Friday, August 18, 2006

Enduring Value of Nepal’s Military

By sheer coincidence, a senior Nepalese foreign policy advisory group made public its recommendation to, among other things, drastically reduce the strength of the armed forces as the U.N. Security Council was struggling to muster enough troops for
an expanded United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL).
Evidently, the Nepalese panel feels that a bloated military would be a drain on the country’s precious resources. Downsizing a force that could never stand a chance with either of Nepal’s giant neighbors on the battlefield anyway would free up money and materiel to promote social and human security.
With a touch of palpable erudition, panel member Harsa Narayan Dhaubadel told a Kathmandu daily: “Traditionally, security concept meant security force oriented doctrine and use of arms. But the positions of our two neighbors, China, India, in a new global order have become different and we need to redefine our foreign policy.”
Dhaubadel should know. He was Nepal’s ambassador to India, appointed by the short-lived Unified Marxist-Leninist minority government in 1994-95.
Juxtapose that with what U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Mark Malloch Brown said to reporters at U.N. Headquarters in New York after Thursday’s meeting of potential troop contributors.
Although “enormously helpful” offers had emerged from Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh and Nepal, Malloch Brown said, it was vital for UNIFIL to have a strong European as well as Muslim content for legitimacy.
Nepal belongs to neither group, but has a generally good record in the existing UNIFIL, barring of course those instances where get-rich-quick men have sold rations and ammunition to Hezbollah and Amal militants.
As for our wider role as international peacekeepers, even the Indian media, hardly a friend of the Nepalese military, has had warms words. (Of course, they came in context of proving the Nepalese military could neither defeat the Maoists nor stabilize Nepalese society as the principal pivot of King Gyanendra’s direct rule.)
With U.N. peacekeeping commitments set to grow in theaters expected to become increasingly complicated, Malloch Brown’s stress on the urgency of assembling multinational contingents capable of drawing the greatest confidence all sides becomes relevant for Nepal.
Surely, our political leadership, traditionally wary of the military, would find it hard to contemplate a large – and perhaps potentially bigger – force just to ensure that U.N. peacekeepers become rapidly deployable amid unanticipated crises.
Moreover, a haphazard merger of Maoist rebels and the national army as part of the peace process – as advocated vociferously from the realm of civil society -- might even corrode the credibility of Nepalese troops as international peacekeepers.
Yet there could be complementarities here that might benefit both the sagging Nepalese economy as well as the country’s international profile. As the latest instance has shown, rich countries are wary of commitments for a variety of reasons – ambiguous missions, command-and-control rivalries, colonial legacies. But they rarely hide their readiness to fund troops from developing nations in dire need of cash.
Despite the bitterness it has created inside the country, Nepal has enjoyed a largely positive image from what would ordinarily be considered mercenary work. Moreover, remittances from foreign employment have largely propped up the economy when all our traditional sectors like tourism and exports have fallen flat.
Deputy Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli, who is also minister for foreign affairs, has promised to study the report prepared by the advisory panel. Oli had the good sense to rise to the defense of the Nepalese army, after Maoist supremo Prachanda spewed venom against a force he long thought he could defeat militarily.
Can we expect Oli to exhibit similar sharpness in weighing the recommendations of the advisory panel?