Monday, February 28, 2005

STUDY: Nepal - Civil-Military Relations and the Maoist Insurgency Part 3

Civil-Military Relations and the Maoist Insurgency in Nepal - Part 3
Prakash Nepali and Phanindra Subba
From: Small Wars and Insurgencies, Volume 16, Number 1 (March, 2005)
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Army's Response to the Insurgency
5.1 Initial Stage


Avoidance of contact with superior forces is of critical importance at the incipient stage of any insurgency because of the danger that it might be crushed even before it has managed to grow deep roots. The Maoists managed to do this by scrupulously avoiding targeting military installations and personnel. The Maoists proved themselves to be adept in the political game and gained valuable time and space as they astutely played off one political party/faction and power centres against the other by manipulating their ambitions and desire for power. Resolution of the conflict would yield political dividends and the establishment politicians tried to ensure that it took place only when they were in power. At the same time, some elements close to the palace and in the army, at least in the early days of the insurgency, had also been ambivalent about the Maoist threat and saw some benefits in the weakening of the civil government and the police force.

The civil government's attempt to project and build up the police force, the first line of internal defence, as a bulwark against the Maoists threat was natural. Because `… it has usually been the police that have borne the initial brunt of most insurgency campaigns worldwide'.[23] However, even when it had become clear that the government's initial assessment had gravely underestimated the true nature of the threat and the police were incapable of meeting the challenge, the civilian government's mistrust of the army made it reluctant to deploy it. The army had prepared and submitted a plan to the government under which the army would be deployed along with a development package at an estimated cost of Rs 6.3/6.5 million rupees.[24] The government at the time had rejected the operational plans submitted by the army on the grounds that the budget sought was too high and instead opted to continue using the police force.[25] This decision was largely motivated by the desire to maintain the leading role of civilian authorities as the Congress establishment had doubts about the army's ultimate loyalty and was reluctant to strengthen its power.

5.2 Countervailing Force

Due to the army's non-cooperative attitude, the then Home Minister, Govinda Raj Joshi, resigned after Dunai incident of 29 September 2000. In events reminiscent of the Army-Rakchhya Dal (paramilitary force) tussle of the early 1950s Joshi accused 'the army command of not providing modern arms to the police even after being paid in full'.[26] The persistence of this issue suggests that the social trend that sustained the underlying political and social tensions that lay behind such tussles had still not been fully resolved even after almost half a century had elapsed. After the Dunai incident the government gave up the belief that the Maoist movement was a law and order problem and sought to deploy the army. G. P. Koirala had headed the government five times since 1991 but had always kept the defence portfolio for himself. In a bid to tighten control over the army and prepare the ground for its mobilization Koirala for the first time appointed his confidante Mahesh Acharya as Defence Minister in his Cabinet on 2 October 2000.This gave the government the crucial majority in the National Security Council but there was no unanimity on the issue of the deployment of the army among the major parties. Furthermore, the decline in the moral authority and the public standing of the government as reflected in the results of a public opinion survey published by the Himal magazine in 2001 made the task of the administration even more difficult. While 41.32 per cent of the respondents felt that the King should be responsible for mobilizing the army only 20.7 per cent of the respondents believed that the government should have the authority to do so.[27] The history of a lack of mutual confidence between Koirala and the army high command also made the army, with the tacit backing from the monarchy, reluctant to strengthen Koirala's position. The army did not show signs of direct insubordination, but sought to evade implementing any such order given by the civilian government. The army consistently sought the declaration of the state of emergency, all party consensus and the labelling of Maoists as `terrorists' as preconditions for their involvement in the insurgency.

Partly in response to these developments, the government decided to set up an `armed police force' from scratch in the midst of growing insurgency in January 2001. However, when the budget allocations for the newly set up force and the civil police began to increase and surpass the amount allocated to the army, the perception in the military that not only was the new force being set up to combat the Maoists but also as a counterweight to it got stronger. Taking the 10-year period (1990–2000), the total police budget was increased by 800 per cent.

