Readers should note that this book was authored prior to developments such as the advent of the Young Communist League (YCL), the Madhesi peoples' uprising, and the neutralization of the law and order functions of the state by the current government. Hence, these are not discussed.
However, the impact of such developments on the trajectory of the Nepali Maoist movement (while significant) does not impair the validity of the historical context (or future projections) outlined in the author's writing.
Note: This writing is presented with the EXPLICT CONSENT of the author, Dr. Thomas A. Marks. Pictures have been removed to facilitate publication, but the captions remain, since they include useful information.
State Response to Insurgent Challenge
Only with the November 2001 general offensive by the Maoists did Nepal take the necessary step of reinforcing the overwhelmed police force by invoking martial law legislation and committing the 54,000 troops of the RNA.[i] Spread throughout areas of the country that could be reached by road, quartered in battalion but more often company cantonments, the RNA had been a largely ceremonial force better known for its contribution to UN peacekeeping missions than for its martial prowess. Indeed, even companies did not often deploy as such. The result was a number of serious reverses as the RNA went through the painful transformation required for dealing with guerrilla warfare. In several instances, company equivalents were overrun. By January 2003, it had suffered 244 dead and 345 wounded.[ii]
Faced with the Maoist campaign, the state reeled.[iii] Response was hampered by the political shortcomings already detailed. Not only did governments change with startling rapidity, on average one per year, but governance was only possible due to the formation of various intra- and even inter-party coalitions. Self-interest was the order of the day, illustrated by rampant corruption, and administrative drift meant than even substantial foreign development assistance was not incorporated systematically. The appearance of an insurgency, therefore, was seen as but another minor factor among many and parceled out to the security forces for action, which prior to November 2001 meant the police.
Under some enlightened commanders, local police operations could have passed for those who had proved successful for our case studies discussed herein. Others, however, were more repression than development in thrust. One advantage for the state was that numerous individuals, both civilians and security force, had served abroad with the UN in peacekeeping.[iv] They were thus well versed in the “hearts and minds” approach to internal pacification as opposed to pure repression. It was in a sense predictable, then, that approximately a year before the Maoist general offensive, the RNA, although still in its barracks as concerned stability operations, was nevertheless deployed in limited fashion in support of a government Integrated Security and Development Programme (ISDP).
The RNA, it was intended, would serve as the security shield for bringing government presence to underdeveloped areas, which would then see an interjection of activity designed to improve conditions and promote livelihood. As things worked out, the RNA was the only element of the government that actually fulfilled its role. Although a half dozen districts were designated, with Gorkha as the pilot project, and RNA battalions deployed in area domination patrols, the civilian input was limited to selecting projects by local government bodies. The result was that the RNA used its limited assets to build roads, dig wells, and provide rudimentary medical attention to villagers, yet none of this was done on a scale that made the slightest difference to the actual situation on the ground.[v]
With the November 2001 offensive, the ISDP was suspended, and the RNA deployed to engage in area domination. The highest formation for command and control was the brigade, but this gradually gave way to divisions and a planned corps, both of these more area commands than deployable military entities. Solid individual training could not be channeled into results-oriented operations because of shortfalls of arms and equipment, as well as severe shortcomings in leadership and technical skills.
A critical weakness was intelligence, the lynchpin of any counter-insurgency effort. Nepal’s various sources for information gathering and processing – the police, Armed Police Force, RNA, and National Investigation Department – were quite unprepared for the demands of internal war and generally deficient in information gathering and intelligence production/dissemination.[vi] Exacerbating the situation, these bodies functioned as separate entities with little coordination or data-sharing. Only at the very highest levels of the bureaucracy was raw input brought together for analysis, but this, too, was provided for in an ad hoc and undermanned fashion.[vii]
Still, strides were made in standing up the command and control architecture necessary for counter-insurgency. With the prime minister as commander-in-chief, the National Security Council was charged with prosecuting the campaign. Because the council itself consisted of top government leaders, in actual terms it was the council’s Executive Secretariat that undertook planning and coordination. At various levels, but especially in the districts, coordinating committees – comprised of the local police, RNA, civil, and intelligence representatives – met to determine policy and implementation. A unified command, with the RNA having actual authority over all elements of the armed response, eventually came into existence, giving fiber to the ad hoc but functioning coordination cells that had been formed at RNA headquarters. APF platoons were deployed as if they were “light” RNA units, and the police were given primacy in the defense of most urban areas.[viii]
Difficulties occurred in overcoming the substantial baggage of past political inadequacies. The police, for instance, were not trusted by the RNA, being seen as corrupt, inefficient bullyboys for the ruling party, which normally had been the Nepali Congress. The new APF, in turn, had received a good portion of its initial manpower draft from various Nepali Congress youth groups and so was likewise not trusted by either the Civil Police, who did have a good many within the officer corps who were well trained and had substantial experience, or the RNA. For its part, the RNA was viewed as loyal first and foremost to the Palace and as a possible threat to fledging democracy. A highly centralized decision-making machinery meant that even the best of motives could often not overcome bureaucratic inertia or implement decisions when they were forthcoming.
