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How Not To Fight An Insurgency

Ajai SAHNI

Tuesday 9 December 2003, by SAHNI*Ajai

Article paru dans Outlook India, ?dition en ligne du 9 d?cembre 2003.

The killing rates in Nepal since November, 2001, have averaged far more than the combined average of fatalities in all the terrorist and insurgent movements across India - including Jammu & Kashmir, supposedly ’the most dangerous place on earth’.

If success in counter-insurgency were to be measured by body counts alone, the campaign has been going rather well in Nepal, after peace talks broke down on August 27, 2003. In little more than the three months following (August 27 to November 30), a total of 1,396 persons have been killed in the fighting, 1,081 of them ’insurgents’.

The year 2003 has, in fact, been relatively benign, with the first almost eight months passing with comparatively small numbers of fatalities - January saw 115 killed, down to 32 in February; between March and July, total fatalities were just nine; and, as the ’ceasefire’ went awry, and eventually broke down, August saw 84 dead. The year total, consequently, stood at ’just’ 1,644 (up till November 30) as against 4,896 killed in 2002, 3,992 of them ’insurgents’. May 2002 alone, in fact, saw as many as 1,023 killed, 975 of them ’insurgents’.

Indeed, if the period of the ceasefire is excluded, the killing rates in Nepal since the insurgent attack on the Army camp at Dang on November 23, 2001, have averaged far more than the combined average of fatalities in all the terrorist and insurgent movements across India - including Jammu & Kashmir, supposedly ’the most dangerous place on earth’.

The data on fatalities in Nepal is, of course, far from authoritative. The Nepalese Government has tended to be secretive about the counter-terrorism campaigns and fitful in its release of information. There are vast areas, moreover, including the Far West, where the Government’s own sources of information would be unreliable, if not non-existent.

Present estimates are drawn from continuous monitoring by the Institute for Conflict Management of official sources and reportage in the English language Press of Nepal. The categorisation of fatalities into ’insurgent’, ’civilian’ and ’security forces’ is, moreover, uncritical and relies entirely on such reports. There is no independent verification, for instance, that fatalities listed as ’insurgents’ are, in fact, drawn from the combatant ranks of the Maoists, and not from non-combatant militia, sympathisers and civilian populations. There is reason to believe that at least a proportion of the violence on both sides is indiscriminate and targets innocents].

Significantly, an overwhelming proportion of those killed since 2001 - 79.44 per cent (6,030 of 7,591) - have been ’insurgents’. The exact strength of the Maoist cadres is, of course, difficult to estimate, but Government figures in early 2003 put their numbers at 5,500 combatants, 8,000 militia, 4,500 cadres, 33,000 hardcore followers and 200,000 ’sympathisers’.

The Maoists’ own claims are higher, and the Chairman of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) and leader of the insurgency, Pushpa Kamal Dahal aka Prachanda, in a release on October 5, 2003, boasts of "the formation of two divisions, seven brigades and 19 battalions", as well as "around a hundred thousand strong people’s militia as a recruiting base" and the "mobilization of hundreds of thousands of people along class, caste, nationality, regional, gender questions around the people’s war."

Wherever the numbers may lie, the fatalities inflicted on the Maoists would tend to suggest that the Maoists are now in flight, and the forces of the establishment are consolidating their domination over the country’s hinterland that had, for some time, passed into the control of the insurgents.

A closer analysis of developments, however, reveals the spectacle, rather, of a country hurtling towards chaos, with the state and its agencies in headlong flight. With the exception of the Army or paramilitary camp and column, Kathmandu has no presence in increasing parts of the country. According to the World Bank’s ’Country Assistance Strategy Progress Report, 2003,’ more than one-third of Nepal’s 3,900 village development committee (VDC) buildings have been destroyed, 19 districts (of a total 75) are without telephone service, 250 post offices have been ruined and six airports have been closed. While hard numbers are unavailable, it is safe to assume that most of the state’s developmental agencies in rural areas are now paralysed.

More significantly, there is little permanent presence of enforcement agencies in the rural areas, as the police abandon the smaller stations to consolidate into what US analyst Thomas Marks describes as a ’defensible mass’, usually at the district headquarters. In Rolpa district, the terrorist heartland, for instance, Marks discloses that, in 1996, there were 33 police stations, with the largest manned by 75 men, but most of the others with a strength less than 20.

When the post at Ghartigaun in western Rolpa was attacked in 1999, for example, it had a complement of 19. Fifteen were killed, the others wounded; the station was totally destroyed and was never re-garrisoned. In 1998, two such stations were abandoned; in 1999, a further 16 (including Ghartigaun); in 2000, six more; in 2001, another four; and in 2002, three - leaving a total of just two police station for the entire population of nearly 211,000.

