The basic principles of state administration include gathering power and developing the ability to utilise that power. Correct use of power adds to the state’s strength, but misuse can lead to its failure. The Nepal of today is a burning example of the misuse of power – a situation made all the more grievous by the use of the Royal Nepal Army (RNA) as a political weapon. The deployment of the military took place when the Maoist rebellion was already in full swing; with the RNA’s failures, the numbers of those who kill and are killed have increased relentlessly.
The country today is caught in an unimaginably complex web due to the misuse of state authority. Even while the society is mired in violence, however, the state establishment remains unconcerned. Consider the fact that in extending its land battle to airborne attacks, the RNA has little reluctance to lob mortar shells out of helicopters in the direction of the enemy, destroying dwellings and killing innocents.
After having sat out the initial six years of the insurgency watching the under-equipped civilian Nepal police system bear the brunt, the army was forced to deploy in 2001 only after its barracks in Dang were destroyed in a surprise rebel attack. The democratic government of the day originally called for the deployment in order to control the violence, but killings actually escalated thereafter, a trend that continued during the subsequent four years.
The army, which is efficient in providing statistics, lists 14,000 citizens as having died as a result of the ‘people’s war’. In the first six months of 2005, the RNA says that the Maoists abducted 10,725 individuals, killed 72, and carried out 65 destructive explosions. The report also suggests that over the course of the insurgency, 1825 village administration buildings have been destroyed, as well as 35 telecommunication transmission towers, 420 post offices, 297 police posts and six hydropower stations. After the second ceasefire period ended on 27 August 2003, the toll has been 5361 Maoists and 581 army men killed until 29 January 2006.
Meanwhile, even as the army has been unable to succeed in subduing the insurgents, it has been used to crush the democratic movement. As a result of the past four years’ of army deployment and the last year of its use against democratic forces, today it is not the kingship but the RNA that is the country’s most powerful institution. The kingship currently functions neither under the support of the people, nor is it backed by the Constitution – rather, it stands solely on the army’s support. It is subsequently appropriate to ask: Does the king lead the army, or does the army lead the king?
The Royal Nepal Army has always stood behind the traditional establishment, and following the fall of the Ranas it shifted its allegiance to the Shah dynasty. One reason the RNA has never been people-oriented is because its leadership has historically been the monopoly of the elite clans, a situation that remains incongruously true to this day. In the democratic period after 1990, both the generals and politicians failed in building a relationship between the RNA and the civilian government. The 1990 Constitution did provide for a National Security Council through which the government would direct the military, but it was hastily activated only towards the end of the democratic period as a means to deploy the army. The politicians never made the effort to bring the officers into their advisory circles, and the RNA was rarely discussed in the Parliament. The politicians were wary of the army because the senior-most generals made no secret of their distrust for the political parties, nor their anxiousness to remain within the royal umbrella.
Even as the RNA has evolved as the most powerful institution in the country, its image has been drastically weakened. Today, the army’s actions are criticised nationally and internationally, with its war-fighting capabilities and morals questioned; even its right to go on UN peacekeeping operations has been challenged. The reasons for this loss of image are twofold: weaknesses in command and control, and the fact that it is propping up an illegitimate regime.
In order to understand its present failure, one has to study the nature of the RNA’s attitudes towards democratic governments of the past, for they show the generals to be regularly out of step with modern-day thinking about the role of the military. There were two incidents of insubordination by the then-commander-in-chief (with the support of the king as ‘supreme commander-in-chief’) when the government of the day sought to deploy the RNA. There was the forced resignation of a home minister after the Maoist attack on the district headquarters of Dunai in 2000, and the resignation of a prime minister when the top brass imposed conditions for its deployment in Holeri. Then-PM Girija Prasad Koirala was checkmated when the army demanded an all-party consensus as a precondition to deployment, as well as an announcement of a state of emergency and enactment of an anti-terrorism law.
