- The Washington Times - Friday, October 31, 2003

The Aug. 27 failure of peace talks between Maoist rebels and the royal government in Katmandu has led to a spiral of violence for the impoverished people of Nepal.

Since then, the Royal Nepalese Army and the Maoist People’s Liberation Army, Nepal, (PLAN) have resumed their “fight to the finish,” recently claiming the lives of nearly 1,100 soldiers, policemen, guerrillas and civilians, and raising the death toll to more than 9,100 since the start of the insurgency in 1996.

Army soldiers and PLAN guerillas have hunkered down to a jungle warfare campaign, with each side gaining and losing ground alternately. Except in two recent attacks, the Maoist guerrillas seem to have fared better than the security forces in many encounters.

At their third round of peace talks in late August, both sides agreed to disagree. Rejecting Maoist demands for a round-table conference, formation of an interim government, and election of a constituent assembly, King Gyanendra’s government sought to introduce some cosmetic reforms while maintaining monarchic rule.

The rebels walked out and declared an end to the cease-fire. It was obvious the government’s offer would not be acceptable to the Maoist leaders seeking to establish a republican system of government by abolishing Nepal’s feudal order.

The king and his supporters have vowed to fight what they call Maoist terrorism, and have undertaken a three-part counterinsurgency program to isolate the guerrillas.

First, the royal government has formed a “unified security command” involving the civilian administration, the army, the armed police and the civil police. Government leaders, including Prime Minister Surya Bahadur Thapa, are preparing a military offensive to deny the rebels their bases in districts the Maoists control. To this end, the army is deployed all over the country in search-and-destroy operations against the guerrillas.

Second, the government plans to distribute food, medicines and other relief materials to people in insurgency hot spots.

Third, the government wants to conduct parliamentary and local elections to bolster its rule.

Critics dismiss talk of elections as an exercise of the imagination. They ask how civilian election officials will enter villages with ballots and boxes when soldiers cannot force their way in with weapons.

The Maoists, too, are flexing their muscles. They have attacked a few armed police garrisons in what they say is preparation for a nationwide strategic offensive — a third and final phase of the Maoist people’s war. Employing tactics of attrition, the rebels have destroyed infrastructure such as bridges, power plants, government buildings, police posts and airports.

According to the World Bank’s “Country Assistance Strategy Progress Report, 2003,” more than one-third of the country’s 3,900 village development committee buildings have been destroyed, 19 districts are without telephone service, five hydroelectric plants are out of action, 250 post offices have been destroyed and six airports have been closed.

The World Bank report comments: “The recent escalation of violence, including the rampage on infrastructure installations, is worrying, and will have a lasting negative impact on Nepal’s development.”

According to estimates by Nepal’s official National Planning Commission, the direct damages run at $300 million to $500 million.

The renewed violence has raised the issue of human rights violations to a new level. In its 2003 report, Amnesty International said “the security forces continued to carry out unlawful killings. It was estimated that of the more that 4,000 ‘Maoists’ officially declared as killed since November 2001, nearly half may have been unlawfully killed.” The Amnesty report cited 250 cases of “disappearance” throughout the country carried out by the security forces.

With the collapse of law and order, people in Nepal face random imprisonment, torture, and extra-judicial executions. Human rights researchers there say that more than 70 percent of prisoners claim to have been tortured while in custody, and at least 50 percent say they signed confessions as a result.

The Nepalese security forces have always acted with impunity, and hence refuse to prosecute human rights violators in the name of maintaining troop morale.

Recently, indiscriminate action by Nepal’s security forces has become a matter of embarrassment to international donors. It is also sowing discord among allies, as the European Community, Japan, India and Britain seek a negotiated settlement while the United States tries to force the Maoists into negotiations through military operations.

Reflecting the opinions of British aid workers in Katmandu, the Guardian newspaper in London published an article Oct. 18 by “Ian Porter,” the pseudonym of an official working with a British-funded international development organization in Nepal.

“With the Nepalese army more and more obviously beyond any civilian control, British policy appears to be increasingly in disarray,” wrote “Ian Porter.”

This correspondent added: “The UK’s policy of gaining leverage though military cooperation and human rights training has been an abject failure. A new, clear and independent British policy emphasizing negotiations over the one-dimensional military track could be the only initiative now able to halt the slide to war.”

The Bush administration is firmly behind the royal regime and working closely with India to extinguish the Maoist insurgency. The rebels and some Nepalese civic leaders blame Washington for derailing the August peace talks. American officials in Nepal have reportedly expressed the opinion that the Maoists must be brought to the negotiating table in a weakened position through full-scale military operations.

