Nepal’s two wars

There is strategic stalemate and no possibility of military victory for either side in Nepal’s domestic conflict, but only the Maoists have publicly acknowledged that they accept this reality.

What is war? This short, profound question is posed by Clausewitz, the 18th century Prussian military philosopher, at the start of his monumental book On War. Later, he concludes a brief analysis of warfare through the ages by saying that all warring parties "conducted war in their own particular way, using different methods and pursuing different aims".

Despite this conclusion, Clausewitz's great work is to some extent time-bound due to his obvious belief that Napoleon and revolutionary France had succeeded in bringing warfare to its ultimate level; they had "liberated war, due to the people's new share in these great affairs of state". Bringing in "the people" was novel for his day, and prescient about the conditions of modern conflict. But the quote indicates his unquestioning acceptance of the prevailing concept of his day: that war is the exclusive province of states; that only the state has the legitimate right to use force; and that warfare consists of the uniformed soldiers of states clashing on a battlefield to determine whose interests should prevail.  For Clausewitz, "everything is governed by a supreme law, a decision by force of arms."

Even in Europe, however, this concept only made sense as an explanation of war after the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, which concluded the chaos of the Thirty Years War. It is a concept that makes even less sense now. Today the armed forces of states are being challenged, in many cases successfully, by the fighters of non-state forces, who are bound by none of the norms of conventional war and who operate in a way that neutralises a large percentage of the expensive and sophisticated equipment and armaments of state forces. This may not be the 'people's war', as Nepal's Maoists designate their struggle, but it is certainly war about the people, amongst them, and against them. There is no specific battlefield; military engagements can take place anywhere. This new style of warfare also starkly reveals the limitation of military force to achieve desired political outcomes, even for the most powerful of states.

All of this is well exemplified by what is happening in Nepal. The Royal Nepal Army (RNA) and the Maoists' self-styled People's Liberation Army (PLA) are fighting two very different wars, where even such basic concepts as combat success and failure are at variance, as are their respective estimates of what constitutes military strength and weakness.

The RNA's war

The RNA is fighting a conventional war of attrition, in which the emphasis is on the control of key territory, and the engagement of the enemy to inflict casualties, thereby weakening his will to resist. Clausewitz would recognise the approach. For him, "wearing down the enemy means using the duration of the war to bring about a gradual exhaustion of his physical and moral resistance" – an idea that well describes the RNA's current intent, though it is publicly expressed differently. In a February interview, King Gyanendra explained his views on the possibilities of winning the current war. "It's not a question of winning or not winning," the king said. "It's a question of taming." The government studiously ignored a recent four-month Maoist unilateral ceasefire; this, coupled with recent official statements that there will be no talks until the Maoists disarm, indicates that the government is firmly committed to seeking a solution by arms.

So can the RNA achieve this mission? Can it "tame" the Maoists? More conventionally, can the RNA wear down insurgents to the point that their morale collapses, they hand over their weapons and abandon all military efforts to achieve their stated objectives? All recent counterinsurgency experience indicates that the way they are going about the task makes it almost certain that they cannot do so. Military textbooks state that the key to success is gaining the support of the people, and the way to do this is to treat the people with respect, give them security, and integrate military efforts with development projects, social programmes and reforms aimed at tackling the underlying sources of discontent.

Such an approach is rooted in the strategy recommended by Sun Tsu, who 2500 years ago drew on an existing corpus of Chinese war experience to write what is generally regarded as the other great book on war, The Art of War. "What is of supreme importance in war is to attack the enemy's strategy," he wrote, "next best is to attack his alliances; next best is to attack his army." In other words, if the enemy's strategy is to gain control over the people, denial of this must be the main thrust of any response. But the RNA's task in this battle for hearts and minds is the more difficult one, because ultimately the Maoists do not need the support of the people to stop effective governance in rural areas. All they need is for the people not actively to support the state. It is the state that needs the people's support, and numerous intelligence failures, manifest in the number of times the RNA has been surprised by large-scale Maoist attacks, indicate a deficiency in this key area.

