First the good news. The technical panel of the Army Integration Special Committee (AISC) appears to be one of the few institutional mechanisms going about its job with seriousness and rigour. Comprising of a mix of former army officers, security specialists, former bureaucrats and Maoist strategists, the team has been able to make some progress. It is getting along with settling the future of the Maoist combatants.
The team visited the fourth division headquarters in Nawalparasi last week. It plans a few more such visits, and a survey of what the PLA soldiers want. The information will then be fed to the AISC and top political leadership.
This kind of work is important for it is the first time an official body with authority has gone to the PLA camps with the intent of discussing their future. Until now, it has largely been the post-conflict tourists.
But like the various committees of the CA the real challenge will be arriving at a political compromise later on. And that looks increasingly difficult with no non-Maoist party willing to trust the former rebels, and the escalating tension between the NA and the Maoists.
At best, anti-Maoist forces will accept token scattered integration of a few thousand soldiers at lower ranks. The Maoists have no intention of accepting such a deal. They want space in the command structure, unit level entry, and possibly a gradual merger of the two armies. Talk to any serious Maoist security expert and they will talk about how PLA's strengths complement that of the NA, the importance of maintaining a separate unit at the beginning so as not to disturb the internal dynamics of existing battalions, and the necessity of command level integration first.
This ambitious demand may not be shared by the whole party, even the leadership privately distances itself from it at times. The Maoists have internal problems: some divisional commanders are more assertive than others, thousands of guerrillas have just walked away from the PLA in the last two years. But to dismiss their stand as mere posturing would be repeating the mistake of not taking what the Maoists say seriously.
How the varying perspectives will be reconciled and how the NA, Maoists, NC, UML, Madhesi parties (who will insist on simultaneous inclusion of Madhesis), India, China and to a lesser degree US, UN and UK will come to a meeting point is anyone's guess.
There are other complications as well. There has been no movement on the discharge of disqualified combatants because it has been really difficult for the Maoist top brass to break the news (some of the disqualified were informed only recently) and take action. These people have been staying in the cantonments for two years, have developed bonds with other PLA soldiers, do not want to go back to their villages, and have aspirations of their own. There has been some back-channel work on rehabilitation options, but it needs to speed up.
If all this was not messy enough, some Madhesi PLA combatants have been toying with the idea of joining Matrika Yadav. But they do not want to let go of their status and money in the cantonments. This may not be an immediate threat, but if the integration process does not speed up, there will be a rising temptation among some in the PLA to switch allegiances and go with Maoist defectors, with whom they have a past association.
UNMIN's tenure will end in July. And it seems unlikely that this process will show results by then, which means we will go through the entire exercise of the government writing a letter, New York making a bit of a fuss but relenting and granting a downsized extension. But how long will the Nepali political class continue this charade at the cost of its credibility? There will be a time when the 'international community' stops footing the bill.
It is simple. To end a critical phase of the peace process, to help build trust among parties (non Maoists cannot trust Maoists till they have a separate army), to use the goodwill that is generated to write the constitution, there has to be a political consensus on the future of the Maoist army. The longer one delays meaningful political discussions at the top on the issue, the more difficult it will get.