Downsizing NA is not in the national interest
The diminution of and deliberation on the Nepali Army is neither contemporary nor should it be a distressing aspect but it emanates as misinforming and inaccurate to the statecraft and to the broader audience.
In particular, the field of defense is one of the essentials like economy, governance and diplomacy to the country. None of these fields are thriving at present.
As an instrument of national power of Nepal, the army is the only unswerving and consistent institution in diplomacy, with national and international credibility in addition to remaining as a uniting establishment of the Nepalis.
Reading between the lines
While floating expenditure reduction measures in the federal parliament, Bimala Rai Paudyal, one of the three candidates that the then then President Bidya Devi Bhandari had appointed to the National Assembly in Feb 2018 and Swarim Wagle, a lawmaker elected under the first-past-the-post system, proposed downsizing the Nepali Army, among other measures, to reduce national expenditure.
Paudyal underlined the lack of strategic coordination and cooperation amongst the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Finance and Defense, which is essential for border security. She added that the army had failed in its primary role—protecting the borders, pointing at repeated instances of border encroachment.
“There’s no war going on within the country and there’s no possibility of either of the neighbors waging a war against the country. In the event of a war with either of the neighbors, there’s no possibility of us withstanding it,” Paudyal said, reasoning that there’s no need to keep a (roughly) 90000-strong army that cannot protect the country.
Such remarks coming from a lawmaker have tremendously hurt the sentiments and self-esteem of servicemen and women, veterans as well as the citizenry. Soldiers and citizens fight with morale and self-confidence that wells up from their training, education and love for their respective countries. This is something that cannot be measured in monetary terms.
There are many international examples about vested interests playing a major role in triggering wars. South Asia, for one, witnessed such wars during the 1970s. The recent Russian invasion of Ukraine followed challenges to the Kremlin’s sphere of influence.
Nepal can face similar consequences, given its geopolitical and geostrategic location. Nepal’s vote as one of the 141 nations in the UN in March 2022 against the Russian aggression is also a visualization of a similar state of affairs along its own borders.
Lawmaker Paudyal should keep in mind that border security comes under the Ministry of Home Affairs during peacetime and not under the Ministry Defence. So, border violations are the result of a lack of coordination between the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Home Affairs.
The national budget for the coming fiscal 2023/24 (totaling 1.751trn) has allocated 14 percent to the security sector—for the defense ministry and the home ministry.
On its part, the Nepali Army reimburses more than Rs1.7bn as tax to the government from its Welfare Fund apart from bringing in about $22m (Rs 25bn) to the country, which is approximately two percent of the national foreign income of $9.1bn (approx). The national army itself provides another five billion rupees for its educational, medical and welfare programs, which is borne by respective governments in almost all the countries.
The government budget for the defense ministry appears paltry in comparison to the budget that the Nepali Army deserves for enhancing Nepal’s international prestige by helping maintain world peace through non-aggression and peaceful settlement of disputes as envisioned in the United Nations Charter.
Nepal faces enormous challenges because it lies in the midst of three competing nations— China, India and the US—and one more bloc, the European Union.
History says that no government, no economic system, no currency, no empire lasts forever, yet almost everyone is surprised and ruined when they fall.
Given our physical location, we as a relatively small nation are likely to face serious challenges, contrary to the expectations of many of our political leaders.
Marked by different political orders, security, economy and digital systems, the world is moving amid confrontations in the South Asian subcontinent and beyond. Cold War 2.0 is ongoing and the competition is palpable along Nepal’s borders unlike in a different continent with dissimilar technological capabilities during the Cold War.
In this context, the Nepali Army can stand as a stimulating force for geostrategic balance of power in South Asia and beyond.
The Nepali Army is one of the instruments of national power that needs solidification with modernization, strengthening of its capabilities and digitalization, also in view of the fact that the Global Firepower Index 2023 has ranked Nepal 129th out of 145 countries.
The recent comments from political leaders have come without understanding of the unfolding geopolitical environment that may push small nations like Nepal toward deepening political uncertainty.
In this context, a handful of political leaders making unsavory comments should not forget the role of the national army in upholding national honor and dignity.
At a time when Nepal’s dire prerequisite is to have a united strategic approach toward national interest, foreign policy and national security strategy, hollow comments from parliamentarians are most unwelcome. The Defense Minister has rightly expressed concern over such remarks, which show the lack of awareness on the part of the speakers on the importance of instruments of national power.
It’s time state instruments like intelligence agencies paid attention to increasing geo-political influence.
If you ask commoners questions about the role of the political parties and the Nepali Army, they will most definitely reply that the army has been acting as a far more responsible actor in service of the country and the people than the parties.
National security and prestige cannot be compared with monetary value. Important individuals should bear in mind that impromptu remarks on sensitive topics at wrong places and wrong time do the country a great disservice.
Downsizing the military is not a wise way to deal with national monetary challenges.
A number of measures can be taken to manage the budget for national development. Doing away with a costly federal system can be an option. Downsizing the number of elected representatives, reducing the number of ministries and establishing strategic structures for addressing issues of national importance can help at a time of rampant corruption, political instability and loss of national credibility. These measures will bring in enough resources required for national development.
All concerned must bear in mind that long transition adds up to challenges for national prosperity and stability.
The author is a Strategic Analyst, Major General (Retd) of the Nepali Army, and is associated with Rangsit University, Thailand
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