There are various factors that contribute to this. For example, apart from the moral and legal imperatives, there is a human rights link to military effectiveness. The most committed Maoists – those seething with resentment against the state – can invariably relate stories of family members killed in cold blood by the army and police. Intimidation from the Maoists is also a factor, as is the RNA's inability to provide continuous security to villagers. Here the RNA is faced with the oldest tactical dilemma of all: how much effort should be applied to hitting the enemy, and how much to stopping him from landing his blows? Doubling in just the past five years, RNA strength is now nearing 100,000, but a very large proportion of this number is devoted to protecting major towns, the 75 far-flung district headquarters and other vital static locations, particularly the Kathmandu Valley. Even an additional doubling of troops to 200,000, as has been discussed, would not enable the army to provide a permanent presence across countryside that is ideal for guerrilla warfare, and such wide deployment would open up another range of targets for Maoist attacks. The recent rapid expansion in RNA strength also inevitably leaves a leadership vacuum at senior levels. The significant issue of how this huge expansion is being funded, as well as its impact on other parts of the Nepali economy, both merit separate study.

The RNA reaction to this challenge is to ignore the Maoist strategy, as well as much of what is found in military textbooks. Their concept of operations is based on the third-best of Sun Tsu's options. All effort is focused on attacking the PLA – including those perceived as giving them succour and support – to inflict the maximum number of casualties and thus wear them down until their morale collapses. But there is limited operational capacity to pursue this objective, and absolutely no guarantee that a greater capacity would greatly increase the chances of success. Periodic 'sweeps' do take place in areas designated as Maoist heartlands, with predictable results – the Maoists who appear to fade away, return when the soldiers leave a couple of weeks later. Undercover operations are also clearly being carried out by Special Forces and related units, with results manifest from time to time by the killing of alleged Maoists in isolated locations, usually publicly designated as 'encounters'. Many of these incidents have given rise to allegations of human rights abuse, which are invariably denied. The main RNA offensive capability – greatly feared by the Maoists when they concentrate in a particular area for any purpose – is the use of helicopters, from which mounted machine guns are fired or 81mm mortar bombs are thrown out, two techniques that have given rise to many civilian casualties.

To date, the RNA military effort has led to the death of many thousands of Maoists, as well as many more civilians. Whatever the numbers, there is little evidence of any collapse of Maoist motivation. To understand why it is holding up so well, it is necessary to examine what morale is and what contributes to it, both in general and in specific relation to the Maoists.

Maoist morale

British military doctrine usefully defines 'fighting power' or 'military effectiveness' as having two components. One is the physical component – the means to fight, consisting of manpower, equipment and logistics. The other is the moral component, the ability to get people to fight, and this is fundamentally about leadership and motivation. This neatly reflects Clausewitz's description of war as both a trial of strength and a clash of wills, "two factors that can never be separated". His emphasis on the crucial nature of the moral component, however, is clear: "the physical factors seem little more that the wooden hilt, while the moral factors are the precious metal, the real weapon, the finely-honed blade."

The simple point is that, in assessing military strength, full weight must be given to that which cannot be measured – the unquantifiable but eternal martial qualities of leadership, discipline, courage, tenacity, endurance, and willingness to sacrifice one's life. Without these, numbers and equipment mean little; and, whatever their other failings, Nepal's Maoists have shown that they are not short on the qualities or the motivation needed to fight.

To appreciate the basis of the high morale in this poorly armed force, it is necessary first to understand the war that the Maoists are fighting, which is guided by a fundamentally different concept of conflict, as set down in the writings of Mao Tse-Tung. Mao's basic ideas about tactics are well known: "Ours are guerrilla tactics. Divide our forces to arouse the masses, concentrate our forces to deal with the enemy. The enemy advances, we retreat; the enemy camps, we harass; the enemy tires, we attack; the enemy retreats, we pursue."