Yesterday, Washington took another step to penalize the rebels by adding the Communist Party of Nepal to a list of organizations whose assets in the United States must be frozen because of their links with “terrorism,” Reuters news agency reported.

The notice in the Federal Register, signed by Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, also proscribed two of the party’s aliases — the United Revolutionary People’s Council and the People’s Liberation Army of Nepal.

The State Department had already listed the party in an annual report among “other terrorist groups” — a descriptive category that has no legal implications.

U.S. military assistance, training, and advice to the army have brought a sharp Maoist reaction. A recent Politburo meeting decided not to allow U.S.-sponsored nongovernmental organizations to work in rural areas of Nepal where Maoists run “people’s governments.”

A review of the Politburo decision gives an impression that the Maoists are quite confident of victory, and that this will come sooner rather than later. The Politburo resolutions aim at preparing the revolutionary forces to assume full responsibility of the country in the near future. The party has decided to seek recognition from the United Nations, India and China — suggesting that the rebels may declare a parallel “people’s government” at the national level, with its own constitution and laws, in the near future.

The army strategists dismiss Maoist claims as mere propaganda, arguing that the Maoist guerrillas cannot face the Army in conventional warfare.

Better-armed and -trained, the U.S.-backed army is clearly seeking a positional war, but the PLAN is unlikely to accept the invitation. As a result, the army will continue to face guerrilla war from the PLAN, which does not seem ready to undertake a “strategic offensive” — the third and final phase of a Maoist “people’s war” in the doctrine of the late Mao Tse-tung of China.

With overwhelming forces poised to start ground and air strikes on rebel positions, the military is likely to drive the Maoists back into the jungles in some places. The army victory will be short-lived, however, as the rebels are certain to revert to guerrilla and urban-terrorist tactics better suited to their abilities.

Insurgency watchers say that in the last two years, the Maoist military strength, firepower, and political organizations have increased dramatically. Maoist rebels have gradually collected automatic weapons, including U.S.-made M-16s, during ambushes and tactical offensives against army patrols and fortifications.

On the government side, there have been substantial additions of up-to-date military hardware from the United States, Britain, Belgium, and India, and the army’s combat capability has been upgraded. The political side, however, is extremely weak and fragmented. The establishment elite is divided into “constructive” and “constitutional” monarchists — the latter vehemently opposed to King Gyanendra’s taking over the elected government.

Army strategists appear to believe that if the troops retake the strategic mountain passes, PLAN forces in rebel areas will have their supply routes cut off. Though victories in a few mountain passes will boost the government and its military forces, the government support base seems to be eroding day by day; it is now reportedly confined to district headquarters and urban centers.

In Katmandu, the government appears to be confined within the 20.5-mile radius of the Ring Road with a heavy military presence.

The army’s responsibilities are already stretched. Nearly 50 percent of its 80,000 men (including the 16,000 armed police force) is defending urban positions like the Royal Palace, military bases, telecommunications, power plants, VIP escort, etc., which leaves the other 50 percent available for deployment against guerrillas elsewhere in the country.

Moreover, the army currently has only 19 helicopters and three fixed-wing aircraft — hardly enough for rapid deployment of forces.

Except in a few places, major guerrilla bases are scattered throughout a large, heavily wooded mountainous area, with bad roads and a sparse population. Such topography favors guerrilla forces and presents serious difficulties for motorized and infantry units of a conventional army. Even if army troops manage to occupy a few Maoist-held passes, the rebels can easily retreat to safety in the interior jungle region — a good place from which to mount surprise attacks.

Driving Maoist guerrillas from these jungles and having government forces physically occupy rural areas would require a big increase in army combatants. Military experts recommend a force ratio of 20 soldiers to control or pacify each 1,000 population. In Nepal, this would mean 500,000 soldiers — far beyond what the country can afford.

The current ratio of nearly 4:1 in favor of the army — roughly 120,000 soldiers and police against 32,000 Maoist fighters — may be sufficient for the frontal war the army would prefer to fight, but is insufficient for search-and-destroy operations requiring a ratio of 10 to 1 or more in the army’s favor. And in addition to their 32,000 armed guerrillas, the Maoists are said to have a ragtag militia of 100,000 country folk equipped with knives, sticks and slingshots.

It is said that Nepal’s Maoists began their revolution with two shotguns, one of which could not be fired. Eight years later, they have thousands of guns taken from the police and the army. In this context, the royal government’s desire to suppress the Maoist insurgency with donated foreign arms appears to be wishful thinking.

The resumption of negotiations appears unlikely, as both sides are bent on destroying the other. As a result, a humanitarian disaster of Himalayan proportions looms on Nepal’s horizon.

Chitra Tiwari is a Washington-based free-lance analyst of international affairs specializing in South Asia. He can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]

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