rise up in defence of the nation against its feudal overlord, or domineering neighbor. Previously the army was the only check & balance when our feudal overlords went overboard & stepped in just before the nation was sent over the edge by their corruption, greed & lust. I m not in the army neither is my dad, just a concerned citizen who does not serve either of the political overladies & wish to make a honest living. There is no hope for the country solong as they get their way & treat the country as their personal inheritance. Read between the censorship & propaganda & brainwashing my friends.

  20. ET-begood

    The incident has been brilliantly managed by the democratic government. We will also get to know the facts. The killers are feeling threatened as they cannot spoil evidences, distort truth and cheat the people.

    Everyday we get to hear hidden facts surfacing and criminals and crooks exposed at the parliament. Accountability and transparency are the innate strength of democracy. Our journey has just begun and it is bound to be bumpy and a roller-coaster ride at the outset through conspiracies and hindrances to be created by the defeated forces of 1971. But I am hopeful of democracy getting a permanent foothold.

    Democracy is a time-tested system of governance. That delvers for the people. All other systems stagnate over time and leads to public distrust and outrage with its ultimate overthrow.

  21. Reza Shah

    Can someone post the google earth images of the official residences occupied and rented out to a MNC by Khaleda Zia and her family? What is the extravagant largesse Mrs Zia is profiting from in a a country where most people are poor.

    I am very much interested to know the expenses incurred by the government and the rent collected by Khaleda Zia from the Gulshan Avenue residence since she took possession of bothhe houses.

    Please post all the facts.

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