Nepal finds itself at a turning point in its counterinsurgency, launched in earnest only with the November
2001 commitment of the Royal Nepalese Army (RNA) to the fray. Two-plus years have brought substantial progress
in one sense, substantial deterioration in another. The result is that a resolution remains far off, even as
the political situation continues to decline.
Politically, it would be difficult to imagine a more complex situation. A three-cornered struggle has resulted in deepening chaos and a widespread feeling of despair.
Ousted from power by the intercession of the King in October 2002, the major political parties have gradually committed their time and energy to their present posture, determined to provoke a confrontation with the Palace. Their own role in creating the circumstances which led to the summary dismissal plays little role in their reflections or calculations, and their current course revolves around a 'stir' that daily fills the streets with 'student demonstrations' equally set on a confrontation with the authorities.
For their part, the security forces, after tolerating the street action for some months, have apparently wearied of it now that violence (principally damage to private property) and anti-monarchy utterances (to include questioning the 'future' of the monarchy) have become central pillars of the campaign. From an impressive reliance on crowd control techniques that featured minimum repression, the police have recently begun to apply the lathi (baton) with regularity.
Waiting in the wings, of course, is the RNA, the ultimate guarantor of law and order. Thus far, it has merely observed the situation but will undoubtedly intervene if the monarchy is perceived as being directly threatened.
The threat of backing a 'republic' is seen by the political parties as their trump card, with the use of the term a surrogate for relegating the King to the status of non-player in national politics, either as a constitutional monarch or, through abolition of the institution altogether, as a private citizen. The parties themselves, due to their reliance on democratic centralism in their inner workings, are profoundly undemocratic and have a conception of 'democracy' that is but a facade for oligarchy - even claiming the right of their central organs to direct Government actions once a party is in power. Nevertheless, they have become increasingly drawn into a campaign against 'regression,' by which they mean the slide back into direct rule by the Palace.
Much that passes for political discussion in Kathmandu is, consequently, speculation concerning the motives of the monarch. His thoughts have recently been bared in a much-discussed interview with TIME magazine, where he made clear that he would not be a figurehead and would do all he could, in the absence of leadership from the parties, to return the country to a state where parliamentary elections can be held. The parties distrust his motives, and this spills out in public invective that is unlikely to bring compromise any closer. For his part, the King holds his public consul but is known privately to have been appalled at the personalities he finds leading the country deeper into the morass.
That the King, as reported in the Nepali press, stepped in only after no party proved capable of forming a Government - or willing, in at least one case, to try - has been forgotten as the blush has gone off what initially was a popular royal naming of minority party figures to carry out administration. The demand from the parties remains for 'new elections,' which most sources feel cannot be fairly held without the restoration of minimal order. That, though, is where the King came in.
On the ground, the insurgency is at a stalemate of sorts, neither able to go forward nor being knocked backwards, except in local instances. To be sure, the security forces have made dramatic strides, both in institutional and operational terms. The RNA, which was essentially a force committed to service as United Nations gendarmes, has become a more cohesive, functioning body capable of power projection. The Armed Police Force (APF), from its shaky beginning, has quickly gelled into a reasonable facsimile of India's Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF). Finally, the Civil Police (CP), from a posture where they were little more than (largely) unarmed sitting ducks have become more capable, not only of survival, but of carrying out of their normal duties in a situation of internal war.
A 'unified command' concept has begun to take hold, built around the establishment of four RNA divisions - territorial entities - that exercise overall command and control. These answer directly to national headquarters and have deployed within them the RNA brigades and various APF and CP units. Re-equipping the entire RNA with 5.56 rifles (though the US has taken the heat by supplying the M16A2, most weapons are apparently the INSAS from India) and 5.56 light machineguns is well underway, which has allowed the SLR to be made available not only to the APF but some CP elements as well. The latter is essential, as the onset of nationwide hostilities, which came only with the November 2001 Maoist general offensive, found two-thirds of the CP unarmed and the remainder handling only the 1941, bolt-action Lee Enfield, given in India to local forces.
Situations vary in the divisional areas of operation (AO), which run from west to central to east, with Kathmandu its own command. Recent focus on the situation in the Eastern Division, for instance, has seen substantial strides. In addition to the normal efforts to dominate the ground by establishing a grid and then engaging in coordinated, continuous patrolling (with battalions and companies as the C2 elements), preliminary efforts were made to stand up a local defence capacity. These were stillborn when international pressure by NGOs in Kathmandu resulted in orders to back off, but the concept was both appropriate and implemented in a viable manner.
Specifically, three instances of spontaneous local resistance to the Maoists were quickly reinforced by provision of training and some light arms (12-bores). Ex-RNA personnel were prominent in the militia thus constituted, and each was linked to a nearby RNA platoon that exercised C2 authority.
That such action should prove controversial is witness to the polarization that has set in within the Kathmandu political scene, exacerbated by the involvement of international organizations determined to push 'conflict mediation' as opposed to stability operations. From an initial position that sees the present Government as illegitimate, it is but a logical step to hold that employment of force by the security forces is not only illegitimate but directed against insurgents who have won for themselves a degree of legitimacy.
