Right from the outset, the launching of the Integrated Security and Development Package (ISDP) has been a controversial decision. The Royal Nepal Army has now been deployed in eleven Districts as a part of the ISDP. In places like the hinterland of Gorkha they are a very visible presence. But scrapping the ISDP and other initiatives like the Armed Police Force aimed at containing the Maoist insurgency are some of the demands Chairman Prachanda put forth in his 23 July call for a truce.
The army chief himself has been repeatedly embroiled in controversy because he has called for a political consensus before agreeing to deploy the military. The Rolpa fiasco was final proof about the inability of the government to order the army. Surely, there will be questions now about how come the army is committed for custom duties and frolicking on Tundikhel, but not for counter-insurgency.
When the army was sent to rescue policemen in Rolpa in mid-July, it raised doubts about the sort of political consensus that was or was not reached. Was there was a secret agreement about deploying the army, or was the army chief forced to act by the political leadership? Whatever happened behind the scenes, it is clear that it precipitated Prime Minister Girija Koirala's resignation. Such confusion over command and control of the army cannot be allowed to persist.
Now that troops have been deployed as part of the ISDP, it will be intriguing to see whether the government intends to achieve its aim by launching a "consolidation" campaign, a "strike" campaign, or both. The haste with which the army has been rushed indicates that this is going to be primarily a strike campaign, even though politicians maintain that the army is just providing security so development work can go ahead.
Only a consolidation campaign can help demonstrate that the government is intent on exercising its responsibility to maintain law and order and to meet the legitimate needs of the people. Consolidation would mean winning the hearts and minds of the people, and thus helping quell the roots of the insurgency. Such campaigns have four stages: Preparation, Offensive, Development and Completion.
In military jargon, a consolidation campaign is usually organised in priority areas as an interdepartmental civil-military effort. All elements taking part in this are trained and indoctrinated on a team basis. This has definitely not happened with the elements participating in ISDP. Consolidation campaigns can be conducted during any phase of an insurgency, but success is more likely if it is mounted during low levels of insurgent activity.
If the ISDP has been launched as a consolidation campaign, the preliminary stages have been skipped. For example, the preparation stage when all participating civil and military forces plan, train, organise and equip for operations was practically disregarded in the hurry to get the ISDP going.
The ISDP has now entered Stage Two-the offensive stage-with the army being deployed in contested and insurgent-controlled zones. Yet the security forces do not seem to have either an effective intelligence system addressing all aspects of the insurgency, or a reliable database. A unified, centralised intelligence system to effectively conduct ISDP operations is not yet apparent. There is also no single agency responsible for coordinating psychological operations at the national level to avoid conflicting themes and programs.
The capability of the army to conduct effective civil affairs programs have never been tested before, and the resources at their disposal to do this is extremely limited. Whether a demoralised police force will be able to support the ISDP is also doubtful. And if violence flares, the ability of the army to conduct successful tactical operations to find, fix, destroy or capture the insurgents will face an acid test.
In its effort to show that everything is going according to plan, the civilian leadership has prematurely kicked off Stage Three- the development stage-by inaugurating a power substation in Gorkha. But this may be putting the cart before the horse. Initial success in offensive operations will be crucial in implementing Stage Three which will address the core issues of the insurgency. Political, economic, social and psychological activities must be sequenced and synchronised under a secure and stable environment.
Stage Four-completion stage-of the ISDP will depend totally on the ability and the success of the security forces to conduct effective internal defence operations, the capacity of the development programs to deliver basic services and the re-building of local administration and infrastructure.
The performance of the army in the impending counter-insurgency operations will directly reflect the quality of top military leadership and its ability to forge unity of all agencies involved. The manner in which the campaign is supervised by middle level officers, and the proficiency of the officers will also determine the success or failure of the entire campaign.
A weakness or shortfall in any one of the above factors will have a direct bearing on the morale as well as the motivation of the troops and on the long run, the campaign as a whole. If the troops have been treated and trained as professionals, their performance will undoubtedly be second to none. However, if they have been abused and exploited, the officers will come face-to-face with the pent up frustrations of the men under their command.
If the top leadership has had the foresight to provide the troops robust rules of engagement, then it would be prudent to expect the troops to perform well. Ambiguous and weak rules of engagement could be fatal because excessive casualties during the initial engagements with the Maoists could bring down morale, giving the Maoists an aura of invincibility. An objective analysis of the recent army deployment in Rolpa seems to suggest that it was the army that shed first blood. Nothing could be more damaging if this happened again.
The resultant violence from the offensive stage of ISDP could be exploited by groups intent on targeting the geopolitical interests of either India or China using Nepal as their base. India is concerned that Nepal has turned into a hotbed of ISI activities. The variety of distorted news coming out of the Indian media at regular intervals cannot be considered a coincidence. Similarly, it is absolutely clear that the Chinese have zero tolerance for Free Tibet activities being conducted from Nepali soil. Any attempts to do so will surely be met with swift, effective and brutal countermeasures from the north. The Maoist insurgency in Nepal can be virulent by itself, even without the neighbouring powers meddling. We don't need the quagmire of a proxy war.
(Gyan Jung Thapa was till last year a Colonel in the Royal Nepal Army. He has a Masters in Military Arts and Science from the US Army Command and Staff College, Fort Leavenwoth, Kansas.)