Foreign support hence became crucial in overcoming these flaws. Britain, as might be expected from its long and deep involvement in Nepal, played an important role in training of all kinds. India, concerned lest it see another security headache develop on a crucial border – Nepal was a buffer between New Delhi and Beijing – initially responded with training and material support, eventually moving to suppress substantial Maoist activity within its own borders. Finally, the United States, long a major development actor through USAID, moved promptly in all areas, from supplying arms and equipment to training. An emergency appropriation brought the combined military aid (Foreign Military Financing) for Fiscal Years 2002 and 2003 to USD 17 million. Assessment teams from all three of the countries just named were supplemented by personnel for actual training, to include US Special Forces.
Where no amount of foreign input could compensate, however, was in overcoming the inertia of a traditional system that organizationally manifested itself in extreme deference to authority and a consequent lack of initiative. This, combined with the intelligence shortcomings cited above, resulted in a failure to come to grips with the struggle operationally and tactically even as the general strategic grasp of overall parameters could be judged reasonably accurate. While it was understood with considerable clarity how socio-economic-political shortcomings had produced the insurgency, it was not grasped how to respond.[ix] Consequently, a comparatively weak insurgent movement, which drew its combatant strength from minimally armed tribal revolt and could expand beyond core regions only through terror orchestrated by voluntarist action, was allowed to go unchecked for want of applying a systematic counter.
Further, as this uncoordinated, haphazard, armed response moved forward, political realities further hobbled efforts. For virtually the entire post-November 2001 period, the government was in a state of crisis, with the Nepali Congress splitting into two rival factions, and the UML refusing to accept the reigns of government. Finally, in October 2002, the situation became so bad that the King, using extraordinary powers granted to him by the Constitution – but highly controversial nevertheless – disbanded Parliament and appointed a government made up predominantly of members from minority political parties. As the King’s own legitimacy was not secure, this made the government’s even less so, and the ousted parties, through mass action, wasted no time in attempting to test the new administration’s staying power. So tainted were the political parties by their own corruption and ineptness, however, that they were initially unable to rally a viable challenge.
Seeking to exploit the situation, the Maoists in January 2003 offered a ceasefire and renewed negotiations. The reason had already been provided by Bhatarrai in December 2002: “The situation is now peaking toward a climax after the fratricidal and regicidal ‘king,’ Gyanendra, and his notorious son, Paras, have staged a retrogressive coup d’etat against the supine parliamentary democracy on Oct. 4 and restored autocratic monarchy in the country.”[x] Nonetheless, the country eagerly embraced the proffered respite.[xi]
Earlier negotiations, detailed above, had been unilaterally terminated by the CPN(M) in November 2001 in order to go over to the offensive, yet links had never been completely severed. The UML, in particular, because its stated ideology continued to incorporate the notion of “revolution,” had kept channels of communication open as had any number of other actors. Human rights groups, for instance, tried to act as mediators. Eventually, the Palace and its appointed government used these channels to renew discussions. Just how they would fare remained anyone’s guess, because neither side showed any sign of altering its basic positions. These, to be clear, were irreconcilable on such basics as the nature of the state and the position of the monarchy. Both sides continued to train, re-equip, and acquire armaments.
In this situation, it was the Maoist position that was of most moment. From the previous ceasefire, captured documents and pictures, to include video footage, together with interrogations of prisoners, showed cadre telling the mass base that negotiations were a tactical gambit, that the cause of the revolution would never be betrayed or given up until a “people’s republic” was established. That such remained the CPN(M)’s position had been stated directly. The real question was whether the party saw the new talks as but a tactical pause for regrouping or a more strategic effort to gain by non-violent means that which until then it had been unable to gain through violence, the standard political warfare approach. The latter course seemed likely, with the CPN(M), in its own calculations, moving from a position of strength into fractured Nepali politics.
