THE CTAP INTERVIEW: LTC Chok Bahadur Dhakal, Nepalese Army

Interviewed by: Amina Kator- Mubarez and Elizabeth Skinner, US Naval Postgraduate School


This interview is taken from the collection of the Combating Terrorism Archive Project (CTAP).1 On 28 March 2014, Lieutenant Colonel Chok Dhakal of the Nepalese Army spoke with Amina Kator-Mubarez and Elizabeth Skinner about his experiences during Nepal's recent civil war (1998–2008) and the country's subsequent transition from a monarchy to a republic.2 At the time of the interview, LTC Dhakal was completing his master's degree in National Security studies at the US Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) in Monterey, California.

AMINA KATOR-MUBAREZ: Thank you for sitting down to talk with us. Can you start by giving us some background on your experience as a commander during the Maoist insurgency?

Filling the policing role on the one hand and doing military operations on the other hand was very challenging.
 

CHOK BADAHUR DHAKAL: To begin, I have nearly 25 years of experience in the Nepalese Army, rising from the rank of 2nd lieutenant to my present rank of lieutenant colonel. So I have a range of experience working as a staff officer, instructor, and commander. I have participated in several United Nations peacekeeping missions, and I have done various kinds of military training both within and outside Nepal. I am currently here at NPS studying in the master's program. Regarding my command experience, from 2001 to 2002 I was deployed in the southern part of my country to fight against the Maoist insurgency. At that time, the insurgency was at its peak, and the Maoists were everywhere in the country. We were having a hard time just providing security to the population and assuring free access to public facilities. At the same time, we were also fighting against the Maoists nationwide. Filling the policing role on the one hand and doing military operations on the other hand was very challenging.

From my experience as a commander, I would say you need to think about how to use your troops in a combat role, and simultaneously in a supporting role to help the local population. It was very difficult for us junior commanders to decide how to do it. The troops sometimes needed to go and fight against the insurgents, and then those same troops, using the same weapons, and with the same training and everything, now had to perform these different roles. Fighting the insurgent combatants, and also serving the people and doing the job of policing, are completely different things.

KATOR-MUBAREZ: Did you have a lot of support from the civilian population, or was it difficult? Did you pursue propaganda campaigns to get their support?

DHAKAL: This is a very good question. Yes, we did a lot to support the civilian population, but it was only from the tactical level, I would say. At the national level we were having political troubles, and there was not a stable government running the country. But as we deployed on the ground, we had to do something to address the people's needs as well. So we conducted military-civic action side by side. We ran the rural hospitals; we went to the schools to build some physical infrastructure, for example, toilets and some libraries; we also deployed to protect and escort public convoys—that was a different and unique part of my job.

What we know is that if you support local people, that is a good way for you to get firsthand information and win support—doing your part and getting information in return, and using this same information to help your combat elements fight against the Maoists. That was the good part, you know, to have the local support. They support you, not in terms of operational requirements, but in terms of information requirements. That was good for effective military operations.

If you support local people, that is a good way for you to get firsthand information and win support—doing your part and getting information in return.
 

If you can't gain popular support, then the insurgents will enjoy the popular support, and they will be much more effective against the security forces. So you need to think about the population first before going into combat in a counterinsurgency campaign. From my experience, what happened in many places in my country was that the local population supported the insurgents. The people didn't give information, didn't give support, didn't even speak with the national forces; they supported the insurgency. That made it hard for the state forces to fight against the insurgency, because the army did not have reliable information about the population and wasn't getting information from them. You need information, because they—terrorists or insurgents, however you define them—normally look like civilians. They don't have any specific uniform, they don't carry a weapon openly. They live with the population, they do everything within the population, so it is very hard for the security elements to recognize an individual as an insurgent or terrorist.

KATOR-MUBAREZ: Was it difficult for your military officers or soldiers to shift mindsets from conducting combat operations to focusing on the civilians, working with the civilian population? You said that you were running these hospitals and other facilities to try to get support from the civilian population. Did your soldiers have a hard time transitioning from fighting insurgents to working with civilians? Or were there two separate military groups doing the two missions: one dealing primarily with the insurgency and one dealing with the civilian population?

DHAKAL: As far as resources are concerned, the military normally is given the resources required for military operations, not for the other, population-focused efforts. You need different types of resources and different types of skills—different technical skills. So it was very hard to make it happen, but what we normally did was to use the resources we had for both roles. We had to have security units providing security to our own troops, the ones who were conducting the population-centric efforts. So this was our first problem.

The insurgents are watching you all the time: who is doing what, which commander is there with his staff. It was a very, very difficult part of military or police work.
 

