close-icon

APEX LONG READ: Afghanization of Nepal: Our mistakes

Trailokya Raj Aryal

Trailokya Raj Aryal

APEX LONG READ: Afghanization of Nepal: Our mistakes

In October 1961, Mao Zedong met with King Mahendra and his Queen Ratna at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, China. Photo courtesy: Chinese Embassy, Kathmandu

The first part of this series looked at some foreign powers and their interests in the Afghanization of Nepal. While it's tempting to blame foreigners for the mess we are today (and for our chaotic future ahead), it does not help us understand why the foreign actors are doing what they are doing in Nepal. Therefore, we also need to be aware of the mistakes on our part. Here are a few of them:

Flawed analyses and faulty intelligence

Read any article on Nepal’s relations with India and China and you will come across a line, “after the fall of monarchy, China has been searching for a friend in Nepal.” This faulty line, more than anything, has affected how we view our relations with our neighbors and how they view us. It makes us think we need to be submissive to China if we want to protect ourselves. For outsiders, it makes them think they need a submissive friend to maximize their real and imagined interests in Nepal. Moreover this line does great injustice to the legacies of King Mahendra and King Birendra. Both pro-India and pro-China analysts use this statement with no historical basis whatsoever to justify the claim of our neighbors’ undue interference in our domestic affairs.

Mahendra was on good terms with Beijing but that doesn't mean he was a very good friend of China. It is a myth invented by the Indian establishment and promoted by its academics that absolutely refuses to view Nepal’s actions as independent and necessary for its survival, and to acknowledge that King Mahendra was sympathetic to India’s strategic interests. Further, it's easy to blame their failures on Chinese in Nepal than to admit they (Indians) were (and are) wrong on Nepal. But sadly, our own scholars seem to have accepted the line and parrot it all the time.

There is hardly any evidence that Mahendra was China’s trusted friend. For the Chinese, its problems with India in the 1960s made Nepal a perfect venue to prove to the Indians that the Himalayas ceased to be a security barrier between the two countries and it was closer to India than the Indians thought. From Mahendra’s perspective, given the Indian reluctance to give legitimacy to his direct rule as well as the belligerent nationalist rhetoric of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, along with India's support for the “resistance movement” of the Nepali Congress, it was necessary to involve China to thwart any untoward incidents from either the Indian establishment, or from the Nepali Congress that had active support of the Indian government.

In August 1962 India “restricted its exports to Nepal on the pretext that the border situation was too disturbed to permit free movement of goods…” To foil any sinister designs India may have had on Nepal, Mahendra lobbied successfully with the Chinese. And China gave the king what he wanted on 4 October 1962 in the form of a strongly worded statement against India. On the first anniversary of the Sino-Nepali Boundary Treaty, Chinese Foreign Minister, Chen Yi, declared: “On behalf of the government and People of China, I assure His Majesty King Mahendra, His Majesty’s Government and the Nepali people that if any foreign forces attack Nepal, we Chinese people will stand on your side.”

Not only rebuffed by India on his desperate pleas to support the Panchayat, but with the Indians also threatening the system he introduced by supporting the rebels and by blocking essential supplies to Nepal, the king was justified in feigning closeness to China. Given its own impending war with India, China was happy to play along. And two months later when China and India went to war, “the border attacks on Nepal by the volunteers of the Nepali Congress ceased forthwith, and the Indo-Nepali border trade was resumed. India acquiesced in a new relationship with Nepal based on the understanding that it was for Nepal to decide for itself the type of government that it should have and that Indian territory was not to be allowed for anti-government activities.”

With this, the clever king, who wasn't either anti-Indian or pro-Chinese but a patriot, got what he wanted from both India and China. He then immediately tried to distance himself from China, because he feared it would affect Nepal’s relations with India and the outside world, which he viewed as more important for Nepal; and he wasn't quite sure about Chinese designs on Nepal either. (He told the Chinese leadership that Nepal’s relations with China were not be viewed as China calling the shots in Nepal, nor should the Chinese harbor any sinister designs on Nepal, as evidenced by the remarks Mahendra made while addressing a public gathering in Beijing the previous year.)

Therefore, “while proclaiming neutrality in the Sino-Indian struggle”, he was quick to let India know that Nepal was on its side by declaring “it is, however, an inborn virtue of the Nepalis to be sympathetic in a friend’s distress because the Nepalis are a gallant people, and treachery is totally alien to their nature.” As such the King resisted the Chinese “pressure to disallow the Gurkha recruitment in the Indian army”. Similarly, “Nepal banned the re-export of all goods of strategic value, as well as of certain specified essential commodities and consumer goods imported from India. These were clear hints that it was prepared to give thought to and protect India’s strategic interests.”

