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Nepal: A new nest for al-Qaeda?
By Sudha Ramachandran

BANGALORE - Early this month, the United States ambassador to Nepal, Michael Malinowski, told the BBC's Nepal correspondent, Nick Bryant, that the US was concerned that "areas in Nepal don't get out of control, don't become a vacuum where terrorist groups can move into and use Nepal for whatever". When Bryant asked him whether he meant terrorist groups like al-Qaeda, Malinowski answered in the affirmative. He, however, admitted that Washington did not have evidence or intelligence linking al-Qaeda with the Maoists fighting an insurgency war in Nepal.

This is not the first time that the US has equated Nepalese Maoists with international terrorist organizations. In January 2002, US Secretary of State Colin Powell referred to operations against the Maoists as part of the international "war on terrorism". Malinowski has in the past described the Maoists as "fundamentally the same as terrorists elsewhere, be they members of the Shining Path [Peru], Pol Pot's people [Khmer Rouge] or al-Qaeda".

Malinowski's recent statement that "terrorist groups can move into and use Nepal for whatever" comes at a time of intense political uncertainty in Nepal. Not only is the government under serious pressure from the Maoists, but also political parties are out on the streets demanding restoration of multi-party democracy. Protest marches, strikes and violence have paralyzed daily life in Nepal. Political turmoil in Nepal has assumed worrying proportions and Nepal seems to have plunged into its worst crisis in decades.

Elaborating the ambassador's comment to BBC, a US embassy official in Kathmandu said that the persisting political turmoil in Nepal as a result of the Maoist insurgency, and compounded by the current confrontation between King Gyanendra and the political parties, is just the kind of environment that acts like a magnet to groups like the al-Qaeda. "Al-Qaeda's nest in Afghanistan and Pakistan has been destroyed. The birds are looking for a new home and Nepal in turmoil could provide al-Qaeda fighters a sanctuary," he argued.

The Maoist insurgency in Nepal is in its eighth year. What started as a small band of idealists and intellectuals is a battle-hardened guerrilla army today, capable of taking on not only the country's police force but also its armed forces. The Maoists control large swathes of territory - around two-fifths of the Himalayan kingdom's land. Their influence runs across almost all of Nepal's 75 districts.

The US, China, India and Britain are backing the government's efforts to quell the Maoist insurgency. These countries have contributed military hardware and training to the Royal Nepalese Army (RNA) in its operations against the Maoists. The US, for instance, is said to have provided aid to finance Nepal's purchase of M-16 rifles and night vision equipment. It is also training RNA officers in counter-insurgency warfare. In August 2003, the US enhanced its grants to Nepal from US$24 million a year to $38 million a year in wake of the insurgency.

In 2003, the US Department of State designated the Nepalese Maoists as a terrorist organization. "For eight years, the Communist Party of Nepal [Maoist] has committed acts of terrorism that threaten the stability of a government friendly to the US," the order said, adding that "this organization poses a terrorist threat to the security of US nationals and US national security and foreign policy interests. Its members are responsible for the murder of two Nepalese security personnel employed by the US embassy in Kathmandu. In public statements last year, the organization directly threatened US diplomats in Kathmandu. The order also says that "the Maoist group has intimidated and robbed American tourists, bombed and burned establishments frequented by foreign tourists, and bombed and extorted money from US-owned businesses. The [Communist Party of Nepal] has also committed acts of terrorism against US-sponsored non-governmental organizations."

During the Cold War, India was opposed to any American presence in its neighborhood. But the growing proximity between Delhi and Washington in recent years has diluted this position to some degree. That the US, India and China are on the same side in the battle against the Maoists marks a major shift from the past. This, however, does not negate India and China's unease with US long-term presence at their doorsteps.

The US embassy official in Nepal pointed out that all four countries view the military operations against the Maoists as part of their own wars against terrorism. India, for instance, is battling ultra-left radicals within its own borders. Radical groups like the People's War in India have strong links with the Nepalese Maoists. "This makes the elimination of the Nepalese Maoists a priority for India too," the official said.

While Washington's extension of military support to the government's operations against the Maoists is ostensibly to pressure the rebels to return to the negotiating table, this has not happened. The rebels are far from crushed and have shown that they are still a potent force to reckon with.

If anything, the provision of military equipment to the RNA has only emboldened the Nepalese government to persist with the military option and to do little to reopen talks with the rebels. Washington's approach to Nepal's Maoist problem appears to be prolonging the bloody conflict in the country. What is more, US backing to the RNA, a force that is under criticism from international human rights groups for its grave violation of human rights - most of the "disappearances" have been attributed to the RNA rather than the Maoists - has drawn flak in Nepal.

The Maoist insurgency has its roots in poverty and the appalling socio-economic conditions in the country. Nepal is one of the poorest countries in world, with around 42 percent of its population living below the poverty line. The average per capita income is only $220 and the unemployment rate is around 52 percent. Instead of addressing the socio-economic conditions that fuel the insurgency, the government is relying excessively on the military option to tackle the Maoists.

The Maoists deny that they have links with the al-Qaeda. They draw inspiration from Peru's Shining Path guerrillas and maintain that they are fighting a people's war to dismantle the monarchy in Nepal and establish a people's republic in its place. They strongly object to being branded "terrorists" and insist that they are a political movement. They say they have nothing to do with the al-Qaeda. Indeed, even Nepalese officials admit that they have not found any evidence of such links yet.

Maoist sympathizers based in India argue that the threat posed by Maoists to Americans is being exaggerated. "Although Maoist propaganda literature is critical of American imperialism, the rebels have not targeted Americans so far," a Nepali student activist in Bangalore told Asia Times Online. "The war against the Maoists provides Washington with an excuse for establishing a higher and long-term presence in Nepal," he pointed out. (Nepal is strategically located - it shares borders with India and China.)

American officials visiting Nepal routinely state that the conflict can be settled only through negotiations with the rebels. But its strong military backing to the RNA is only increasing the bloodletting in the hills. The bloody war has contributed to a significant hardening of posture on the part of the Maoists, making a compromise solution more difficult to reach.

(Copyright 2004 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact for information on our sales and syndication policies.)

May 6, 2004

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India drawn in Nepal's turmoil (Apr 20, '04)
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