The police force's relationship with the army had always been uneasy. Its leadership positions had for a long time been dominated by hill-ethnic officers, who had their formative experience in the more liberal environs of British Indian Army. Many of them had been members of the Mukti Sena (Liberation Army), an armed wing of the Nepali Congress Party, that had been set up to overthrow the Rana regime in 1951.The Nepali Congress Party was suspicious of the long association the Nepalese Army had with the Ranas and once the Rana Regime collapsed the Mukti Sena was converted into the Rakchhya Dal. The establishment of a powerful parallel military type structure, commanded by ideologically motivated officer corps, alarmed the army. The army only very reluctantly provided 1,000 rifles for the newly set up force demanded by the Home Ministry under Bisheshwar Prasad (B.P.) Koirala.[29] However, after the Rakchhya Dal's failed revolt in 1952, which the army put down, it was disbanded and absorbed into the police and some sections into the Home Guard Brigade of the regular army. Although the Rakchhya Dal had a short existence, the implication of the constitution of such forces for the army's corporate interest seems to have been deeply etched in the army's institutional memory.

The political parties were more comfortable with the historical antecedents of the police force and after 1990 it quickly emerged as the favoured institution and the institutional rivalry between the army and police intensified. The army, already feeling insecure under the impact of budget freeze and the police force's attempt to improve its status vis-à-vis the army, feared the emergence of a
countervailing force similar to the Rakchhya Dal of the early 1950s under the Home Ministry. The army felt this would undermine its monopoly of coercive power and threaten its core institutional interest. There seems to be some basis for the army's suspicion. Some time before the paramilitary force was established a former Home Minister from the Nepali Congress Party had told Himal magazine that even though the Maoist movement was being portrayed as the cause for setting up of the new force, there was also another purpose, which was: `to build an alternate force to balance the military force, which leaned towards the palace due to both constitutional and practical reasons, so that it would put an end to the situation where unseen threats would keep emanating from the army. And also the government would be able to immediately deploy the paramilitary force when required'.[30] This further increased the mistrust between the government and the army. Not long after, Koirala quit the Prime Minister's post when his position became untenable after the Holeri (Rolpa District) fiasco in July 2001 made it clear that he did not have the army's support. Within the span of less than a year the military contributed to the downfall of two powerful politicians. After the Maoists attacked the army installation in Dang the army was fully deployed on 26 November 2001 under the state of emergency declared by the government of Sher Bahadur Deuba.

Configuration and Deployment of the Army

The Nepalese Army was poorly configured and deployed to face the challenge posed by the Maoists. Many kings throughout the ages had always coveted Kathmandu, the cultural, religious and economic centre of the central Himalayas. Once Prithivi Narayan Shah conquered it, he made its defence the key part of his security strategy because of the riches and legitimacy it conferred on whoever controlled it. In situating the forts, the primary concern was the protection of Valley (Kathmandu), with four of the seven forts being in the hills surrounding the valley. The other three were located in such areas that they could protect the approaches to the valley.[31] Later in successive wars with Imperial China in 1792 and British India in 1814–16, Nepal agreed to negotiate or to the terms of the treaties set by these powers only when the defences of Kathmandu were gravely threatened or about to be breached.

In the early 1980s, India began to pursue a more muscular regional foreign policy. In the book India's Northern Security (1986), Indian security experts argued that like Belgium, Nepal is unable to protect its own security and hence militarily becomes a porous frontier between India and China.[32] These trends seem to have led to a renewed emphasis on Nepal's traditional defence posture. According to knowledgeable sources after friction began to develop with India in the mid-1980s, the army, keeping in mind the possibility of an attack from the south, established the No. 6 and 7 Brigades in Baireni and Chanwon (to the west and south-east of Kathmandu in Dhading and Makwanpur districts).[33] The army was strategically oriented towards protecting Kathmandu and its best equipped and most battle ready troops such as the Special Forces Brigade were stationed within the valley. When the Maoist rebellion broke out in the rural hinterlands of the mid-hills of Mid-Western Nepal, the bulk of the army's strength (three out of the seven infantry brigades plus the Royal Guards Brigade and the Special Forces Brigade) was thus deployed in and around Kathmandu (see Figure 2). The army was thinly spread throughout the rest of the country.

Prithivi Narayan Shah had exhorted: `Do not go down to the plains to fight. Withdraw to the hills to fight'.[34] Thus `no part of the regular army is permanently stationed within the limits of the Terai'.[35] It was only after 1951 and the shelving of the isolationist policy that the army was deployed on a regular basis along key points of the newly built East-West highway. Independent
infantry companies continued to be deployed along strategic or administratively important locations. Although the army had divided the country into eight geographical regions for defensive purposes and different brigades given responsibility for it,[36] most of the units deployed outside Kathmandu were basically on garrison duty and were not very mobile and lacked adequate logistic support. They were delegated limited authority and kept on a tight leash by the army headquarters in the capital. Furthermore, the budget crunch had affected the military's training and operational readiness and even the best units were not fully equipped.