The CPN(M), in the circumstances of the moment, felt it could not lose and would be able to defeat the enemy in detail, much as Lenin had in the chaos between the ouster of the czar and the final Bolshevik coup.[xii] Directly and through its front organizations, as in 2001, it aggressively used political space, in which it could operate freely, to divide its foes further. In closed-door meetings, it made common cause with both the political parties and the monarchy (through its appointed government), the end-game to use one against the other, then to out-maneuver the survivor in the organizational contest to follow.
Crucial in this strategy was the “constituent assembly,” through which the monarchy was to be neutralized, in particular separated from its armed base, the RNA, in the name of establishing a “republic.” Integration of the CPN(M) combatants, as was being demanded, would further ensure the RNA’s inability to respond to provocation. In such an environment, co-optation would serve in place of armed confrontation. Indeed, the CNP(M)’s “75 Points”[xiii] were structured as such a multitude precisely so that no one or minor grouping was objectionable. It was the platform’s totality, to be achieved by persistently emphasizing that the smaller, “moderate”[xiv] compromises provided the only route to a “lasting peace,” that was intended to produce a totally transformed whole.
The CPN(M) had not changed its basic positions but, like the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) in Northern Ireland, saw the moment as ripe for pushing ahead with non-violent means even as violence was held in reserve.[xv] This formulation was theoretically of particular interest, because it advanced that a sub-state actor held the same rights as the state. In particular, the state was no longer granted a monopoly of legitimate force. To the contrary, having lost this status by illegitimate action, the state, it was claimed, had to negotiate with the sub-state actor, which had access to its own purportedly legitimate force.[xvi]
The Maoists hence claimed to have emerged, through the use of violence, as an equal to the state. The state controlled the urban areas, argued the CPN(M), the sub-state actor controlled the rural ones. The clash between the thesis and antithesis, hitherto a violent affair, had given rise to the demand for the realization of a new synthesis through non-violent negotiation. Violence had been necessary to arrive at the point of “political solution,” but it could now be superseded by political warfare. The destruction wreaked principally in the hinterland, therefore, although having various tactical and operational goals, such as area domination, strategically was intended as political communication, irrefutable evidence for the old order that the CPN(M) was a force that could not be ignored.[xvii]
None of this precluded the Maoists’ inclusion of more immediate concerns, although Bhattarai, as the head of the Maoist negotiations team, had begun to emphasize that the CPN(M)’s “75 Points” was a document of strategic goals rather than tactical demands. He claimed for the party a willingness of the movement to accept intermediate steps (e.g., a “bourgeois republic” with a constitutional monarchy), a determination to move beyond an early attraction for the approach of Sendero Luminoso or the Naxalites in order to arrive at a unique, situationally appropriate “Nepalese Maoism.”[xviii] Specifics of application, for the building of a new Nepal, were to be found in an expansion of Bhattarai’s PhD dissertation released in May 2003.[xix]
Even if this formulation had been accepted at face value, there would have been grounds for pessimism. Maoist excessive rhetoric, especially attacks on the RNA, and a bargaining emphasis on broad, often utopian, declarations at the expense of specifics, led to a situation where the two sides were talking past each other. Undoubtedly, the RNA saw little but a cynical effort to weaken it. In the field, Maoist cadre and combatants had been briefed that the major goal of the round of talks was the “national army.”[xx] Simultaneously, the Maoist representatives in Kathmandu focused on ending international assistance to the government (which, as indicated above, was crucial to enhancing the capabilities of the security forces), all the while demanding that the RNA “return to the barracks.” Under no such restrictions themselves, Maoist forces continued to move and train, funded by undiminished criminal activity.
Further, unsure of their position vis-à-vis Nepal’s international supporters in the era of the global war on terrorism, the Maoists stridently attacked them, in particular the US. This furthered the impression of Machiavellian maneuvering, although it would seem more correct to find the inspiration for such CPN(M) verbiage in the party’s parochial origins and operational environment. Put simply, the Maoists had a painfully limited understanding of the global forces and processes in play.[xxi] This lead to a degree of paranoia and mistaken bargaining positions.[xxii] The entirely predictable result was an increasing alienation of key elements of society even as the Maoists saw themselves as courting those elements. The situation’s difficulty was compounded by the movement, in May 2003, of the estranged political parties into a phase of active resistance against the state. Although they continued to voice support for a favorable outcome in the government/CPN(M) negotiations, they committed their own efforts completely to confronting the palace and its appointed government.
