Nepalnews.com just published the following article by Chiran Jung Thapa. While the government stalls, the army moves forward and Mr. Thapa offers an insightful and timely piece. Highly recommended for anyone interested in the security of Nepal.
"Counsel to COAS" by Chiran Jung Thapa
After a sensational tenure as Chief of Army Staff' (COAS), General Rookmangud Katawal is retiring next month. As per Nepal Army's (NA) tradition, however, General Katawal will go on a voluntary leave a month ahead of his retirement date. And if all goes according to the NA's rule of hierarchical succession, the one poised to succeed him is the Chief of General Staff (CGS) Lieutenant General - Chattra Man Singh Gurung.
General Gurung will be taking charge during one of the most tumultuous episodes in Nepal's history. While the fate of Maoist combatants languishing in the various cantonments is yet to be decided, the number of other known armed groups in the country has sky-rocketed to a staggering number of 109. As a result, insecurity is pervasive. The political forces still remain woefully divided and the constitution writing process has hit a menacing deadlock. Border encroachment is rampant. And the country's future appears rudderless.
Amidst this chaos, when General Gurung dons the new insignia of COAS on his shoulder, he will also be shouldering great responsibility. The task of heading the largest security apparatus at such a critical period will be daunting but not insurmountable. And his dexterity and leadership will certainly play a pivotal role in determining the future of the NA and Nepal.
As far as his agenda as COAS goes, working on settling the issue of Maoist combatants should be high on his priority list. The Maoists want to merge their combatants into the NA. General Gurung should in no way allow the NA to absorb all the comrades. The wholesale merger of a politically indoctrinated combatants will not only defile the sanctity of a professional army, but it will also set an ominous precedent for the future. Given that there are 109 known armed groups in Nepal, one can easily deduce the implications if these groups too began making similar demands. A professional army should not become a dumping ground of the un-employed and malcontents.
But at the same time, recalcitrance too could greatly jeopardize the peace process. Hence, NA will need to find a balance. As difficult as it may be, General Gurung and his subordinates will need to come up with a palatable plan which simultaneously safeguards the NA's institutional interest and satisfies the interest of other interlocutors-mainly the signatories of the Peace Accord.
In order to accomplish this, General Gurung will need to be a shrewd politician but yet remain apolitical. Like his predecessor, his objective should be to keep the NA out of politics and the politics out the NA. Essentially, he will need to strike a balance between democratic accountability and institutional independence. Under his commandership, the NA will need to remain subservient to a democratically elected civilian government while maintaining its professionalism by avoiding the pitfalls of political patronage and cronyism.
Upgrading the NA's aviation capability should be another one high on General Gurung's agenda. The idea of upgrading the 11th brigade (NA's aviation unit) is already being mulled over. But it should not be limited to cosmetic changes like adding more personnel or shifting the command to the NA Headquarters under a higher ranking Major General. Instead, NA needs to focus on upgrading its assets and enhancing the training of the personnel involved.
To enhance its capability, NA will need to procure an optimal mix of both VTOL (Vertical take off and landing) and STOL (Short take off and landing) aircrafts to meet the varying "RST” (Reconnaissance, Rescue and Relief operations, Suppressive Fire-power, and Transport) needs. After procurement, NA must aim to minimize the downtime and increase operability of each aircraft. It must also aim to maintain an all time flying capability.
Another one in his priority list should be to improve the NA's intelligence system. One of the major setbacks for the NA during its counter-insurgency operations was poor intelligence. The NA already has a functioning Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI). The unit simply requires more personnel with specialized intelligence training. General Gurung should seek assistance from other states with robust intelligence systems to revamp NA's intelligence unit.
NA's legal branch too needs revamping. Through recent experiences, NA must have realized that battles are of varying kinds. And legal battles have become a more frequent part of NA’s proceedings. The legal department's upgrade already appears to be underway. The promotion of the Brigadier General who headed the department to Major General appears to be carried out with the intention of upgrading the existing department into a directorate. If true, General Gurung should ensure that happens. Not only that, he should also ensure that the department is housed with more and capable legal experts.
It is not just legal or intelligence expertise that NA requires. In this modern era, all standing armies require experts in various fields. And so does the NA. General Gurung should explore the option of initiating the “Uniformed Intellectual Program (UIP)” in the NA. Through this program, NA can begin enlisting strategists, analysts, lawyers, public relations experts and even financial experts to bolster NA’s capabilities.
The other thing that would serve to uplift the spirits of mid-level officers is creation of a fast track promotion based on merit. Today, the promotion system within the NA is entirely based on seniority. Regardless of one’s performance, an officer or soldier gets promoted when his time comes. And the NA’s finest, especially those who attended the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst (RMAS) as cadets, have been hard hit by this bottleneck. If the NA is to retain its finest, then it must at all cost initiate a merit based promotion system. This would motivate the officers and soldiers to be more competent. And the good services rendered by these officers and soldiers in turn would enhance the overall quality of the institution.
Personality of the COAS certainly plays a great role in determining the functioning of the institution he heads. Within the NA, General Gurung is reputed as a professional and humble General. But his professionalism and humility stoke jitters. Given the political onslaught the NA has had to endure, many believe the next COAS will need the General Katawal like fortitude and resilience to safeguard its institutional interest. But many within the organization find his lack of assertiveness unsettling. The outgoing COAS had cultivated extensive links outside the NA. These links greatly helped the NA stave off repeated Maoist assaults. General Gurung, however, is said to have very limited political links outside the institution.
But the General certainly deserves a benefit of doubt. First, he is already making history by becoming the first COAS from an ethnic minority. Second, he has met all the professional requirements to take up command. He is the senior most General. He has served as the NA's divisional commander, completed both his staff college and National Defense College (NDC). And of course he has a Bachelors degree. Third, amongst the Generals at least, his physical fitness remains unparalleled. Fourth, his professionalism is unquestionable. And he certainly has the potential to utilize his attendance at the military academies of US, China and India to the NA’s advantage.
In summation, General Gurung will need to lead the NA, not simply command it. He will need to keep his troops regularly trained, highly disciplined, prepared for any contingency and in high morale. This is the way to prove the skeptics wrong. NA has a glorious history. The onus now is on General Gurung to secure its future as a professional army dedicated to the service of the Nepali State.