At the strategic level, Mao's concept of 'protracted war' is his most enduring legacy. He stressed that at all times the revolutionary army must stay unified with the people among which it fights. The people can thus supply the recruits, supplies and information that the army needs, and can be politicised at the same time. In this way, the cultural and political structure of society can be transformed step-by-step with military success. Revolution thus comes about not after and as a result of victory, but through the process of war itself. Hence, Mao's best-known slogan, with its very distinct but often-misunderstood meaning: "Power flows out of the barrel of a gun."

This is the strategy being followed by the Maoists in Nepal. For an armed force that probably has only between 4000 and 5000 effective personal weapons, including about 1500 fifty-year-old .303 rifles of limited utility, it has brought them remarkable success.  Such a deficiency in the physical component of military effectiveness indicates that there must be a very strong moral component to compensate. The factors that contribute to this have been inadequately assessed in military terms.

One example of this is the little-understood sociology of the Nepali Maoist movement, aspects of which contribute powerfully to the qualities needed to get people to fight and to sustain their commitment whatever the hardship and danger. Marie Lecomte-Tilouine wrote in the February 2004 Anthropology Today: "The movement offers to its members a new ideology which provides an understanding of reality for those who have not succeeded educationally or economically as much as they may have wished: in particular it offers them the possibility of fighting against their situation, and a new understanding of their oppression and exploitation. The Maoists have been able to develop a genuine mystique … which combines violence and the bonds of brotherhood; this produces a very high degree of cohesion inside the movement and terror outside it."

Call to sacrifice

Perhaps the most complex aspect of Maoist morale strength to grasp, particularly for Westerners, is the cult of sacrifice. Anne de Sales, in the European Bulletin of Human Research (EBHR, v24), discusses this aspect in a way that brilliantly conveys its strength and centrality as a motivating force for Maoist fighters. In 1997, writing about preparations for launching the 'people's war', Prachanda noted that, "New definitions of life and death were brought forward. The physical death for the sake of people and revolution was accepted as the great revolutionary ideal for oneself as it gave true meaning to life."

Revolutionary songs are an important part of Maoist culture, with cassettes and song-sheets widely distributed. The melodies are based on evocative Nepali folk songs and have an immediate appeal. The first part of the lyrics depicts the struggle for existence and the pain of exploitation and poverty, instantly relatable sentiments. During the second part, however, the tone changes, conveying the challenge: "The night is gone: this is the morning of a new day. The bugle of freedom is blowing … The oppressor can be crushed." The message to the listener is that you are required to fight, shed your blood, sacrifice your life, "so that the people can be made one, and triumph".

Anne de Sales points out that this is not the conventional Hindu view of the sacrifice of a substitute for personal gain. Rather, this is "the self-sacrifice of the martyr who gives his life so that he can benefit by living on, if only in the memory of the people of which he is part, and for whose better future he sheds his blood." Given the high number of woman combatants, she and her can be freely substituted.

This belief of what 'death in action for the cause' means is clearly an extraordinarily powerful motivating force when facing extreme danger. It must be fully integrated with the other factors contributing to Maoist morale in any assessment of the likelihood of RNA success through its current approach of simply killing as many Maoists as possible. For the RNA, such a policy carries with it the clear danger of measuring operational success and campaign progress by that most misleading of yardsticks – the body count.

The attack of Beni

A brief look at the largest-ever Maoist military operation offers a good insight into their military capabilities. This was an attack on the evening of 20 March 2004 against the headquarters of Myagdi District, a western Nepali town called Beni. The aim was to overrun all security forces in the town and hold it for the night. After an all-night battle, one RNA battalion continued to hold their barracks on the edge of town. But the Maoists captured the town itself before withdrawing the following morning, having destroyed all government buildings and taking with them some 40 prisoners, including the chief of police and the Chief District Officer. Weeks later, all were released to the International Committee of the Red Cross. While the operation was not a complete success tactically, it was a major psychological blow to both the government and the RNA, who, not for the last time, had been proclaiming that the Maoists were finished.