Number two was about the insurgents' linkage with the population. If you openly go and do something in a community, there is a danger of being targeted by the insurgents because they are already there. It is very difficult to know who is there before you. The insurgents are watching you all the time: who is doing what, which commander is there with his staff. It was a very, very difficult part of military or police work. Even during a military operation, if the insurgents were few in number, they could come and pretend to support you along with the real villagers. They could learn more about you: what weapon you are carrying, what your rank is, and how many troops you have. They can get very close and start talking with you, and they like to try to win you over psychologically by helping you, providing you with some resources, but you don't know who they are.

We didn't know if a person was an innocent civilian or a terrorist insurgent, but they knew very well where we were coming from, what weapons we were bringing.
 

Later the insurgents will target you. They now know you very well, they know your address and information regarding your family. They can go to the family and threaten them. This happened in my country. They would get all the information about the troops and then make threatening calls to the families. Like, if you don't stop sending your son to the military, we will come and kidnap you. We will even kill you. So this made it very difficult for us to work with the population and remain with the population for a very long time. It was very difficult for us to get information regarding the Maoists—we didn't know if a person was an innocent civilian or a terrorist insurgent, but they knew very well where we were coming from, what weapons we were bringing, what our intention was, what we looked like, and how we dealt with the population. If we were doing some population-centric work and giving out information as part of that work, it could become very problematic to then launch an effective combat operation in that same area.

ELIZABETH SKINNER: As you were preparing to go into the hot part of the war, do you feel like you and your troops had the training you needed to conduct guerilla warfare among the civilian population? Or did you have to go in with what you had and think on your feet?

The real problem was resources. We lacked the resources, so we were not able to address the people's desperation.
 

DHAKAL: It is a very practical question. I would like to tell you what in fact happened. Initially, the government mobilized the police force, and they fought against the insurgency for five years. The situation went out of control, the police couldn't control the Maoist insurgency, and the government decided to mobilize the military, the Nepalese Army. We had enough time to train and get resources, but you know, getting resources is not easy. Nepal was having political problems at the same time, with the political transition from monarchical rule to democracy. So political stability was the question. We were also having problems with the economic conditions because the Maoists were conducting physical attacks on industry, against the people who were running the businesses. The country was not in a position to provide the appropriate level of security to the industrial sector. From my perspective I would say we had enough time, but the real problem was resources. We lacked the resources, so we were not able to address the people's desperation. They wanted many things to be done by the security forces. They wanted to have a good environment to run their schools, they wanted to have a good environment to continue their businesses, but the problem was that the security forces did not have enough resources or enough numbers at the time to tackle the situation.

SKINNER: In the period right before the assassinations, the fighting was very heavy.3 Your forces were under a lot of pressure in the mountainous areas. There were reports that civilians were taking a beating as the two forces were coming at each other in the villages. Do you think there was training that would have helped you and your troops handle that kind of situation better when you were in hot combat around the villages? Were there things you think could have been done better on the army's side?

DHAKAL: Yes. There is always space for improvement, everywhere, for all troops. In the beginning, when we deployed against the Maoist insurgency, there was a problem of information sharing, not having the correct information because we lacked reliable sources to get information. We had to depend on captured insurgents or some local villagers to provide us with information. Maybe these people have a problem with each other, so somebody tells us, "He is a Maoist," and other people say, "These people are insurgents, these people are not supporting you." So when you have a very short time to deploy, when you go against the insurgents in populated areas like the villages or similar areas, you cannot just rely on someone to have correct and valuable information. For that reason, yes, I would admit that there was mishandling of the civilian population from both sides: not only from the insurgent side, but from the army's side as well. But later, the army started providing training in human rights, on how to win the hearts and minds of the people, how to deal with the population, and what information to expect from the population. After getting this training, and in a little time—say, after 2002—I think the achievement of the army was great.

Without having information it is like you are walking in complete darkness. You can go and use your force, but without any information you can't do anything effectively.
 

Without having information it is like you are walking in complete darkness. You can go and use your force, but without any information you can't do anything effectively. The insurgents were in a better position because they knew where the opposition political parties were, where the leaders were, and how those people supported the government and the security forces. But from the military or police perspective it was very difficult to say, this place will be the target, or this place will be left for a security operation. It was very difficult to decide where we should go, what we should do, what was the main track, or what was the target there. As a commander it was very demanding to make decisions for the troops on the ground.

KATOR-MUBAREZ: What do you feel is the current situation now? Do you think that the rebel groups are under control, or do they still pose a significant threat?