And much has already been written on the Chinese insistence on building the Kodari highway at the earliest, whereas the king wanted to delay it.

Further, the King was blessed with yet another opportunity to prove to the world that his relationship with China was more a short-term pragmatic alliance to get what he wanted (and let the other side too get what it wanted, i.e., psychological pressure on India of a two-front war) rather than a permanent strategic one.

(All direct quotes in this section are from Ramakant’s Nepal-China and India)

The Khampa rebellion

While our historians and international relations experts never tire of recounting and reminding the Chinese, to their chagrin, that we defeated the Khampa rebels acting against the Chinese interests during King Birendra's reign, we seem to have miraculously erased events of the years preceding 1974 from our collective memory.

The CIA and the Indians had been supporting the Khampa rebels in Mustang since the early 1960s. King Mahendra was aware of the operation and he did nothing about it, calculating correctly that it would not help Nepal’s relations with the US and India; the king was aware that Mustang was a joint US-India operation. But owing to Chinese pressure, “in 1964, the Nepalese Government dispatched a three-man commission to investigate the situation there [Mustang], and demanded the Tibetans surrender their arms. The Tibetans denied that they had any arms and the Nepalis accepted the surrender of 12 rifles. The Nepalis knew this was just a charade for the benefit of the Chinese and they duly informed the Chinese that they were satisfied with the situation in Mustang. In 1969 Crown Prince Birendra visited the Tibetan camps and met the new leader, Gyatho Wangdu.” Nepal didn't act against the Khampas until President Richard Nixon and Indira Gandhi fell out and US-China relations thawed.

It acted only when it was fully assured by the US and China that the two countries were now strategically aligned against the Soviet Union and the Indo-Soviet dismemberment of countries (the creation of Bangladesh). China assured that Nepal’s action against the Khampas wouldn't dampen its relations with the US, actually it would bolster Nepal-US ties as well as help China by stopping the Indo-Soviet alliance from dismembering other countries in South Asia. And Nepal too feared that ambitious Indira Gandhi, now further emboldened by the defense pact with the Soviet Union and the creation of Bangladesh, would replicate the same thing in the Tarai region of Nepal. The responsibility to protect Nepal’s territorial integrity fell on King Birendra after the patriotic King Mahendra died of a heart attack in 1972.

Nepal needed China's assurance yet again to safeguard its territorial integrity and China, fearful of the Indo-Soviet designs on Tibet through the use of Khampa rebels in Mustang (who were now acting independently of the US) was happy to acquiesce. Again there was no option for China and Nepal other than to appear close to each other and the 1970s again witnessed the Chinese side telling Nepal that it would “firmly support’ Nepal’s struggle against foreign interference, in defense of her national independence.” Nepal then moved against the Khampas and “by the middle of 1974 most of the men had surrendered to the Nepalese Army” and Gyatho Wangdu, their leader, was killed in Jumla the same year.

Again, both China and Nepal having gotten what they wanted from each other, Nepal displayed diplomatic maturity when “it invited the international press to an exhibition of the captured weapons in a park in Kathmandu… It was conspicuous that Nepal refused to name any third-party involvement in the Mustang affair, and neither the Indians nor the Americans were accused of aiding the Tibetans.”

These examples suggest neither King Mahendra nor King Birendra were too friendly with China and both the monarchy and China used each other to address their immediate concerns without any assurance on either’s part of a long term strategic alliance against India. This explains why China didn't back the monarchy/Panchayat in 1990, nor was it of any real help during the Indian embargoes of the late 1980s and 2015, and also easily accepted the abolishment of monarchy in 2006. Had monarchy been a trusted ally or had they agreed on permanent strategic alliance against India, China would surely have protected it by pumping money and weapons into Nepal.

But of course admitting that the monarchs acted on Nepal’s interests and Panchayat survived for 30 years because of popular support isn't democratic or sexy in new Nepal. Years of Indian propaganda that China viewed Nepal’s monarchy as a trusted friend, the monarchy was always eager to please China, and that's why the Panchayat regime lasted that long has been accepted as truth by Nepali scholars.

(All direct quotes in this section are from Tshering Shakya’s The Dragon in the Land of Snows)

Faulty intelligence and self-fulfilling prophecy

Newspapers are one of the major sources of information for intelligence agencies. What gets published reflects the mood of the society and helps them analyze policy options for their respective governments. But when faulty narratives based on faulty premises gets published every day, linking everything that happens here with geopolitics and one outmaneuvering the other, the intelligence agents here too have no option but to believe them. Further, Nepal studies isn't a lucrative career choice and real Nepal analysts are in short supply in China, India and the US, which makes it doubly difficult for their respective governments to analyze the garbage collected from the media here.

