Nepali Times
"Victory is just a question of time..."

. Why is it so difficult to bring the Maoists back to talk?
This is a difficult and professionally challenging time for the Royal Nepal Army. We are now forced to kill fellow Nepalis, and this could soon take the form of a civil war.

We had anticipated this, and had for some time now been asking political parties to build a consensus, declare the Maoists terrorists, impose a state of emergency. But there were delays. The guerrillas are now more entrenched, and resolving such a problem is not easy and can take time. Unlike a regular army, terrorists do not fight from a single fixed position. If they continue to keep their supply lines open, the war could stretch.

. What went wrong in Mangalsen?
There are some lessons from the debacle at Mangalsen. In any battle there are tactical situations, and the reaction of the local commander is crucial. The army and police had different camps, some distance apart. There was a dominating hillock above the military position where the Maoists are said to have gathered for the attack. The army position seems to have been weak, and it was vulnerable because there was only a small platoon defending it. There may also have been some complacency.

Whatever the reasons, we now know the army suffered a defeat. This does not usually happen unless the enemy has heavy artillery, air support, etc, which was not the case. So there may have been lapses on the army side.

. Why can't the army repeat its rout of the Khampas?
It was easier for us to chase the Khampas because they lived in camps, and we used to encircle them at night. Even so, after the Achham attacks, we blocked their escape routes and pursued them and were able to get at least 70 rebels. Guerrillas don't move around in one big group, but break into smaller bands the moment there is opposition and they just melt away. This is why we need to cut their supply lines if we want to solve the problem soon.

The war will also become more difficult if they manage to get public sympathy and local support. The military action must therefore be accompanied by development programs. Should a situation arise where locals support the Maoists then it would be pointless to keep on fighting. We have to be careful about that. So far, the majority of the people are with the security forces. Most of the support for the Maoists stems from fear of retribution.

. Does the army have enough troops?
If an armed group is revolting against the government and is killing and looting people then there is no choice but to try and disarm such a force. That now is the army's responsibility, and I think it is capable of doing that. The question is of time. How long will it take? We have a 50,000-strong security force facing armed guerrillas who number about 4,000. Both are spread thinly over Nepal's 56,000 sq miles and difficult terrain. The Maoists come together for their attacks and disperse. The recent government decision to mobilise the army, armed police and the police as one force is a good one as it doubles our numbers. There now has to be one plan for the three forces: the army taking on the most risky assignments and others doing the rest. There also has to be full support of all political parties. Once that happens there is no doubt about a victory, it is only a question of time.

. How important is the open border with India?
There is another aspect of this war: we don't have a separate body of troops for border control. We never really developed forces to protect the frontiers, large infrastructures, industry, etc as in other countries. This has increased the complexity of the problem. Security is not something you can build overnight, it has to be nurtured, like raising a child. There are issues of training, intelligence gathering and organisation building, which if neglected, can lead to a situation like the one we are now facing today.

Sometimes foreign forces back insurgencies. In such situations, the foreign source of support needs to be tackled. What is our situation, are foreigners involved? That is something for concerned authorities to find out.

. How good is our intelligence?
We do suffer from poor intelligence. Just look at the Maoist attacks in Kapurkot, Ratmate, Salleri, Dang and Accham. In all the attacks, many Maoists had gathered but we had no prior warning.

. And logistics?
We definitely need to improve reaction capacity, we also need air support for block and pursuit operations. If, for example we need to chase up to 2,000 fleeing rebels, we need to be quicker. Present transport helicopters may not be adequate, and we may also need air-assault capability. This would help enhance the mobility of the troops, and allow air support where needed.

. What are the lessons from other insurgencies?
We can take many lessons from other insurgencies. The most important one is that killing more people within the country is always counterproductive. The objective should never be to kill as many people as possible.

In Malaya, there were about 4,000 people of Chinese origin engaged in terrorist activity in the 1950s. The British focussed on severing their supply lines. The Chinese civilians supported the rebels, who received supplies from the sea. Arresting civilian supporters and blockading the seas cut off rebel supplies. Three regular army divisions of 20,000 each, including Gurkhas, were engaged in the operation. It took two years after the supply lines were cut off to defeat the rebels. In Sri Lanka and Peru, the conflicts were put down after intelligence breakthroughs led to the arrest of rebel leaders.

. What should happen now?
The best thing to happen now would be for the Maoists to lay down their weapons and come to talks. Winning the "hearts and minds" of the people is of vital important. One side is getting local support by using force, the government needs to first tackle that force and protect the people. The government also must understand what fuels the insurgency-it may be poverty, exploitation and corruption.

But it is almost impossible to do development without securing the rebel-controlled areas, and having a security presence there because the rebels will come back the moment troops pull out. We must redouble our development efforts where we can. Where insurgencies have been handled in this manner, they have been resolved.

. How long do we need the emergency?
We can't set deadlines for ending a conflict like this. You cannot win a war by pressuring the army and asking "what have you done in six months?"

If the emergency has made the lives of ordinary citizens difficult, then it could be lifted, but taking care that security forces are given the authority to continue their campaign. This campaign cannot be stopped in the middle with the job half-done. That would affect the morale of the army. We need to find a solution, and for that we first need political stability.

(Gen Satchit S Rana, 70, retired in 1991 as Chief of Army Staff of the Royal Nepal Army.)

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)