5.4 Military Doctrine and Training

Military planning and training, at least theoretically, was largely focused towards defending the country from potential foreign invasion. In the absence of a comprehensive national security doctrine, large portions of the course of study in the Royal Nepalese Army Command and Staff College established on 30 December 1990 is essentially an adaptation and synthesis of materials taught in several foreign military academies, especially of India, Pakistan and the UK. Considerable time was devoted to studying histories of large unit actions that had limited relevance to Nepalese realities. It was only after the insurgency intensified that more stress was put on learning/teaching about different aspects of insurgencies. The first division level exercise Chakrabyu held by the army at the beginning of 1998 (B.S.2054) in the West and Mid-West regions sought to test the operational readiness of a division in a counter-insurgency role.

The army then had a strength of 46,000 personnel and consisted of 1 Royal Guard Brigade, 7 infantry brigades, 44 independent infantry companies, 1 Special Force brigade, 1 artillery brigade and 1 engineering brigade. The small air force consisted of one Bae-748, 2 Skyvans and 11 helicopters (of various makes).[37] It was an army with such force structure and training that moved against the Maoists after the Dang incident. Many analysts believed that it would be a short and decisive campaign that would end within months. The influential Nepal Times in its editorial had written: `…This campaign must be brought to a swift and effective conclusion with the least amount of Nepali blood shed'.[38] But such expectations were soon belied. After the political change of 1990, the increased social and political freedom helped create rural societies that were more willing to question age-old practices and was less deferential to those in authority. Although the political parties had succeeded in weakening many of the edifices that had enabled the traditional power structure to establish social control in rural areas, especially the mystique of the monarchy, they had been largely unable to successfully take the logical next step of filling in the void with new concepts and values. Thus by the time the army was mobilized the insurgency had already gained enough strength and adherents and the balance of power in the countryside had already shifted.

5.5 Diffusion of Power

The army was perceived to be more disciplined and effective in comparison to the police before its mobilization, but later the frustration and stress of prolonged deployment began to show in its more brutal tactics. To quantify the success of its operations the military is also putting undue stress on body counts. Conventional armies are geared towards using disproportionate force and find the
concept of minimum force and the subtleties of counter-insurgency operations with its political-military dimensions hard to internalize.

This war is being fought primarily at the company and battalion level by soldiers of peasant stock, under the leadership of junior and middle-ranking officers mostly from middle-class and lower-middle class backgrounds. Unless the officers at these levels show leadership skills by instilling traits such as self-restraint, discipline and the ability to differentiate between legitimate and illegitimate military goals in the men they lead, any gains they achieve will only be fleeting. It will also have little bearing in the political arena. The Nepalese Army has relied on strict hierarchical discipline, with its excessive stress on respect for rank, to maintain order in the peacetime army. The army had essentially been geared to implement orders from the top. This has spawned a risk-averse culture, but power now is increasingly being diffused towards the younger officers and to those deployed in the field. The army is not monolithic and cannot remain totally immune from social and ethnic fault-lines affecting the society at large. What impact this has on the army as an organization will be clearer only in the future, but if the conflict becomes protracted the pressure for reforms within the institution are bound to grow.

Ethnic Makeup

The army's officer corps was dominated by Chhetris and Thakuris (including the Shahs, the ruling dynasty of Nepal) since it was created under the active military leadership of Prithivi Narayan Shah in 1762–63 as the army preferred to recruit from the Chhetri, Thakuri, Magar and Gurung communities. During the Rana period (1846–1951) only Ranas (a Chhetri clan that became the aristocracy after Jung Bahadur Rana seized power and married into the royal family) were allowed to become generals. Of the 14 generals who have occupied the post of Chief of the Army Staff of RNA since the fall of the Ranas, 11 have belonged to the Rana (nine) and Shah (Thakuri) families and three were Chhetris. Statistics are unavailable, but it is thought that even though the Chhetris continue to be the largest group among other ranks, the ethnic profile of the rank and file is becoming more
diversified.

