Nepali Times
Between politics and war

In all the cacophony of spin generated by political factions in Nepal's rambunctious democracy, it is often difficult to tell what it is that the Maoists are really after and why they have taken the path of violence. In fact, the lack of a clear consensus in identifying the true nature and gravity of the threat posed by the Maoist movement has been a major deterrent to finding a solution or agreeing on effective counter measures.

For their part, the Maoists have benefitted from government inaction brought about by aimless, and often ignorant, political debate. The result is there for us all to see: political violence, terrorism, and anarchy in areas affected by the Maoists, and in the rest of the country, fear and uncertainty.

The Maoist crisis is in an "insurgency" phase. An insurgency is the refusal of the people who are indigenous to an area to actively cooperate with, or express support for the current authority figures. An insurgency can exist in many forms and each presents its own unique challenge to governments that want to retain legitimacy and political control. The government has labelled the Maoists as terrorists because they have adopted violence as a means to achieve political ends. This is nothing new; most governments resort to calling violent opposition by the catch-all label-terrorism.

In Nepal's case, calling the Maoists terrorists oversimplifies the issue. Terror tactics, such as those used by the Maoists, are recognised worldwide as an element of political insurgency. Unlike terrorist violence, which targets the public, insurgencies focus on government targets. Real terrorism is an inappropriate means of waging an insurgent war if the real goal of the insurgent is to actually win an objective, rather than simply engage in combat.

A democratic government is supposed to respond to changes in the needs of its people. When change does not come easily since those in power are preoc-cupied with retaining that power and little else, public dissatisfaction grows, unleashing frustration, discontent and anger. And these are precisely the ingredients that give rise to political violence. It is by now generally accepted that Nepal's Maoist movement was born under these very conditions.

Initially, the government underestimated the strength and the resolve of the Maoists, and treated them like a bunch of bandits. This led to a misleading appraisal of the situation and a series of flawed responses. Operation Romeo in 1997 was a heavy-handed overreaction which used only the police to curb the movement. However, an undue emphasis on the use of counter-force clouded the key political, economic, and social realities, playing right into the hands of the Maoists who gained from the public backlash against the state.

The Maoists responded by starting a pattern of escalating violence, and spreading their base areas. Again, successive governments refused to acknowledge the gravity of the situation and stuck to the conceptually defective plan to crush the spreading guerrilla activity. So, 1998 saw the launch of Operation Kilo Sierra 1 and subsequently KS 2 and 3 in the following years. It is clear this approach did not work, and only ended up adding fuel to the fire by alienating the people with its heavy-handedness.

In hindsight, the question for governments that have ruled since 1996 is why they chose to use only the police to quell the problem in the first place? The misconceived notion that deployment of the Royal Nepal Army would endanger Nepal's nascent democracy and empower the king remains a major mistake, probably perpetrated by hidden hands. Why was the military, decidedly the trained experts in the business of counter-insurgency, kept on the sidelines? Why was no constitutional or legislative action taken to ban the activities of a group of avowedly undemocratic and openly lawless elements who say they want to overthrow the country's constitutional monarchy? The answers to these questions lie hidden in the mindset of politicians and political complexes, in their paranoia, and in the ruthless political intrigues of Nepal's post-1990 polity.

Once the government realised the futility of trying to eradicate the Maoist insurgency using a singular line of operation, it made significant adjustments to its plan of action. This now includes the recent drive to mobilise multipartisan backing for dialogue, and the much-vaunted economic package for Maoist-affected areas. At least the government has given up its earlier intransigence and shown more flexibility and vigour. Nevertheless, even these ini-tiatives are plagued by factions jostling for credit and lack a long-term strategy and vision.

The National Security Council (NSC) is the government's pivotal body to deal with crises such as these. But as political hindrances prevented the NSC from being an action-oriented and effective entity, key decisions like defining the role of the Royal Nepal Army have been unnecessarily delayed. Ultimately, political leaders, through the medium of the NSC and preferably with the appointment of a National Security Adviser, have to take up responsibility for:
. coordinating crisis management;
. identifying and assessing short-, medium-, and long- term threats to national security;
. facilitating intelligence and analysis to political decision -makers and helping them formulate responses;
. passing on NSC's directives and guidance to government departments; and
. monitoring and evaluating the implementation process.

Insurgency is a zone between politics and war. If war, as Clausewitz declared, is "the continuation of politics by other means" then an insurgency too can be called "politics by other means". The insurgents' goal is to force political change through violence. The strategic centre of gravity here is the competition for the hearts and minds of the people. To be effective, the government's counter-insurgency strategy must therefore take it to the people through political action rather than by deploying the army. If the military is used, the following components are essential:
. The army need only deploy partially to provide security and ensure peace by keeping them safe from insurgent violence and activities.
. It should engage in the delivery of basic services to restore the people's faith and confidence in the government.
. It should assist in training a well-disciplined, and highly motivated police force.
. It should defeat the guerrilla forces through selective and measured use of force. The guiding principle should be that force is a means and not the end in itself, and, when applied, should be decisive.
Military operations are not conducted in isolation; their basic intent is to provide support and credibility to government actions. The Royal Nepal Army can offer such support, but it cannot reach and destroy the core of the Maoist insurgency, which lies in the sphere of ideology and political activities. The use of force and the military has to be a specific line of operation within the government's overall counter-insurgency strategy. The primary focus of the government must, however, remain in the political arena.

(Samrat Rana is the pen-name of a military analyst.)

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)