The withdrawal of the agencies of the state is complemented by the widening sphere of Maoist presence and activity. Towards the latter half of 1999, 20 of Nepal’s districts were considered ’seriously affected’ by Maoist violence. By 2001, their number was up to 68. Now, all 75 districts in the country, including the capital, Kathmandu, have witnessed significant Maoist violence.

In some measure, of course, the Maoists have been forced into a retreat into the mountains, and the ’parallel government’ they were almost openly operating in their heartland in the Western and Central districts has been disrupted in many areas. This has not, however, brought back the agencies of the state, and much of Nepal has, in fact, been lost to anarchy.

Anarchy, however, is the insurgents’ ally, and the enemy of the state. As Mao - from whom the insurgents in Nepal draw their ideology, strategy and tactics - observed, "To gain territory is no cause for joy, and to lose territory is no cause for sorrow... The important thing is to think up methods for destroying the enemy."

While holding and losing territory matters little to the insurgent, it is central to the enterprise and legitimacy of the state. And not only must the state dominate regions through the use of force, it must govern them, it must provide the public goods and services, including most significantly, security of life and property, that its citizens expect in exchange for their allegiance. In this, Kathmandu is failing the people of Nepal, creating the circumstances for the collapse of the regime, notwithstanding the slaughters the Army and para-military forces may inflict on insurgents and their sympathisers.

It is clear that the Maoist leadership is far more aware of the strategic significance of current developments than is the national leadership at Kathmandu - both at the Palace and among the democratic parties. Prachanda recently declared that, "From (a) tactical point of view, at present the people’s army is going ahead with primary and decentralized resistance so as to feel the pulse of the enemy, tire them out and to prepare ground for centralized offensive."

That this ’ground’ is being substantially prepared is borne out also by the increasing damage inflicted on the structures of governance, the national infrastructure and on the Nepalese economy by the ongoing violence. Nepal’s National Planning Commission (NPC) estimates the direct damage to the impoverished economy at between USD 300 million and 500 million. The indirect damage would be many times this amount, with a cumulative and disastrous impact on the capacity of the state to respond to its peoples’ aspirations in a country where GDP stands at a bare USD 5.1 billion, with a population of over 24 million.

Tourist arrivals to the country - the backbone of its external economy - have more than halved since year 2000. The Maoists have inflicted enormous damage on physical and critical infrastructure across the country. Even where money is available for developmental projects - international agencies continue to invest great faith in pouring in substantial sums in aid towards ’development’ as a ’solution’ to insurgency - the extension agencies of the state simply do not exist in ever-widening areas across the country, and entirely in the areas where they are most needed, those worst afflicted by violence.

The Maoists have attacked the USD 20 million Jhimruk hydroelectric project as well as other mini hydro power stations, telecommunications repeater stations and sub-stations, airstrips in remote districts, school buildings, water supply schemes, and road construction, irrigation and bridge building projects, bringing virtually all developmental works in rural areas to a complete halt. The NPC puts the rehabilitation costs of damaged infrastructure alone at over USD 400 million.

In the absence of the restoration, strengthening and extension of the permanent institutions of governance, including the critical institution for the maintenance of law and order - the police station - no permanent resolution to the problem of terrorism in Nepal is even possible. Nepal’s hinterland has to be recovered through governance - or will be lost, first to anarchy, and eventually to a possible Maoist consolidation.

Regrettably, there is little evidence that such a recovery is even possible. It is ironic that, while there appears to be a strong and general consensus on ’negotiating a solution’ with the Maoists, the fractious democratic leadership of the country and an obtuse Palace do not find it possible to arrive at a ’negotiated solution’ to their own aimless and suicidal political disputes. But, absent a stable political order in Kathmandu, and a consensus, not only on how to deal with the Maoists, but more significantly on how to restore (indeed, in many neglected areas, how to create) the institutions of effective civil governance across the expanse of the whole country, no progress is even conceivable.

The Palace-led Government has now created a Unified Command structure to coordinate the counter-terrorism activities of all state security forces - the Army, the Police and the newly created Armed Police. A dubious decision has also been taken to arm civilians to directly take on the Maoists - provoking fears, either of a leakage of such arms to the Maoists themselves, or of fratricidal civil wars and the emergence of ’warlordism’ in remote areas.

It is an unfortunate truth that violence is, and will long remain, a necessary response to the depredations of terrorists and insurgents in many parts of the world, and Nepal is no exception. To the extent, however, that violence exhausts the sum of the state’s responses, it will prove futile, even counterproductive. The objective of the state’s use of force must be the restoration of lawful governance, not scoring a higher ’kill rate’ than non-state hostiles. On both sides of the present conflict in Nepal, regrettably, a near exclusive belief in the efficacy of great slaughters as instruments of social transformation appears to persist. As long as this remains the case, Nepal can only look towards a bloody and terrifying future.

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