Add to the fact that Nepal isn't exactly an attractive a place for junior and mid-level operatives and diplomats, they have little enthusiasm to learn about the country they are operating in. (Or it could be that Nepal’s total lack of concern for diplomatic conduct makes some ambitious diplomats and agents exceed their mandate by coercing our leaders to do/say what they think would enhance their country’s image and role in Nepal. This way, they prove their loyalty and ability that could in turn land them a promotion or a future posting somewhere nicer.)

The same goes for think tank analysts in Washington, Beijing and New Delhi. Hardly anyone working there has a degree in Nepal studies (and only a handful of universities around the world offer it anyway). They may have taken a class or two on Nepal and suddenly they have to analyze the events they know little about. The solution: rely on media and Nepali journalists and scholars and tell the funding agencies what they want to hear. They forget we Nepalis are quite adept at telling scholars, diplomats and intelligence agents exactly what they want to hear. And that has created a rather scary narrative: China wants a trustworthy friend and the other two powers are working hard to deny it to the Chinese.

Therefore, the risk of hypotheses/theories and policy options on Nepal for the three powers based on inductive reasoning alone rather than structured analytic techniques (SAT)—that require brainstorming and looking at alternative hypotheses and scenarios, as encouraged by US intelligence agencies after the spectacular failure of intelligence in Iraq—are quite high. But what can the operatives do when we are ourselves promoting the wrong theory and making them view Nepal as a venue for a modern-day Great Game straight out of Peter Hopkirk’s books—without taking into account the advances in military and intelligence technologies? And the danger of our narrative becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy is quite high.

Or could it be that the brilliant analysts and diplomats of the three countries know the exact situation here and they are encouraging us to believe the mistaken theory that Nepal is important geopolitically for their security. This way, they can justify whatever they do here as protecting their national/security interests. Maybe we are being hoodwinked but there’s no way to know for sure as what they send back to their countries are classified material. (So the assertions in this piece are based on articles and newspaper reports and some freely available think tank reports on the internet, as well as my interpretation of those. I am no Seymour Hersh!)

We have now created a situation in which all three powers are forced to find the leaders who will address their concerns, more imagined than real.

The fact is, nobody wants a trusted friend in Nepal. All they want is a submissive friend who will only deal with them, rely on them and seek their blessing all the time—and not even look or talk to the others with whom India, or China or the US have issues elsewhere. This is why a section of our leaders and intellectuals oppose the MCC compact, and make it appear like a sinister plot by the US and India to encircle China, while another section views the Chinese BRI as a grave threat to Indian interests. We have made both BRI and MCC appear more sinister than they really are. Of course no country is going to invest money in another country for no reason, but these reasons need not always be sinister.

What is China's interest anyway then? Tibet, many in Nepal will be quick to answer. But again, viewing Tibet as China's Achilles’ heel is to undermine China's military might and question its control over its own territory and loyalty and patriotism of its Tibetan population. The fact that China isn't angry about the way we view Tibet should make us wonder: maybe Tibet is just a pretext for the Chinese to dictate policies here. Maybe they want us to assume that we play a major role in safeguarding China’s territorial integrity, and hence they have every right to interfere in our affairs and dictate our foreign affairs. But if China is perfectly fine dealing with India and the US and other European powers that directly or indirectly support the Dalai Lama’s Tibetan government-in-exile, the whole idea of Nepal playing a major role in Tibet's security appears absurd. Even when King Mahendra turned a blind eye to the Khampa activities in Nepal, China continued to provide us aid.

The US and India realize that supporting any armed insurgency as they did in the 1960s is going to backfire and in retaliation China could create problems for the US in Taiwan straits and for India in its northeast. And China would have no problems destroying the ragtag rebel army operating from Nepal in hours. So Tibet couldn't be the real Chinese concern here.

Trade then? Nepal’s trade with China is miniscule and Nepal doesn't produce or have anything China can't live without, so trade is out of question. Investment? While Chinese investment is growing by Nepali standards, the amount it has invested in Nepal is way less than what it has invested in other countries. Connectivity? China does not view present-day Nepal or the Nepal of foreseeable future as a major trading route with India. Otherwise, Nepal would have been included in the BCIM (Bangladesh, China, India, Myanmar) corridor. And the Keyrung-Kathmandu train link has been as for the moment downgraded to a highway.

And what's the Indian interest anyway? Water? All our rivers except one flows to India and we have no way of stopping them. Electricity? We are actually buying electricity from India at the moment. Security? So long as Nepal does not have a pro-Beijing regime and allows China to station its troops and missiles here, it doesn't really affect India security-wise. If India has what it claims to have, Agni short and medium range missiles, it can realign those to target China's installations in Nepal and close its borders with Nepal. Nepal’s international isolation, then? India tried it and failed then, and it won't succeed now. Islamic terrorism from Nepal? Nepal, even with its limited resources, has done everything to control terrorism in its territory and our security forces routinely arrest and hand over terrorists and criminals wanted by India who are hiding in Nepal.