Although the Nepalese Army, especially the officer corps, is not at present entirely representative of the country at large, its social and ethnic profile has been changing over the years. Ironically, it is in the army, the most tradition-bound among all the state institutions, that some segments of the underrepresented groups havw made the most progress. There has been a significant increase in the numbers of officers in the upper echelons of the army from hill ethnic groups. However, these officers mostly come from those groups which have had a long tradition of military service (Magar, Gurung, Rai and Limbu). The hill ethnic groups currently account for 38.10 per cent of the officers of the rank of Brigadier General and above (see Table 1 below). This level of representation is unlikely to be sustained in the future as the caste and ethnic breakdown of the officers graduating from the Royal Nepalese Army Command and Staff College shows (see Table 2 below). Nevertheless, even these changes have already brought about a subtle but significant alteration in the traditional mindset of the army by contributing to broadening its perspective. In a historically intriguing co-incidence this development, coming after a long lapse, is occurring at a time when the Nepalese Army is once more actively engaged in military operations.[39] The increasingly representative nature of the officer corps in the army is in stark contrast to the civil bureaucratic structure. In 1999, out of 721 top level (special and first class gazetted officials), 717 (99.45 per cent) were still occupied by Brahmins, Chhetris and Newars.[40] In mid-2004, 75 per cent of the special class officers (secretaries) in the civil service were Brahmins, 10.4 per cent Chhetris, 10.4 per cent Newars and 4.2 per cent of Terai origin.[41]

Table 1. Caste an ethnic breakdown of the senior officers (Generals) in the Royal Nepalese Army, March 2004

Caste/ethnic groups National % RNA%

Note: Only castes and ethnic groups above 1.5 per cent of national
population are included. Shah-Rana totals 11.1 per cent only and 17.5
per cent if other clans of Thakuris are added.
Source: Jana Aastha National Weekly, 13 August 2003; Ekaishaun
Shatabdi (fortnightly), 7 September 2003, and various other sources.

1. Chhetri (including Ranas) 15.80 38.10
2. Brahmin (Hill) 12.74 7.90
3. Magar (Hill Ethnic) 7.14 7.90
4. Tharu (Terai ethnic) 6.75 0.00
5. Tamang (Hill Ethnic) 5.64 1.60
6. Newar 5.48 6.30
7. Muslim 4.27
8. Kami (Dalit caste) 3.94
9. Yadav (Terai caste) 3.94
10. Rai (Hill Ethnic) 2.79 3.20
11. Gurung (Hill Ethnic) 2.39 15.90
12. Damai/Dholi (Dalit caste) 1.72
13. Limbu (Hill Ethnic) 1.58 9.50
14. Thakuri 1.47 9.50

Table 2. Caste and ethnic breakdown of the officers (graduates of RNA Command & Staff College) 1994–2004

Caste/ethnic group National pop. % RNA CSC %
Source: Shivapuri, annual journal of RNA Command & Staff College
(1994–2004), RNA Command & Staff College, Tokha, Kathmandu.
Chhetri (including Ranas) 15.8 54.13
Brahmin (Hill) 12.74 19.80
Thakuri 1.47 8.91
Gurung 2.39 5.28
Newar 5.48 5.28
Magar 7.14 3.63
Limbu 1.58 1.32
Tamang 5.64 0.99
Rajbanshi (Terai Ethnic) 0.42 0.33
Sunuwar (Hill Ethnic) 0.42 0.33
Total (Batch 1–11) 52.80 100.00

The army has received criticism from the regionally based Nepal Sadbhavana Party on the grounds that there is lack of adequate representation of Terai people in the military (Terai – plains in Southern Nepal that form the border with India). This is due to the legacy of the past. Although recruitment to the Nepalese Army has been opened to all ethnic groups with the end of the Rana regime, there was lingering prejudice against people from `non-martial groups'. In an insurgency an unrepresentative army will have operational (particularly intelligence) as well as political implications because underrepresented ethnic groups might come to see the army as basically a foreign force. There is no system of reservation in the army but the increase in the intake of officer cadets and soldiers in the rapidly expanding army can help widen the recruitment base of the army and accelerate the ongoing process of change in its class structure and ethnic composition. Many of the old practices and customs are in discordance with a more educated and sophisticated army. These challenges will require the army to overcome its traditional conservatism and undertake a shift from its peacetime practices and military culture.