A Kathmandu-based Japanese journalist, Kiyoko Ogura, has published some exhaustive research on the attack in EBHR (v27). Altogether, 3800 fighters and 2000 unarmed Maoist volunteers marched for about twenty days to an assembly area around two days away by foot. While there, they were able to advance the attack by 48 hours due to worries that their intention had leaked to the RNA. Equally impressive was the security they imposed on such a large-scale operation and the total surprise they achieved. Their medical support and evacuation arrangements were detailed, and indeed textbook, in both planning and execution. The local people of Beni commented specifically on the very young age of the fighters, the bravery of the wounded, that one-third of the fighters were women, and their particular agility and commitment in the attack.

Since Beni, the Maoists have been sparing with such large-scale attacks against defended RNA positions. They have carried out some, however, including a large assault on 1 February 2006, the one-year anniversary of King Gyanendra's royal coup. During that attack, on the district headquarters of Palpa District, every government installation except the army barracks was destroyed, 130 prisoners from the local jail were set free, and millions of rupees were looted from the local banks. As at Beni, both the CDO and the chief of police were taken prisoner and later released. Again, it was clearly an impressively planned and well-conducted operation, having achieved total surprise despite the large numbers involved. The Maoists risk heavy casualties with such attacks, but they have an acute awareness of the psychological and political impacts of military action. In Palpa, they received an unexpected bonus when, a few hours later, in an address to the nation to mark the first anniversary of his takeover, King Gyanendra claimed that "acts of terrorism are now limited to petty crimes".

No military solution

Although in conventional military terms the Maoists appear a pathetic armed force, when the vital morale component of military strength is taken into account, they are by no means weak. They have a proven strategy, favourable terrain, immense dedication, and an absolute willingness to sacrifice their lives for the cause. All of this gives them the capacity to make large areas of Nepal ungovernable in any meaningful sense for many years.

Their critical deficiency is the inadequacy of their means to fight. However strong Maoist will and motivation might be, the vast superiority the RNA enjoy in weapons and equipment have forced the Maoists to acknowledge publicly that they cannot seize and hold anything in the face of RNA action. That the military path they had originally set to their objectives is doomed has been particularly acknowledged through statements in late 2005 and early 2006. It is also manifest in the 12-point agreement signed with the agitating political parties in November 2005, which signals their willingness to shift (given certain vague conditions) to a multiparty political track.

In this conflict of 'two wars' there is no possibility of a solution by arms. Each side can demonstrate that it is making progress according to its own criteria of success. By the same logic, however, notwithstanding tactical gains, neither will be able to deliver a decisive strategic result that will end in the capitulation of the other. Thus, there is strategic stalemate, in both the general and literal meanings of the term. Claims about the Maoists that "their back is broken" are both misleading and meaningless. War is not metaphor. War is death, destruction, ruined lives, communities torn apart, children orphaned, women widowed and much, much more. All decisions and discussions about its utility should be guided solely by awareness of these harsh consequences, not by mind-sets inured from reality by soft words and platitudes.

The history of the last fifty years of counterinsurgency operations the world over is littered with optimistic predictions about imminent victory that have proved consistently and hopelessly illusory. Similarly, in Nepal before the end of the last ceasefire, there were claims that "the RNA can finish them off in six months". The country is now into its fifth or sixth such 'six-month' period; while the Maoists have been weakened, they are a very long way from being finished.

Unless there is a ceasefire and the start of a peace process to which both sides are committed – not just to the cessation of hostilities, but to finding, through negotiations and compromise, a political solution – Nepal faces the prospect of war without end. The key lesson from other conflicts is that the start of such a process, and indeed the precondition for any hope of success, is when both sides come to the conclusion and publicly acknowledge that they cannot achieve their aims by military means. The Maoists have already done so. Recent statements by officials, however, indicate that the government is still firmly committed to seeking a solution by force.

Finally, and most obviously, both of Nepal's wars are having a devastating impact on the lives of its rural people. Caught in the no-man's land of a nasty and brutish conflict, they yearn desperately for peace. This can only be achieved by following the well-established pattern of people sitting around a table and negotiating a political way out. In Nepal, as elsewhere, all will have to compromise. The only questions are: When? and, how many young Nepalis will die in the interim? Far too many have died already.

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