And what's the American interest anyway? Support for the Free Tibet movement? As mentioned above, any support for Tibetan independence only threatens America's interests in Taiwan, Japan and India. America knows that even if the CCP were to be replaced by another pro-western government, Tibet would still remain part of China. Encircle China, as some argue? Of what strategic use would that be when China can realign its Dong Feng (DF) missiles toward Nepal and the US and Taiwan, Japan and India (again assuming that China too has what it claims)? Containment of China via Nepal? China sells stuff, does not promote ideology and  has no qualms trading with all, including its current adversaries in the US and India. As Nepal isn't even a minor point of trade between China and the world, what difference does it make to China even if the US decides to have bases all over Nepal?

So what could be the real motive?

It is to protect their imagined interests by creating a puppet regime. And it's due to faulty alarmist reports that one is being out-maneuvered by the other and that each needs to have its own puppet regime to safeguard its interests. These reports are written by our extremely smart or extremely gullible (depending on your perspective) scholars, and parroted by our leaders. The situation is so pathetic that even minor investments by the Chinese are seen as against India and the US, the MCC as a move against China, and any government change as a move by India against China.

Contrast this to what happened in the 1960s and the 1970s. Nepal managed to get the aid from all competing powers, the Soviet Union, the US, China and India for its national development. Ever wondered why? Because the leadership proved to all that Nepal only looks for its own interests and most importantly Nepal decides what it does and happens in its territory. Nepali leaders worked to gain legitimacy and support of their own people than that of foreign governments. And when they did seek foreign legitimacy, it was on Nepal’s terms. That's why the Panchayat survived for 30 years and the new system we have now is already in “danger” because our leaders have turned to foreign powers for legitimacy at the cost of our sovereignty.

They openly invite foreign powers to interfere in our domestic affairs by promising loyalty and total submissiveness to whichever power they think will help them by exaggerating the others’ role and intentions in Nepal. They have created a situation where all powers have been forced to realize they need to have their yes man in Singhadurbar to protect their imagined interests. (In reality, they are themselves capable of protecting their interests. We cannot resist the military and economic might of any of the three powers).

Now, each country has its favorite party/leader and they don't hesitate to let us know who they prefer. India didn't invite Jhalanath Khanal when he was prime minister, and China didn't invite Baburam Bhattarai when he was prime minister. China, it seems, is looking for a new friend after the NCP split and India and the US seem to be relying on KP Oli to do their bidding.

What's pathetic though is that our experts concerned about the others’ imagined interests have forgotten our real concerns. The three powers’ unwarranted involvement in Nepali politics is a real security threat for us. They have started to view Nepal as their own extension, and Nepal is hardly in a position to decide what happens in its territory and risks whatever it does as being interpreted as contrary to the interests of one of the powers.

It seems that having lived a lie that we play a major role in relations among big powers and having amplified our importance by a million-fold, we have actually forgotten what we really are: poor and weak. We have also forgotten our real needs, i.e., weapons and money and a pro-Nepal government that will deliver us out of poverty and make this country strong and truly sovereign. How many pieces do we get to read on the need to modernize the military or for short and medium range missiles to safeguard our sovereignty? How many pieces we read telling the major powers to stop viewing us as their extensions? How many pieces urging foreign powers to take our security concerns seriously?

This total lack of concern for our own national security and prestige and letting the three chose their favorites or submissive friends in Nepal is going to cost us dear. It even puts our survival and sovereignty at risk. So what would India-US/China do if, tomorrow, someone who's not in its friend list wins an election here? It could very well create a political turmoil by arming the opposition (because the polarization is more or less achieved). And when the situation gets out of hand, send in its military to maintain “order” and protect its imagined interests?

If things are to go on like this, the proxy war begins and Afghanization of Nepal will be complete. This isn’t a farfetched scenario. Even if they bomb Nepal 20 times over, it is not going to harm their real interests, nor affect any country in the world. We ourselves don't care about our interests, security and sovereignty seriously and that makes it easier for major powers to do whatever they want here, whether bringing their war to us or creating perpetual chaos by supporting their proxies to protect their imagined interests.

“For a country that had no oil, no ports, no gold or diamonds, no strategic relevance, Afghanistan attracted more than its share of attention. The great powers almost seemed to want to send their armies into this unforgiving land just to prove they could.” (The Prisoner, Alex Berenson)

Replace Afghanistan with Nepal and you get the point.

[email protected]