5.7 Counter-ideology

In the words of Samuel Huntington `Objective' control is exercised by legitimate civilian elite, which respects and encourages the difference between it and the military professionals. While `subjective control' is brought about through the merger of civilian and military values: the armed forces are controlled because they share dominant civilian values and their distinctiveness is blurred.42 The Nepalese Army's basic credo has historically been based on loyalty to the king and country, and the defence of a political system was not part of its core mission. Although army officers have recently sought to portray the army's fight against the Maoists as a fight to defend the democratic way of life, adherence to the principle of an apolitical army inhibits the indoctrination of the army in counter-ideology. But in a protracted insurgency, besides material resources, psychological commitment becomes very important. Armies patterned on the British model have not relied on ideological commitment but on discipline, tradition, unit pride, honour and cohesion to motivate their troops to accept sacrifices in the battlefield. This requires paying adequate attention to the welfare of the troops in the field and in making promotions, postings and financial transactions scrupulously fair and transparent to prevent the build-up of resentment and frustration among the troops. It still remains to be seen how the high command of the army, who were socialized during a different era and have different life experiences and perceptions than the young men they lead, face up to these challenges.[43] The internal cohesion, discipline and the morale of the army will depend on their response.

5.8 Divergence of Interest

In what ways the changing character of the officer corps will impact on the orientation of the army in terms of its relationship with the monarchy and the wider society remains to be seen. It should be mentioned here that John J. Johnson and other modernists had high hopes for the rise of the middle class in Latin American and the military's middle-class recruitment base. They assumed that the rise of the middle-class officers in Latin American Armed Forces could contribute to the democratization of these countries' civil-military relations.[44] However, this might not always be the case in all Third World countries. In the past the army, by the very nature of its work (the army was kept busy in ceremonial duties and training and unlike the police did not have deal with the people on a day-to-day basis) and as a matter of policy did not have much interaction with the local people. Prolonged deployment in counter-insurgency duties, however, could lead to creeping politicization of the army as it comes into close contact with the political and socio-economic realities of the country. Some in the army already feel alienated, as they believe that they are being made to bear the brunt of troubles contrived by others. The Chief of the Army Staff, in a highly unusual address in the RNA Command and Staff College on 27 March 2002, made pointed references to the lack of effective governance and implicitly laid the blame on the political forces for the emergence of the Maoist crisis. He rhetorically asked, `Who is responsible for the present state of the country? Was it mal-governance (kushasan) or was it the army? How just is it to burden the army with this difficult situation created for political reasons?' [45] The speech brought to the surface the underlying tensions as the army does not usually comment on political issues. It was a clear intrusion into the civilian sphere of policy-making and a challenge to their authority but only drew a mild reprimand (`caution') from the government.

In times of trouble, a country's military needs widespread popular support to accomplish its mission.[46] Countries all over the world seek to compensate for the occupational hazards of military life by providing it with a special status. However, this becomes difficult when an army is engaged in an internal, divisive conflict. In Nepal some believe that the army is not receiving adequate backing from the leaders of political parties and its sacrifices and concerns are not being given due recognition. Signs of this are beginning to appear within sections of the army.[47] Since the establishment of multi-party democracy, successive governments had tried to undermine the importance of the army, perceiving it as the King's Praetorian Guard.[48] This perception about the army among the major political parties has further strengthened since King Gyanendra's dismissal of the Deuba government on 2 October 2002 and large sections of them believe that the strengthening of the army is leading the countrytowards militarization.

If the lack of trust and the divergence of interest between the major political parties and the army widens, at a time when the army has emerged as one of the main pillar of the entrenched political and social order, it will further complicate the task of expanding civilian control. The army might then develop a siege mentality and the probability that its sense of corporate identity might come to be defined in more exclusive terms will increase. A territorial command structure, with a nation-wide presence, (the army is well on the way to meet its goal of stationing at least an independent company in each of the 75 districts) backed by a military-intelligence apparatus with an internal orientation will give the military the potential ability to shape the flow of political events. However, given the complexity of the problem that the country is facing, the geopolitical reality, and the close relationship the top brass in the army has with the monarchy, it is unlikely that the army will want to take direct charge of the country. The senior leadership in the army realizes that it does not have the expertise to deal with the complex socio-economic problems facing the country and is also aware that the donor countries would look unfavourably at any attempt by the army to seize power. However, if the present instability continues and the army's level of casualties remains at a tolerable level, the army will increasingly acquire a taste for power and the steady accretion of authority and resources by the army will enable it to exercise influence on policy matters from behind the scene.[49