TOPICS: US military aid — a life saver?

Akanshya Shah

Much of the press commentary this week focussed on what is perceived as highly controversial role of the US in helping to sort out the Maoist problem at home. As part of a bilateral deal struck between the then government of Sher Bahadur Deuba and the US government in 2002, America on April 21 delivered the third consignment of M16A2 rifles to the Royal Nepalese Army (RNA). Sources claimed that the consignment consisted of some 500 M16A2 rifles, ammunition and other military equipment needed to battle the rebels who, in turn, are believed to be as much armed with modern weapons, a fact clearly demonstrated by their recent “success” attacks on Bhojpur and Beni.

The US had supplied 3,000 similar rifles in January 2003 and some hundreds were sent a few months later. As part of the original deal, it was agreed that the US would provide 5,000 M16 rifles to Nepali army to combat the insurgency. It is believed that during Deuba’s visit to Washington DC, the Bush administration vouched $20 million aid which was later slashed to $12 million. Besides M16, arms supplied since then include helicopters, twin engine STOL aircraft, ammunitions and other non-lethal weapons. The RNA now possesses more than 17,000 M16 rifles and 10,000 Infantry Small Arms System (INSAS). This makes the US the largest military supplier to Nepal, besides the UK, India, Belgium and others. Moreover, the US military officials have been incessantly engaged in Joint Military Exercises and in training the RNA soldiers. Experts claim a possibility that RNA has raised a “Rangers Battalion” of 1000 soldiers for commando type operation.

Even before the rifles reached Kathmandu, the American Ambassador to Nepal, Michael Malinowski, revealed to journalists on April 19 that in fact the US aid flowing into Nepal has helped maintain “peace” in the kingdom. He raised concerns over the deteriorating relation between the palace and the parties who are now shouting anti-regression and republican slogans. He also ruled out elections without the participation of all the constitutional forces of the country.

Clearly, the US involvement in Nepal’s crisis seems unprecedented. That the US is committed to help fight the insurgency to its last stage is evident from its regular assistance in terms of military aid. Meanwhile, unlike sceptics now pointing a finger at US-Nepal ties, the US has time and again reiterated its support to multiparty system and constitutional monarchy. This was also made clear during three visits of Assistant Secretary of State Christina Rocca to Nepal in 2002. However, the US officials’ claim that the support in arms building is extended only on the “request” of Nepal is hard to swallow. As a development donor the US is not the largest, rather it stands way behind the Europeans and other countries.

The reality is that the US interest and its high visibility role in Nepal is dictated by the compulsions of post 9/11 events and the US policy of “war against terrorism,” and not necessarily for the sake of “peace” and to “save a lot of lives,” as Ambassador Malinowski put it. It would be better if the US authorities understood that the Maoists are already a vital political force and sooner they are brought to the table for a political solution worked out within a democratic framework the better for the country.