The required legislation was passed as per the army’s demands, and Article 20 of the Terrorism and Destructive Activities (TADA) act provided the RNA with extensive freedom in its anti-terrorist activities. Under this article, the government tacitly granted impunity to all the security forces. Not only was the RNA placed outside the rule of law, it was also taken outside the purview of the 1959 Military Act, which defines the military’s organisational and deployment parameters. This might have been the reason why a brigadier, who headed the RNA’s Legal Department, was reported as stating categorically that without the TADA provisions, the army could never have been deployed.
The retired generals who, five years ago, would claim that the Maoists would be decimated within a few weeks of the army’s deployment have been proven wrong. This itself exemplifies the type of leadership the RNA has been saddled with in the past, and which has brought the force to its present situation. The inability of the army to mount effective counterinsurgency operations is now confirmed, even though its entire training over the decades has concentrated on mountain guerrilla warfare and conducting hit-and-run counteroffensives. RNA soldiers have not been able to show their fighting ability at the ground level against the Maoists rebels, nor has the army headquarters in Kathmandu shown an ability to introspect on how it has arrived at this stage.
There is also the failure of the concept of ‘unified command’, which is an American idea foisted on Nepal’s security forces. Under it, the anti-Maoist activities of both the civilian Nepal Police and the new armed police are conducted under RNA leadership. A complex chain of command has been created that gives the soldiers authority while depriving the other forces of morale. The RNA has little to show for its new powers. Not only does it command the entire security apparatus; it also has an unfettered ability to use all of the government’s administrative, economic, political and diplomatic capital, as well as access to governmental information and communication facilities.
A capable army would be one that carefully prepares for a possible conflict, has intelligence capabilities at the ready, and learns from its mistakes once the fighting has started. The RNA has been incapable on all three of these fronts. As such, what should have been the government’s anti-rebellion trump card – deployment of soldiers – has ended up a damp squib. The army gives every indication of having been caught unawares when it was forced to the field in 2001, even though it had been watching from the sidelines for six years as the civilian police, with its antiquated weaponry, had responded to the ‘people’s war’. Nor do we get a sense the soldiers studied the other conflicts in the neighbourhood, including in Kashmir, Northeast India and the Naxalite rebellions in the contiguous regions of Bihar and West Bengal. Lately, RNA troops have preferred to stay secure within the barbed wire and landmined perimeter of their barracks; when nearby government offices or police posts are attacked, they protect themselves until it is safe to emerge.
As far as the ‘unified command’ concept is concerned, the RNA should have realised that just because the Americans used this method in Vietnam, Afghanistan or Iraq, does not mean that it would work in Nepal. To begin with, the Nepali army and police have historically worked in completely different spheres and with some amount of hostility. The armed police force, meanwhile, is as yet an infant organisation, without a history of its own. It is also interesting that the US Army has evolved into the main training supporters of the Nepali military; lately, after all, the US military has concentrated on push-button warfare in which more innocent civilians die than actual rebels – not that the American generals or administration seem overly worried about that. While taking advice from the US Pacific Command, the RNA seems to have failed to keep in mind that it was fighting in its own country, in highly populated territory, against a well-motivated rebel army in overwhelmingly guerrilla-friendly terrain. Focused on annihilating the rebels, the American instruction is not practical, which is why there are questions about the abilities of the US-supported fast-action Ranger Battalion that has been set up as an elite force within the RNA.
In recent days, perhaps following American prescription, the RNA has become increasingly reliant on air attacks – shooting from helicopters and heaving mortars from hovering aircraft. This has resulted in appalling and indiscriminate destruction of life and property. The level of panic on the ground during air attacks is also something about which RNA commanders seem to worry little. In principle, the RNA entered the villages to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of the populace, but in reality it has not been able to mix with the people. Soldiers have always remained wary of civilians, and have been unable to provide protection for them in the face of Maoist harshness.
