The Maoists' Falgun Offensive last week, with its monstrous slaughter of the security forces, has broader security implications.
It is no more a secret that the Maoist leadership is hiding in India. And despite official Indian condemnation of the Achham attack and an official statement in November pronouncing our Maoists terrorists, they do find safe haven across the border. In a sense, therefore, this is already a "cross-border" war. The most glaring indication that India has officially done nothing to apprehend the underground leadership was the "Siliguri plenum" after which a parade of leaders from Nepal travelled to north India for audiences with Comrade Prachanda.
It is also no secret that India's Maoist groups procure weapons for the Nepali rebels, provide them safe-houses in Indian territory and have trained them in the use of explosives and landmines. Indian Maoist groups also help their comrades in Nepal to get support among international revolutionaries.
In an indirect way, the army is already fighting what can be called a cross-border war. What may happen now is that this war will be fought more openly. Even if the security forces are able to drive the Maoists out of the hills of Nepal, the guerrillas will simply head off to their hideouts in India. What this also means is that Nepal's security concerns would span the Indian plains, where both the problem and solution may be in hiding. And this would have broad ramifications for the Maoist uprisings in India's Bihar, Jharkhand and Andhra Pradesh states, where our battle-hardened Maoists are now in a position to teach their Indian comrades
a thing or two.
It is clear that the security situation will not improve until the border is sealed. The Maoists will have a theoretical edge here, because Mao's communism, and the internationalism that comes with the ideology, stipulate
that a communist can fight for revolution anywhere.
A future cross-border war will be different from the one fought by the armed wing of the Nepali Congress in the 1960s when the then underground party had the direct and full, albeit secret, support of the Indian establishment. Will this lead to the "Bhutanisation" of Nepal? It may, if it is the Nepali government that will have to send out an SOS. And if that happens, we all know who we have to blame for it.
In an interview with the news agency AFP, Maoist leader Prachanda once said, "If (India) did not support Nepal's fascist government, we would be ready to talk with the Indian establishment." If this statement was correctly quoted, it is clear in which direction Prachanda is taking Nepal. The Maoist leader also gave an interview to the Revolutionary Worker four years ago in which he said he was ready to take on the Indian Army. At the time, this sounded like false bravado. But was all this part of a grand plan to actually draw the Indians in?
The Maoists struck in Achham for a reason. The district borders both the mid- and far-western regions. They knew that here they would have an edge over the security forces in terms of organisation. They are in familiar terrain, the army base in Mangalsen was in a vulnerable location, and it would take time for reinforcements to arrive.
The security forces have been engaged in hot pursuit and in cordon-and-destroy operations that have inflicted heavy blows on the retreating Maoists. But we can expect the Maoists to have hidden most of their captured automatic weapons in secret caches, and they will be travelling light and fast, at night and in civvies, to disperse.
If the Maoists are trying to develop Achham as a base as strong as Rukum or Rolpa, it would be a major challenge for the future, because Achham is just one district away from Nepal's western border with India. Our Maoists are used to trekking nine nights at a stretch to travel from one part of the country to another, and it would take them no time at all to get to the Mahakali river and cross over.
The Maoists who were believed to be holed up in Rukum and Rolpa escaped from the army's security cordon (See "Down but not out", #77) to attack Achham with the weapons captured from Dang and their battle cry was: "Avenge Kapurkot". It was in Kapurkot in early January that the Maoists suffered their most major defeat, a repeat of their rout in Salleri in November. They badly needed a high-profile victory.
If the Maoists are emerging into a "Strategic Balance" phase after Achham, they may now be in the same situation as Peru's Sendero Luminoso, who said they were in Strategic Balance with the Peruvian security forces after establishing control over almost 60 percent of the country's territory.
In Peru, an infiltration breakthrough assisted by the CIA allowed the security forces to zero in on Comrade Gonzalo and six other members of the party high command. Our security forces here must also be hoping for a similar intelligence breakthrough as a final solution.
But the big difference with Peru is that, unlike us, it did not have an open border with a big neighbour-and one with its own Maoist insurgency-like India. There is also the question of how Nepalis would countenance help from outside intelligence agencies, and the presence here of foreign security personnel. So far Nepalis have been killing each other in a domestic insurgency, the danger is that all this escalation will lead us into a crossborder war in which also Nepalis kill each other.
Achham was a watershed in more ways than one. The security forces lost a battle. But this is going to be a long war. And, as they say in Nepali, "parajaya nai bijaya ko dhotak ho". A defeat can also be an early sign of victory.
(Puskar Gautam is a former Maoist district commander for Okhaldhunga and left the movement three years ago.)