In such an environment, the only real surprise came when the Maoists on 27 August 2003 abruptly terminated the ceasefire and again resorted to a variety of armed actions, including targeted assassinations of important government personnel in Kathmandu. The surprise came from the obvious quarter: Government disorientation and lack of focus seemed to be providing the CPN(M) with ample leeway to make progress, through “political” means, progress that would surely be more difficult in a state of armed conflict. Indeed, faced with renewed assassination efforts, the government promptly restored legal prohibitions and asked international organizations to assist in apprehending leadership figures. Thus people’s war was again in full swing.[xxiii]
As the “stir against regression” likewise intensified, the absorption of attention and resources created the space for dramatic Maoist gains in the first half of 2004. Murder, robbery, and kidnapping grew dramatically, particularly the latter, with its forced drafts of young people into Maoist ranks. Plans to stand up a local security capacity were stillborn, however, when “EU objections” claimed that such would contribute to the deteriorating human rights environment.[xxiv]
Lack of leadership seriously effected security force response, yet an element of personal animosity toward the king seemed as much at issue with the leaders of the “five parties” as an actual desire for a solution. Koirala, for instance, relishing his role as the grand old man of Nepali democracy, its living link with the past struggles to institute parliamentary rule, seemed to have few plans for a solution beyond name-calling and stirring rancor. Most controversial to the general public was the involvement, through party mechanisms, of young people in street demonstrations marshaled by “professional students.”
When a compromise of sorts was put together in early June, with Deuba being returned as prime minister, there was a collective sigh of relief, but the reactions of the “stir” movement was guarded. Although the UML cautiously embraced the step as one in the right direction, Koirala dismissed it and pronounced the struggle would continue. Another lackluster performance by Deuba led to a final dismissal in 1 February 2005 and assumption of direct rule by the king. This polarized the political situation still further. Foreign reaction was negative, as was that of the Nepali expatriate community.
[i] Field notes, November 2002. Precise figure at the time was given as 54,245. This has apparently increased.
[ii] Taking the figures detailed so far, the Maoists had at this point killed at least 2,187 individuals; 50% (1,093) were police, another 11.1% (244) RNA, and the remaining 38.9% (850) civilians. Figures (dead) for the people’s war phase of the Peruvian case, 1980-92 (the latter date, the capture of Sendero Luminoso leader Guzman and other top cadre), were: police, 1,369; armed forces, 909; civilians, 10,640 (see Palmer in Crenshaw, 271).
[iii] British figures for only the period 23 November 2001 to 23 October 2002 cite the following losses: police, 456 dead, 358 wounded; RNA, 208 dead, 189 wounded; civilians attacked by Maoists, 304 dead, 191 wounded; and presumed subversives, 4,434 dead, “heavy” wounded. This total of 5,402, if compared to an 8,000 total (an estimate, to be sure), yields 67.5%. Field notes, November 2002.
[iv] Now dated but still useful is Bishwa Keshar Maskay and Dev Raj Dahal, eds., Nepal’s Participation in the United Nations Peace Keeping Operations (Kathmandu: United Nations Association of Nepal, 1995).
[v] Field notes, November 2001.
[vi] See especially Sukumar Basu, “The Role of Intelligence in Conducting a Counterinsurgency Campaign Against the Maoist Rebels in Nepal,” Small Wars and Insurgencies (London: forthcoming). My own research has found the police consistently to be best informed as to local realities. Indeed, the intelligence center set up in 2002 as a section of operations in police headquarters, Kathmandu, is as close to that required in counter-insurgency as exists in Nepal. Field notes, November 2002.
[vii] The concept of an All Source Intelligence Center (ASIC) at the lowest possible tactical levels, a staple of Western (especially US and British) security force procedures, has not yet entered the Nepalese organizational architecture, this despite extensive efforts by, in particular, the British. Field notes, April-May 2003.
[viii] Until early 2003, the Civil Police had primacy in the defense of the Kathmandu Valley. This has passed to the RNA Valley Division command. Other urban areas, though, remain principally a police responsibility, at least at the cutting edge.
