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Explained: Nepal’s abandoned partnership with US troops, and how its Army weighed in

Nepal recently had to abandon at the last minute a plan to sign a State Partnership Programme (SSP) with the United States.

  • Amid political outrage against the programme, the Nepal Army stepped in on June 15, asserting it will not accept a deal that goes against Nepal’s non-aligned foreign policy.

The Sher Bahadur Deuba government relented, deciding three days later that the Foreign Ministry would communicate with the US government.

The SPP would have brought the Utah State National Guard and the Nepal Army working together on “humanitarian and disaster management”.

It was to be signed during Deuba’s proposed visit to the US in July. It is now shelved for the foreseeable future.

The widely expressed fear was that giving legitimate entry to US forces would have dangerous security implications for Nepal.

The criticism has been on three concerns: that it would mean Nepal aligning militarily with the US; that India, which has close links with the Nepal Army, would not like a US presence of this nature; and that it would provoke China to retaliate in some way or the other.

  • These concerns are based on series of developments: Nepal and US signing the $500-million grant of the Millennium Challenge Corporation (Nepal compact) after a US threat to review relations with Nepal in February; Nepal voting against Russia in the United Nations; US Deputy Secretary of State Zeya Ujra visiting a Tibetan refugee camp in Nepal; and Kathmandu recently rolling out the red carpet for Charles A Flynn, commanding general of United States Army Pacific.

Political storm

  • Last week, the House of Representatives debated the consequences of the SPP once signed. A “draft agreement” purported to have been exchanged had found its way to the media , the opposition and Army generals. Three ministers made different statements: Foreign Minister Narayan Khadka said the SPP was not a “military pact” and the US troops would go back on completion of the term; Law Minister Gobinda Bandi denied any letters having been exchanged; and Home Minister Balkrishna Khand said the government would not sign such a deal.

At a Cabinet meeting on June 20, ministers asked the Foreign Ministry to write to the US. A day earlier, the State Affairs Committee of Parliament had forced the Foreign Minister to backtrack from his earlier statement. Deuba has so far been avoiding a response to the full House as well as the Committee. There is pressure on him to call off his US visit.

The Army

Literally disowned by political parties and the government since the 2005-06 political changes, the Army has been largely quiet all these years — until this assertive reaction against the programme.

In April 2006, after the Maoists decided to give up insurgency against the state, their leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda denounced the Nepal Army at the Prime Minister’s residence as “an institution of rapists and the corrupt”. Later that year, Prachanda signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement with Prime Minister G P Koirala. While the Maoists became part of the government , the Nepal Army was projected as the ‘Private Army’ of the King.

International agencies involved in the peace process, including United Nations Mission to Nepal (UNMIN), began holding seminars for downsizing the 100,000-strong Army as part of “security sector reforms”. Nepal Army Generals were denied leadership roles in the peace process in view of the Army’s human rights record. UNMIN was later packed off prematurely for its alleged bias towards Maoists.

  • The Army , which never confronted political leaders during this period, has chosen to speak up at a time when it is being seen as regaining its esteem amid political instability and allegations of corruption in government.

The latest move

President Bidhya Bhandari, in her capacity as Supreme Commander of the National Army, conveyed her concern to the PM about the impact of the SPP, a source said.

A letter by then Army Chief Rajendra Chhetri to US Ambassador Aliana B Tepliz on October 27, 2015, leaked to the media recently, said: “As authorised by the government of Nepal, it is my honour to formally request the establishment of a National Guard State Partnership program for Nepal in the near future.” While the Army has said Gen Chhetri’s letter was in the context of the devastation caused by an earthquake that year, which led to aid from US and other countries, his letter has come to the rescue of Deuba, who can use it as a shield to claim that the Nepal Army was seeking a partnership with the US before his time — when his rival K P Oli, now a critic of the SSP, has just taken charge as Prime Minister.

  • Also leaked was a purported “draft” of an agreement (declared fake by US authorities ) said the US State National Guard and the Nepal Army shall cooperate in areas like joint training exercises in the high-altitude terrain in Nepal, besides counter-intelligence and against cybercrime.

Geographically, “high-altitude areas” mean areas along the border with China.

  • The 2019 US Indo-Pacific Strategy Report and website mention Nepal and Sri Lanka as considering the MCC grant (Sri Lanka has since declined it) as parties to the SPP.

China and India

China has not yet responded to the government’s decision. A Defence Ministry official said : “China has taken up the issue several times, but it should be happy now as domestic politics forced Deuba to call it off.”

  • India’s acting Ambassador Namgya C Khampa met Nepal Army Chief Gen Prabhu Ram Sharma the same day the Army Headquarters issued the statement.

Source: The Indian EXPRESS