This view is not merely one of ideological posturing but is built on growing concerns - voiced not only by NGOs but by foreign missions - that lack of adequate C2 at the small unit level is causing, amongst the populace, casualty figures that in areas exceed those inflicted by the insurgents in their much more focused - and savage - terror campaign. A weak Government 'information management' campaign has caused a confusing situation to spin out of control, with the result that there are grounds for concern lest friendly missions be manoeuvred into a position where continued provision of aid and assistance is no longer possible.
What is at issue is the situation in the 50 per cent of the country that has largely been given up to the insurgents by the abandonment of a police presence and the inability of the security forces to maintain more than short-term presence. The insurgents - any numbers remain just 'best guesses' - have steadily expanded from their initial strongholds in the so-called 'Red Zone' of the Mid-Western hills, especially the Kham Maggar areas along the Rukkum-Rolpa borders (both districts of some 200,000-plus people). They now have a presence nationwide, including urban centres, and make use of the normal array of 'people's war' techniques.
Their position in villages is gained through a combination of persuasion and terror, with local circumstances throwing up willing manpower, particularly among the rootless young (long identified in all studies as a future source of trouble, if not incorporated into a more inclusive 'opportunity structure,' which Nepal, as an economic appendage of India, has been unable to provide). Most of the affected populace, as peasants (statistically 80 per cent of the whole), can make its peace with whatever force holds sway in an area. It is the 10 per cent (nationally) of the population that is rural gentry who are the targets of Maoist action and terror, and who have fled in increasing numbers (joined, also in rising numbers, by members of the peasantry who see continued presence in the hills as dangerous on all counts). Misguided security force repression often targets those who are identified as having assisted the Maoists, but such assistance, widespread though it is, stems principally from simply rendering unto Caesar he who in any area is Caesar.
The magnitude of the problem of security force indiscipline remains highly controversial, with the NGOs claiming it is rampant, while others are more impressed with the strides made rather than the errors committed. C2 remains a challenge of significant dimensions in an AO so topographically rugged and diverse. The country is divided into 3,913 villages, legally incorporated as Village Development Committees, when even South Vietnam had about 2,500. Hence, each hill valley (speaking of the main zones of conflict) becomes an isolated war, with the burden placed on a young, largely untested, junior leadership. Though security forces deny the worst charges, it is clear that the 'learning curve' experienced by all other nations forced into counterinsurgency will be much more difficult in a Nepal existing in an international fishbowl.
That any response by the state must be multifaceted, to include efforts at negotiation, is a truism that founders against the inner workings of the 'people's war'. To wit, no card game can be played when one side is using a marked deck. Interviews with prisoners, including both brigade and battalion level cadres, reveals a Communist Party of Nepal - Maoist (CPN-M) plan, briefed to key personnel in advance, to use the most recent rounds of several talks (which collapsed on August 27, 2003) not for negotiation but for tactical advantage. Conflict mediation, though it does incorporate an array of 'confidence building' steps, has yet to grapple the reality of a strategy that good-faith efforts at conflict resolution as an opportunity for consolidation of tactical advantages.
That the Maoists have infiltrated the present 'stir' by the political parties is beyond question, though hotly denied by them. The real issue is the extent of such penetration. Thus far, the united front campaign has not been as robust as one would expect, but in this, too, the Maoists have been completely logical. Prisoners disclose that the party's focus remains on armed action, and resource and manpower mobilization. Dominated areas are being turned into generators of combat power, particularly through forced draft of the young. "We will turn the schools into barracks, arm the young," observed one brigade-level cadre. "This is what Mao did."
Where the campaign to ape Mao has recently faltered is in its transition from 'hill tribe revolt' to ideologically driven insurgency. Cadres remain motivated far more by opposition than commitment to the Maoist dogma of the upper leadership (dominated by the 7-8 members of the Standing Committee of the Politburo); combatants even more so. It is the latter who have increasingly begun to question precisely what they have joined, and have thus been surrendering at a higher rate than previously. Particularly disturbing to some is the apparently random nature of terror inflicted, with the settlement of local scores emerging as a driver in the quest to eliminate 'spies.' Terror actions are carried out by sections (i.e. squads) and platoons that answer directly to the district-level cadres, with the main force battalions largely unaffected; but knowledge of savagery in the villages has begun to become more widespread within the movement, and this has had an impact on some.
Such local killing highlights a key analytical point: just how much control does the leadership exercise over the movement? Indicators are that the struggle continues to assert party discipline, but that the same challenges in C2 faced by the security forces are salient with the CPN(M). What is of most concern, then, is that the lack of adequate state presence in local areas cedes authority to the insurgent counter-state, as implemented by its minimally controlled cadres. These have made the use of violence in local affairs routine and pervasive, a reality few sources lay at the feet of the old-regime, prior to the declaration of people's war.
Hence, a turning point has been reached. On the one hand, the actual insurgency has reached the limits of its organizational capacity within the environment created by security force responses. This, however, is not altogether good news, because the dynamic of violent mobilization has taken root and will be difficult to eliminate, particularly given the commitment of some international forces to the prevention of stability operations, especially those which have a local defence component. Greater discipline within the security forces and a Government possessing greater legitimacy would go a long ways in addressing the conundrum. Yet this returns analysis to our beginning: In the absence of commitment, by the political parties, to a negotiated, ordered restoration of democracy, with security systematically restored to areas, there can be little save the present drift.
Dr. Thomas Marks is Adjunct Professor, US Joint Special Operations University, Hurlburt Field, Florida and Political Risk and Personal Security Consultant. Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal