Nepali Times
Guest Column
Nepal's two wars


In Nepal the combatants are fighting two very different wars in which even such basic concepts as military strength, weakness and success are at variance. On one side, the RNA is fighting a conventional, attritional war in which the stress is on the control of key territory and the engagement of the enemy to inflict casualties and thereby weaken his will to resist.

At the strategic level, Mao\'s concept of \'protracted war\' is his most enduring legacy. He stressed that at all times the revolutionary army must stay unified with the people among whom it fights. The people can thus supply the recruits, supplies and information that the army needs and can be politicised at the same time. In this way the cultural and political structure of society can be transformed step by step with military success. Revolution thus comes about not after and as a result of victory but through the process of war itself.

This is the strategy that has brought the Maoists, for such a poorly armed force, remarkable success. Protracting the war could be to their advantage but other pressures have persuaded them that military victory is not achievable.

The vast superiority the RNA enjoys in weapons and equipment have forced the Maoists to acknowledge publicly that they cannot seize and hold anything against RNA reaction: not even a district headquarters. This puts alarmist claims of them taking Kathmandu by force into perspective.

At the most basic level, however strong their will and motivation, the Maoists are very short of the physical means to fight and they know it. Assessed in conventional military terms the Maoist are a pathetic armed force but non-conventionally, they are by no means weak. They have a proven strategy, favourable terrain, immense dedication and an absolute willingness to sacrifice their lives for the cause. All of this gives them the capacity to make large areas of Nepal ngovernable in any meaningful sense for many years. It also makes the task of disarming them by force, the current stated aim of the RNA, unachievable.

In the battle for heart and minds, the RNA\'s task is the greater. More than the insurgents, it is the state that needs the people\'s support and numerous intelligence failures indicate a deficiency in this key area. Apart from the moral and legal imperatives, there is a human rights link to military effectiveness. Invariably the most committed Maoists can relate stories of family members killed in cold blood by the army and police. Intimidation from the Maoists is also a factor as is the RNA\'s inability to provide continuous security to villagers.

In this conflict of \'two wars\' there is no possibility of a solution by arms. Each side can demonstrate that it is making progress according to its own criteria of success but, by the same logic, notwithstanding tactical gains, neither will be able to deliver a decisive strategic result that will end in the capitulation of the other. Thus, there is strategic stalemate in both the general and literal meanings of the term.

Claims about the Maoists that \'their back is broken\' are both misleading and meaningless. War is not metaphor. War is death, destruction, ruined lives, communities torn apart, children orphaned, women widowed and much, much more. All decisions and discussions about its utility should be guided solely by awareness of these harsh consequences, not by mind-sets insulated from reality by soft words and platitudes.

Unless there is a ceasefire and the start of a peace process to find a political solution through negotiations and compromise, Nepal faces the prospect of war without end. The key lesson from other conflicts is that the precondition for any hope of success is when both sides come to the conclusion and publicly acknowledge that they cannot achieve their aims by military means. The Maoists have done so but recent statements by ministers indicate that the government is still firmly committed to seeking a solution by force.

Both of Nepal\'s wars are having a devastating impact on the lives of rural people. Caught in the no-man\'s land of a nasty and brutish conflict, they yearn desperately for peace. This can only be achieved by following the well established pattern of people sitting round a table and negotiating a political way out.

In Nepal, as elsewhere, all will have to compromise. The only questions are: when, and how many more young Nepalis will die in the interim?

Sam Cowan is a retired British general who knows Nepal well. A fuller analysis appears in the March-April issue of Himal Southasian.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)