The effectiveness of counterinsurgency operations is judged not from the bullets expended, but from the ability to generate public support for actions in the field. The RNA has failed to understand that treating the public like the enemy rebounds on its own effectiveness in the field. The trust required between the populace and the security forces in tackling a rural-based insurgency is just not present in Nepal today. Perhaps the RNA’s greatest weakness in this sense is its complete failure in gathering human intelligence. Often the RNA either does not have the required intelligence, or is not able to act on available intelligence. The failure in intelligence is one more example that, despite the army command’s willingness to talk big, it retains a predilection to make critical mistakes with its eyes wide open.
The army’s insensitivity can also be seen in the numerous killings of innocent civilians throughout the country, as well as the torture of detainees and the large number of disappearances. Meanwhile, human rights activists have been termed ‘communists’ and ‘Maoists’, while journalists are harassed and politicians treated with contempt. There is a conviction within the RNA that covering up mistakes is better than coming clean, based on a misplaced fear that a full airing would weaken troop morale. Meanwhile, the Maoists’ ability to conduct war continues apace – now overwhelmingly reliant on arms looted from the police and army, as one retired general has admitted. The army has confessed to being unable to repossess more than 15 percent of those arms captured by Maoist forces.
Overall, the political and military objectives of the RNA’s deployment have become confused. Previously, the goal of deployment had been political, to the extent that it was meant to force the rebel leadership to come to talks. It was the army itself, however, that then carried out the Doramba massacre in August 2003, destroying the talks that had been progressing between the civilian government and the Maoists. The subsequent policy driving the RNA seems to be one of subjugation, but this has not been successful due to soldiers operating defensively rather than offensively. Even while claiming over 9000 rebels dead so far in the rebellion, the RNA has not been able to control insurgents’ abilities to attack.
Since 1 February 2005, the army’s deployment has become both more confusing and more thoroughly politicised, as the top brass have agreed to use the RNA rank-and-file to support the royal coup d’etat. Thus, the army became part of the conspiracy to wrest away the citizens’ fundamental rights, on the excuse of battling terrorism. Soldiers have been used to jail the intelligentsia, political and civil-society leaders, as well as journalists and members of the general public. Rather than conducting search operations against Maoists, soldiers have been deployed in editorial rooms and radio studios.
RNA brass thus made a conscious decision to fight on two fronts: one against the rebels, the other against those unarmed politicians, activists and members of civil society who were fighting for democracy. In essence, the military today is fronting for an authoritarian kingship that does not have public approval and seems to find the peaceful democratic movement more intolerable than the Maoist war. The RNA has been swayed from its mission. Together with the army, the security force as a whole is increasingly perceived as the enemy of the people, which bodes poorly for the nation’s prospects as a whole.
The result of unquestioningly serving as King Gyanendra’s ‘sepoys’ against democratic forces has meant that countries both friendly and supportive of Nepal have not only condemned the royal takeover, but have turned against the army. In the three years of its deployment leading up to 1 February 2005, the RNA had received more than NRS 8 billion in international assistance. Now that support has completely dried up.
All in all, the blame for the RNA’s loss of strategic direction, its inability to fight an effective counterinsurgency, and its deployment against the peaceful movement for democracy must be put in two places: the doors of the royal palace, and with the top brass at the RNA headquarters at Bhadrakali. The elite clans who have defined the RNA’s functioning from the past to the present – and who themselves feel significantly more loyal to the crown than to the people – have allowed the officers and rank-and-file to show neither their sensitivity to modern-day demands, nor their fighting acumen.
Today, the RNA is a force that has been diverted from its mission of evolving into a professional army due to a misguided leadership that wants to maintain it as an appendage to the feudal monarchy. It is because of this prejudiced position that military leaders not only failed to reciprocate the four-month unilateral Maoist ceasefire of autumn 2005, but actively forced the rebels to return to hostilities by carrying out actions in the mid-western hills. Most ironic of all, today the army is more eager to engage unarmed pro-democracy protestors than to fight the Maoists, which means that it has already lost the moral battle and the people’s trust. By not being able to engage the Maoists militarily, for having willingly been used as a royal tool, it can be said that, thus far, the Royal Nepal Army has failed the people of Nepal.
~ Dhruba Kumar is a political scientist at Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu.