US Diplomatic Cable: Nepal Army Chiefs Discuss Role of the Army and Countering the Insurgency

Created: 2002-03-11 13:23

C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 04 KATHMANDU 000510

SIPDIS

STATE FOR SA/INS

E.O. 12958: DECL: 03/10/2012
TAGS: MCAP NP PGOV MASS
SUBJECT: NEPAL ARMY CHIEFS DISCUSS ROLE OF THE ARMY AND
COUNTERING THE INSURGENCY

REF: KATHMANDU 379

Classified By: A/DCM HOZA. REASON: 1.5 (B, D).

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SUMMARY:
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¶1. (C) RNA Chief General Rana and his deputy, Lt. General
Thapa, went out of their way to underline their support for
democracy at a February 28 dinner with emboffs. Rana stated
unequivocally that a coup by the RNA was “out of the
question.” According to Rana, the RNA’s role is to quell
the Maoist insurgencuy, to restore public confidence in the
GON’s ability to provide security to its people, and to give
the GON an opportunity to address widespread poverty and
promote development. His deputy, Lt. General Thapa, was
surprisingly optimistic in the wake of the debacle at
Mangalsen (Reftel A). Thapa stated that the transition from
a “ceremonial and peacekeeping” military to a
counter-insurgency force would take time and that hard
lessons would be learned. He noted that the RNA had enjoyed
several significant successes in the immediate aftermath of
the Mangalsen attack, particularly through the use of
helicopters. Thapa stated that the RNA believes there is a
growing split between the political and military leadership
of the Maoists, and that the symptoms of that split include
greater violence and intimidation of civilians. While
optimistic, Thapa made it clear that significant assistance
from “Nepal’s friends” would be necessary. END SUMMARY.

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RNA CHIEF EMPHASIZES THAT THERE WILL NOT BE A COUP
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¶2. (C) Royal Nepalese Army (RNA) Chief of Army Staff Gen.
Prajwalla Rana and Deputy Chief Lt. Gen. Pyar Jung Thapa took
the opportunity of an RNA-hosted dinner to engage U.S.
embassy personnel on their view of the role of the RNA during
the current state of emergency in Nepal. The dinner was in
honor of participants in the recent UN/PACOM-sponsored
peacekeeping seminar here in Kathmandu. Both the Chief and
his Deputy went out of their way to underscore their views of
the current crisis, specifically discussing the RNA’s
political perspective, prospects for operations against the
armed Maoist insurgency, and the need for material
assistance.

¶3. (C) Chief of Army Staff Gen. Rana went to great lengths
to dispel fears of a coup by the RNA. While forcefully
stating that “the politicians” must work together for the
good of Nepal, he was careful not to criticize the GON. He
stated unequivocally that a coup by the RNA was “out of the
question” since the RNA cannot solve the country’s problems.
The RNA could only rule through the imposition of martial
law, and that this would only worsen the country’s economy
“even more than the current state of emergency.” Further, he
feared that a coup would immediately result in “the US
government and European governments withdrawing critical
development assistance.” Therefore, Rana concluded, it is
up to the RNA to neutralize the armed Maoists, to restore
public confidence in the ability of the soldiers and police
to provide security to the people, and give the GON an
opportunity to address the serious development issues
confronting the country. He made it clear that the object of
the RNA-Maoist conflict would be to encourage Maoists to
surrender or defect, that the winning of hearts and minds was
more important than the number of Maoists killed, and that
the RNA must conduct a clean war with respect for human
rights uppermost.

¶4. (C) Rana spoke with emotion regarding the RNA’s critical
role in the restoration of public order in the immediate
aftermath of the palace tragedy of June 1, 2001. If ever
there had been a moment when the RNA could have taken power,
said Rana, “that was it.” However, he said, the RNA had done
its duty to the King and the Nepalese people, maintained
public calm, returned the streets to the police, and returned
the troops to their barracks. Since then, Rana continued,
the RNA has stood by the GON when its visible security
presence foiled the Maoist call for a mass rally in Kathmandu
in September 2001. Since the attack on the RNA barracks in
Dang in November, the RNA has been forced to engage the
Maoists directly, but has only done so under a formal state
of emergency properly established through constitutional
mechanisms. Rana noted that the RNA would far prefer seeing
the Maoists surrender as they “do not want to kill them –
they are Nepalis.” Rana spoke sincerely about the deplorable
poverty, particularly in the countryside, and the need for
development to improve the lives of the people.

¶5. (SBU) BACKGROUND NOTES ON CHIEF OF ARMY STAFF RANA:
Rana is a third generation army officer who began his career
in 1961. He was a young lieutenant in 1964 when the
then-King dissolved the first democratic government and
instituted the Panchayat system. In 1990, when demonstrators
forced the King to re-institute multi-party democracy, Rana
was Director of Military Intelligence. It is reported that,
in the face of the popular demonstrations, the RNA had
advised the King that they could suppress the demonstrators,
that the soldiers would indeed follow orders, but that it
would cost over a thousand Nepali lives. The King relented,
but not before at least forty demonstrators were killed by
the police, backed by the RNA, at one demonstration in front
of the palace. That event is often referred to as a searing
experience for the RNA, and one that prompted the King, up
until the time of his death last June, to keep the RNA away
from the conflict against the Maoists. Gen. Rana is
scheduled to retire in September 2002, although rumors have
arisen that he might be kept on. He is expected to be
replaced by his well-regarded deputy, Gen. Thapa.

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RNA DEPUTY CHIEF SURPRISINGLY OPTIMISTIC
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¶6. (C) Despite the psychological impact of the recent Maoist
victory over the RNA reinforced platoon in Mangalsen, Deputy
Chief of Army Staff Lt. General Thapa was surprisingly
optimistic about the RNA’s prospects for eventual success in
quelling the armed Maoist insurgency. In a wide-ranging
discussion, Thapa outlined RNA operational thinking as they
make the transition from a “ceremonial and peacekeeping”
military to a counter-insurgency force. “We will lose a few,
and we will win a few,” he stated, but the RNA is engaged and
will make the transition necessary to defeat the armed
Maoists. Expanding on Rana’s comments, Thapa stated that the
RNA must maintain pressure on the Maoists, attack their
morale, and encourage defections. Thapa was optimistic about
the prospects of severely degrading the Maoist military
capabilities before the start of the monsoon in June. At
that point, he said, operations will necessarily slow down
due to the weather, and it will be “up to the politicians” to
resolve the conflict. “If they fail, then we will be back
at work after the monsoons.”

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MANGALSEN WAS A SETBACK, BUT LESSONS ARE BEING LEARNED
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¶7. (C) When asked why the RNA was so optimistic only two
weeks after the debacle at Mangalsen, Thapa made three
points. First, the contingent in Mangalsen was not prepared
to defend itself. “While we don’t like to talk bad about the
dead, the commander made many mistakes.” He went on to say
that the garrison in Mangalsen had not prepared proper
perimeter defenses, whereas the recent successful defense of
a repeater tower by a similarly-sized garrison was a
testimony to the importance of proper tactical preparation.
The lessons of site selection, clear fields of fire, razor
wire and trip flares were now being systematically passed on
to all platoon and company commanders, according to Thapa.
Second, Thapa claimed that the Maoist attacks in Achham
district, including Mangalsen, were not a complete success.
He claimed that it was the Maoist intention to hold the
district capital for the entire day. However, the Maoists
were surprised by the arrival of RNA reaction forces by
helicopter and were forced to leave the area in haste.
Similarly, the subsequent Maoist attack on the police post at
Salyan was disrupted by the arrival of an RNA helicopter.
Third, Thapa continued, since the attack at Mangalsen, the
RNA had achieved a number of successes throughout the country
and inflicted heavy casualties on “hard-core” Maoist cadre.
This was particularly true, he claimed, in the successful
ambush of forty-plus heavily armed Maoists trying to return
to Kalikot district from Achham. According to Thapa, the RNA
had four transport helicopters and two ‘gunships’ in the area
in preparation for a planned cordon and search operation.
When the RNA learned that this Maoist contingent would be
entering a pass between the two districts, he said, the
cordon and search operation was called off and the force was
quickly deployed ahead of the Maoist line of march. This
successful ambush, high body count, and recovery of
significant weaponry did much to restore RNA morale.

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THE RNA CAN WIN, BUT FOREIGN ASSISTANCE WILL BE NEEDED
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¶8. (C) Thapa noted that more such raids will be conducted as
the RNA makes the transition to a counter-insurgency role and
takes the offensive. It is difficult, however, because of
the shortage of troops and the fact that it will be many
months before the 5,000 new recruits can take the field. He
stated that they are further handicapped by a shortage of
equipment that can make the difference, particularly
helicopters and the ability to fly them at night or in poor
visibility. Thapa noted that the RNA had used what slim
resources it had available to contract with an Israeli
commercial firm to install some armor plating and fixed
machine guns on their existing “scout” helicopters. Thapa
went on to say that he had recently had a meeting with the
Governor of the Central Bank to determine what further
financial resources will be available. He declined to
comment on the specific outcome of that meeting, but clearly
intended to make the point that the GON Treasury is under
strain and that “assistance from Nepal’s friends” would be
necessary.

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THE RNA SEES SPLIT IN MAOIST LEADERSHIP AND SEEDS OF THEIR
DEFEAT
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¶9. (C) Gen. Thapa confirmed the RNA’s belief that there is a
significant split between the Maoist political leadership and
their military commanders in the field. During the last few
weeks, he claimed, communications between Maoist forces in
the field and the political leaders have declined, and
disagreements between field commanders and political
commissars attached to Maoist military units has increased.
Thapa characterized the conversations as criticism by field
commanders that “they are doing all the suffering and the
political leadership is enjoying all the perks.” Thapa did
not specify whether his information came from actual
communication intercepts or prisoner interrogations. He
insisted, however, that current intelligence has confirmed
earlier rumors, dating back to November, of a major
disagreement over the decision by the Maoists to abandon
negotiations and resume military operations. He went on to
say that it is the RNA’s assumption that this split has
widened over the past three months. As a result, the Maoist
military campaign is now being directed to a large extent by
relatively young and aggressive field commanders with limited
intellectual, ideological, or policy grounding. Symptoms
include increasing use of violent terror tactics, forced
recruitment, and an increasing disregard for the winning of
the hearts and minds of the civilian population. In some
districts, according to the RNA, villagers are beginning to
flee the Maoists, and significant numbers of Maoist fighters
are becoming disaffected and may be vulnerable to
opportunities to defect to the GON.
¶10. (C) EMBASSY COMMENT: Gen. Rana certainly said all the
right things, and, while not necessarily insincere, was
clearly playing to his audience. While Rana avoided
criticizing “the politicians,” many of his colonels, majors
and captains are openly critical of the GON and its perceived
failure, in twelve years of democratic governance, to address
the issues of poverty and corruption. As for Gen. Thapa’s
optimism, the RNA will be hard-pressed to overcome the Maoist
insurgency before the arrival of the monsoon in June.
Despite the possible rift in the Maoist leadership, the
political boss, Prachandra, has publicly called for a
five-day bandh or strike to begin on the second of April. As
with the successful two-day bandh in February, the Maoists
may well be planning another major attack like that in Achham
to cow the populace into compliance. Whether Thapa’s troops
can prevent another defeat, or better yet, disrupt Maoist
preparations through offensive raids, remains to be seen.
Both Rana and Thapa are saying the things “Nepal’s friends”
want to hear, and they may well be sincere about them. They
will indeed need foreign assistance to disarm an increasingly
violent and ruinous Maoist insurgency. Whether the GON can
capitalize on an RNA victory by addressing the very real
issues of poverty and corruption is a much larger question.
However, that question will not have a chance to be answered
unless the RNA can win this round.

MALINOWSKI

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