[ix] This is in sharp contrast to Nepalese performance, both of individuals and units, in Gurkha and United Nations service (though some, in private correspondence, have disputed this characterization, claiming Nepalese martial conduct to be invariably lackluster). What is crucial, of course, is that these experiences occur outside the Nepali cultural matrix as given tangible form in societal structure.
[xi] Background and discussion in SAP-Nepal [South Asia Partnership], Quest for Peace, 2nd edn. (Kathmandu, 2003).
[xii] The CPN(M) draws heavily on Lenin’s work in its calculations, an orientation reflected at this time in what appeared to be a conscious effort by senior party members to imitate Lenin’s mode of dress (in contrast to earlier efforts to imitate Chinese or Khmer Rouge models). This mode stood in sharp contrast to more traditional Nepalese forms, especially the Maoist use of the worker’s cap instead of the ubiquitous topi.
[xiii] Readily available. See, for example, “75 Points of the Maoists,” New Business Age (Kathmandu), May 2003, 28-33.
[xiv] Bhattarai to Tiwari is instructive in this regard: “Our party, our party Chairman Prachanda and our various publications have time and again stressed that our immediate political agenda is to consummate a democratic republic in the country. Please note that we are not pressing for a ‘communist republic’ but a bourgeois democratic republic. For what we have advanced the immediate slogans of a round-table conference of all the political forces, an interim government and elections to a constituent assembly, which have been increasingly endorsed by an overwhelming majority of the population. As the constituent assembly is the highest manifestation of bourgeois democracy in history, we fail to understand why anybody claiming to be a democrat would shy away from this.”
[xv] Particularly useful, amidst the myriad works devoted to the Ulster conflict and the IRA/PIRA, is Richard English, Armed Struggle: A History of the IRA (London: Macmillan, 2003). His discussion focuses on insurgent intentions and calculations in the struggle.
[xvi] For a fascinating recent work dealing with CPN(M) efforts to expropriate cultural idioms to validate its own legitimacy, see Marie Lecomte-Tilouine, “Regicide and Maoist Revolutionary Warfare in Nepal: Modern Incarnations of a Warrior Kingdom,” Anthropology Today, 20.1 (February 2004), 13-19.
[xvii] I base this formulation on discussions with Maoist leadership figures during field work, April-May 2003, especially an interview with the second figure in the hierarchy, Baburam Bhattarai, 13 May 2003.
[xviii] Interview with Baburam Bhattarai.
[xix] Baburam Bhattarai, The Nature of Underdevelopment and Regional Structure of Nepal: A Marxist Analysis (Delhi: Adroit Publishers, 2003).
[xx] Field notes, April-May 2003.
[xxi] A telling illustration is provided by the pantheon given pride of place at Maoist functions: Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and Prachanda. That the public veneration of (at least) several mass murderers might be taken as chilling testimony of a new “Kampuchea” in the making is simply not understood by the Maoist hierarchy. The legal Nepali left, it may be noted, suffers from the same myopia.
[xxii] It should be further noted here that the representatives of the CPN(M) who were present in Kathmandu for negotiations were among the most worldly and well-educated in the Party. This lead to questions as to both the scope of their authority and the degree to which their positions accurately reflected those of the entire leadership. Though CPN(M) decision making is apparently a collective enterprise, Prachanda dominates through majority support in the Politburo. His views especially concerning the extent to which compromise may be exercised in the present negotiations are unknown despite the claim by Bhattarai that he and his peers are but a reflection of the party will.
[xxiii] Just how intense the struggle had become was indicated in the rapidly escalating casualty figures amongst the security forces. From 27 August to 17 December 2002, the army (RNA) suffered 82 more dead and 127 wounded; the police (CP), 105 dead and 157 wounded; and the armed police (APF), 171 dead and 205 wounded. Field notes, January 2004.
[xxiv] Field notes, January-February 2004. The term “the foreigners who would be gods” was freely used in RNA circles to describe those who advanced critique but no solutions to issues of local security beyond vague conceptions of “confidence building steps” within a strategic approach of “conflict resolution.” The ideological basis for such position was of little use to Nepali villagers, but some within the donor groups concerned claimed that the RNA was the greatest foe and that “their Nepalis” (i.e., those connected relevant donor-funded aid projects) were able to cut deals with the Maoists that safeguarded their lives and property.