Tuesday, February 22, 2005

ASSESSMENT: Nepal - The Calculus of Failure

The current crisis in Nepal, consequently, is progressively transforming itself into a test of India's sagacity and management capacities. It is increasingly evident that both the US and UK have substantially accepted the idea of Indian primacy in resolving the Nepal imbroglio, and India's long-term ambitions for 'great power' status in the region would certainly and substantially be assessed in terms of its immediate capacities to deal effectively with the present crisis.

The Calculus of Failure
Ajai Sahni


Nobody appears to have a plan for Nepal, except, perhaps, the Maoists. Three weeks after the King's reckless takeover, the inertial drift, both within the country and in the foreign policies of the major powers that had earlier been supporting Kathmandu in its war against the Maoists, appears to be deepening. India, the US and UK have been making ineffective calls for the 'restoration of democracy', and the flow of military aid has been presently checked - but given the volumes of weaponry already transferred to the Royal Nepalese Army (RNA), this is not a source for an immediate crisis. While there had been some speculation of the possibility of an Indian blockade on Nepal - reminiscent of events in 1989, which forced the then King Birendra to accept a Constitutional Democracy - this option has not been exercised. Moreover, the general indefinite shutdown and blockade announced by the Maoists has not been total and, crucially, at least one route for the flow of goods and traffic from India to Kathmandu has been kept open, albeit under massive military protection, and with repeated disruptions as a result of the mining of roads and attacks on escorted convoys. Nevertheless, the supply lifeline to Kathmandu - though somewhat diminished - has been kept open, and no crisis in essential goods appears imminent in the capital city.

At the same time, there is evidence of some military operations across wide areas of the country. Though information flows are, under the present regime of extreme censorship, at best fitful, reports suggest that military operations of varying intensity have been carried out by the RNA against the Maoists in at least 30 of the country's 75 districts, since the February 1 'Royal coup'. RNA operations appear to have concentrated particularly in the Far West districts of Baitadi, Achham and Dailekh, and in the Eastern Region districts of Sankhuwasabha and Morang. Maoist operations have been registered in at least 14 districts over the same period. Total reported fatalities stood at 117, including 93 'Maoists', 15 security forces personnel and nine civilians (to reiterate, these would probably be partial figures, and several reports suggest fatalities, particularly 'Maoist' fatalities, but do not give any numbers). In at least one case, the RNA is reported to have used helicopter gunships to strafe and bomb 'Maoists' in the Dailekh district.

Though this suggests that neither party in the conflict has been altogether idle over the past three weeks, the intensity of violence is certainly far from earlier peaks, particularly in year 2002 and in the months after the breakdown of the ceasefire in August 2003, when fatalities frequently exceeded 100 to 150 a week (the month of May 2002 saw 1,023 killed). Clearly, the Maoists have not sought to engineer an immediate and massive mobilization against the new order at Kathmandu; indeed, violent Maoist activities have seen a visible dip since February 1. On the other hand, the RNA's strategy remains consistent with activities over the past months, though there has been an evident decline in scale and intensity in their case as well.

This new status quo, however, cannot last. Although decreased concerns on human rights may create a measure of state terror in wide areas, particularly in the unmonitored countryside, Kathmandu's operational capacities have been severely circumscribed as a result of massive military concentration in the Valley, at the expense of the rest of the country. Worse, a significant proportion of troops and officers have been tied down in a wide range of civilian and static duties, including 'editing' Newspapers at Kathmandu, and administering vital installations and services in the district headquarters. Further, the 44,000 strong civil Police provides little comfort within this context. With just 110 of the country's 1,135 police stations still operational, this ill-equipped and demoralized Force is just huddled in district headquarters, divesting Kathmandu of what could have been its most significant source of field intelligence. In such a situation, eventually, the widening vacuum in the countryside will create opportunities for an irreversible Maoist consolidation.

Absent a restoration, indeed, a radical enhancement, in military aid, no technical augmentation of the RNA's and the Armed Police Force's (APF) capabilities is possible. It is useful to recall, in this context, that Kathmandu had, prior to the Royal coup, been pressing India for a significant replenishment and augmentation of arms, ammunition and military equipment, including at least 5,000 machine guns, 1,000 mortars, 40 mine protection vehicles, 800 troop carrying vehicles, bulletproof jackets and headgear, night vision devices, as well as an unspecified number of Light Attack (Lancer) and Advanced Light (Cheetah) Helicopters. Military supplies were also being solicited from the US, UK and some EU countries. If military operations against the Maoists are to be sustained, this weapons wish-list cannot remain in indefinite abeyance.

That puts the ball squarely in the court of the coalition that had, till February 1, been supporting Kathmandu's efforts. India, the US and UK have, till now, exerted qualified pressure on the King, and restoring military aid would be morally and politically indefensible, and would fuel a widespread and increasingly indiscriminate military campaign across the country. Crucially, such support would be largely infructuous, and, given the configuration of military Forces and the political and administrative vacuum in the country, the strategy of military repression is destined to failure.

The current crisis in Nepal, consequently, is progressively transforming itself into a test of India's sagacity and management capacities. It is increasingly evident that both the US and UK have substantially accepted the idea of Indian primacy in resolving the Nepal imbroglio, and India's long-term ambitions for 'great power' status in the region would certainly and substantially be assessed in terms of its immediate capacities to deal effectively with the present crisis.

The dilemma for India (as well as the other external actors who have supported Kathmandu in the past) is the choice between regime stability and state stability in Nepal. The fact is that all the players in the region are currently guilty of the cardinal error of confusing regime stability with state and regional stability. The fact, however, is that regime stability is currently in direct conflict with the long term prospects of state and regional stability, and the King's actions, as well as any international support to the new regime, will only entrench the dynamic that is undermining Kathmandu's capacities to survive the Maoist onslaught. By supporting the King, an apparent stability would no doubt be secured in the short run; but such stability would reinforce the very dynamic that has progressively undermined the political capacities of the state, and that will eventually and necessarily lead to state collapse and the capture of Kathmandu by the Maoists. On the other hand, efforts to secure a more stable future for the state would run up against the King's personal ambitions, the disarray among the Constitutional parties, potential mischief by spoilers (China and Pakistan are India's favourite bogeymen) and the possibility that the pressure that would need to be exerted to secure a breakthrough (essentially, a complete blockade of Kathmandu) may, in fact, create the temporary conditions that could facilitate a Maoist takeover.

The one thing that emerges clearly through all this is that restoring support to the King would condemn Nepal to protracted chaos and an almost certain Maoist takeover. Clear and determined action to install a working democracy - this time around, with the RNA under civilian control -, and to slowly and painstakingly engineer the recovery of widening regions to civil governance, is now the only, albeit uncertain, alternative that could possibly help restore the integrity and stability of the state structure in the country. This would, as many have often and effortlessly argued, be enormously difficult. But 'easy' has not been an option in Nepal for a long time now.