Disregarding Chief of Army Staff Katuwal's appeal not to drag the military into political controversy, the NC and UML have all jumped gleefully into the fray.
UNMIN's Ian Martin has declared that any recruitment by parties to the Comprehensive Peace Accord (CPA) violates the letter and spirit of the Agreement on Monitoring and Management of Arms and Armies that his team is committed to ensure. This is as clear an espousal of the Maoist cause as is prudentially possible for the UN.
Whether the position of UNMIN constitutes a breach of protocol or merely violates accepted norms of diplomatic decency is for Foreign Minister Upendra Yadav to decide. But the statement clearly ignores the reality that the chief of the PLA currently heads the government and a former guerrilla commander is the defence minister.
Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal is responsible for the commitments made by both signatories of the CPA. UNMIN's stand in the changed circumstances has merely given Maoists a convenient stick to beat other political parties.
The moment the NC and UML sprang to support of the army chief, Defense Minister Ram Bahadur Thapa upped the ante by declaring that "appropriate action" will be taken against the erring general for transgressing his limits of authority.
The row over recruitment is a red herring. The core of controversy lies in differing perceptions about what Maoists call "army integration" and what other political parties and the army brass understand as accommodation of some PLA combatants into security agencies of the government. If it were not so, the government should have been happy that an important instrument of the state was taking timely steps to acquire its sanctioned strength and maintain battle readiness.
Unlike the organic character of Maoist combatants in camps, or its YCL guerrillas who can be mobilised with looted weapons at a moment's notice, the state army functions like a machine. It has a clear command and control structure, specific numerical strength and ancillary services supported by troops that seemingly do little else than march in parades in Tundikhel.
Defense Minister Thapa must know that the most effective way of stultifying an organised army is to deny it replenishment of men, machine and material. You downsize the YCL and it can still be a guerrilla force.
But try reducing the army's troop strength without proper planning and you make it dysfunctional. The more sophisticated a machine, the higher the dependency on its smallest components.
The Maoists do have a point when they say the Nepal Army is too bloated and we can't afford it. Madhesis are correct in claiming that the army is racial in composition, parochial in outlook and is discriminatory. The intelligentsia has the right to disbelieve anything that an army general says in light of what he did in the guise of Ajai P Nath during royal rule. Citizens have every reason to question whether we need such a large army.
In the days ahead, the strength of the army will have to be reduced according to a national security plan. Its composition will have to be made more inclusive and diverse to foster national unity. The army leadership will have to learn that it doesn't behoove the chief of armed forces to issue public statements, receive petitions from prosecuted groups and claim openly that the organisation he heads is somehow 'above' politics. It will have to learn that the army in any democratic dispensation is very much 'below' politics.
Until the Nepal Army becomes truly national, clearly responsible and wholly accountable to civilian control, we have to make do with whatever we have. The Maoists better not mess with the army because that is the institution of last resort.