There is no sign of a letup in Maoists violence: some 50 policemen and locals were killed in the violent attacks last week and rebel supporters have continued to spread panic in the urban centres by detonating explosives and carrying out arson attacks.
But even the upsurge in violence has failed to break the political standstill in government. The demoralised police is paralysed, and the army is reluctant to get involved in a messy war in which it sees no end. But the military has now been deployed in some seven districts and four more have been added for deployment this week after the latest attacks. Senior government officials told us they suspect the sudden spurt in Maoist activity in the towns and cities is a direct response to army's arrival in some mid-Western districts that the Maoists have declared liberated areas.
For example, the Royal Nepal Army now has a sizeable presence in Bafikot in Rukum, one of the eight districts where the Maoists have declared their "people's government". The army has also already moved into the hinterlands of Gorkha, home district of Maoist ideologue Baburam Bhatarai. Everywhere the Army has gone, it is now engaged in hearts and minds operations like health care and road-building. In some cases the army has been involved in providing relief to villages hit by landslides and taking on the job of the local police who have abandoned their posts.
The new paramilitary unit the government is training to fight the Maoists is expected to be ready for action in another 3-4 months, even though it is uncertain whether the government can get parliament to approve the law to form the Armed Police Force (APF). Failing that, a government source told us, it would be forced to rely on the Army itself for counter-insurgency. Army, police and senior government officials held a brainstorming in Nepalgunj last week in which they reviewed progress.
However, army sources interviewed for this article, say it would be difficult to deploy fully without a clear cut objective and a chain of command. Privately, the military sources say, they don't see themselves taking orders from fractious and confused civilian politicians.
Prime Minster Girija Koirala's effort to get the opposition on board to support the APF through parliament-as part of his 14-point agenda-remains stuck. The UML insists that he first give them a date for resignation. "If only the UML would make a commitment on fighting the Maoists and agree on strengthening the position of the Prime Minister, I think the prime minister would resign even if the opposition wasn't forcing him to," a source close to Koirala told us. "They just want credit for his resignation."
The government's strategy is to restore its presence in districts where police have been forced to withdraw, and with the army's backing, implement development programmes to "win" over the locals. The Integrated Security and Development Programme (ISDP) is being tried out in seven districts and discussions are on for expanding it to another four. But there are logistical problems with getting the plan underway. Besides, say critics, the situation is now too far gone for just the ISDP to resolve the threat. The Maoists have already read that, and have stepped up their campaign in urban centres and the hitherto peaceful eastern regions.
The main opposition remains trapped between its "prestige" demand for Koirala's head and the need to hold a radical face to prevent its cadres joining the Maoist ranks. "We tried to discuss their support for the APF during meetings but the UML doesn't even want to touch the issue before they are given a date," a minister told us. "They've not even made any public statement on the possibility of having to sooner or later fight the Maoists."
The Maoists on their part seem better at the strategic game. They've succeeded in isolating the government, prevent the opposition parties from getting together to form a joint force, and are already into their preparation for their "mass uprising" by sowing terror in towns while the army heads to the hills. In this, their best allies seem to be the confused and bickering parliamentary parties who can't seem to take the threat seriously enough to agree on a joint strategy.