DHAKAL: I think it is a very good story. The insurgency ended in 2006, and it was ended through a negotiated political settlement. It was a group decision that ended the war peacefully. Now the rebel force is a participant in politics. They became part of the government and had a prime minister from 2008 to 2009. They are the largest political party in Nepalese politics. So this is a very good part they play. They also did a lot to change Nepalese politics. Nepal, you know, was a Hindu kingdom, constitutionally ruled by the king. Now Nepal is very much a secular country. We have a republican government that is run by the president. I would say that in the political area, that was a very good change.

Nepal has many different ethnic groups, different minorities. Going back a long time, these groups were marginalized by the state. Now these people have started demanding their rights, expressing their grievances. That is a good part the Maoists are playing in the country, but the problem is that now we are in the process of drafting a constitution. We need to have a new constitution, but the political parties are divided. One is very much democratic, and the other is very much authoritarian, I would say. The rebel force is now the major political party—I can't say rebels any more, right? The Maoist party has its own interests, and the other democratic parties have their own interests, which lead to much contradiction. This has made it difficult to create a new constitution. The political parties are still having problems creating a stable government that has a long-term strategy for national concerns like the economy, relations with other countries, and security policies. There are many things to be decided, so not having the constitution written on time doesn't help ensure lasting peace. But, after 10 years of armed conflict, it is better to take more time to create a stable, long-lasting constitution that will give the country security, peace, and stability in the long run.

SKINNER: What has the Nepalese Army had to do to integrate former insurgents? Has there been a process of bringing in fighters and integrating them into the service? Are there many Communists coming into the army and if so, how has that process gone?

DHAKAL: That is a very good question to answer now because the integration is already completed. The Nepalese Army now includes former Maoist combatants. They have finished their training and joined the army's ranks. There was a political decision and strong commitment to make that happen, and the former combatants now rank from soldier to colonel as part of the Nepalese Army. I don't think we had any problem integrating them into the force. The former insurgent fighters did well in training, and we have good relations with them. The only problem is political, because the Communists were fighting for the rights of the people, and we were fighting to safeguard the rights of the people. So the problem was that the political objective was different. The insurgency wasn't simply a fight between the guerrilla fighters and the state security forces, it was a fight between political elites, political ideologies. On the one hand, the government was fighting to safeguard the population and defeat the insurgency in accordance with the existing constitution, under which Nepal was a multiparty, democratic monarchy. On the other hand, the Maoists were fighting, with much popular support, to destroy the established social, political, and economic structures and establish Nepal as a socialist people's republic. Integration of the armed forces was one of the provisions of the negotiated political settlement, which has made the army a more inclusive national force. It has members from all the different ethnic groups: the people from the south, the north, the center—all over. So this is a good part of the story.

SKINNER: So you feel like that process has gone successfully?

DHAKAL: It has, I would say. I don't think there is any problem left within the military. The military and political leadership is happy to have solved the problem peacefully. If the political problems are solved, I don't think there will be any problem within the military. I know the military made a considerable contribution to settling this issue. The political leaders prepared the organization, prepared the way to integrate, planned how to make things go smoothly. So I think the contribution of the military in this regard was great.

KATOR-MUBAREZ: What would you say has been your most memorable experience as a military commander? Something that stands out for you.

DHAKAL: I deployed with the UN mission to Lebanon (UNIFIL) in 2000 and 2001 as an information officer in UNIFIL HQ. At that time there was a problem between Israel and Hezbollah. You know, I saw the same thing in my country that Hezbollah was doing: using conventional weapons such as missiles against the regular armed forces. The difference is that Hezbollah was operating from one country against another country and did not enjoy popular support among the population from where it was operating. Local people consider Hezbollah to be a loyal supporter of the Palestinian cause, not a terrorist group, but outsiders call its members terrorists. It can be very difficult sometimes to define who is or is not a terrorist, so you need to have a clear-cut definition of what is a terrorist. In my country, the state considered the Maoists to be terrorists and mobilized its power to defeat them, but the majority of the people supported the Maoists as a group that was fighting for the people's rights and future. Let me give another example. Some people still say the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka were freedom fighters, fighting for independence, but from the government side, they were terrorists. In the beginning, we also called the Maoists terrorists, and there was an anti-terrorist act implemented by the government. The United States and India also labeled the Maoists as a terrorist organization. Later, however, the Maoists became a major player in the national politics of Nepal. As a junior leader, how do you differentiate between a terrorist and an insurgent when they are doing similar things for different causes? Thus it is not easy sometimes to define what are terrorist acts and what is guerilla warfare, and decide how to deal with each. This is my experience both from within my country and from outside.

KATOR-MUBAREZ: You mentioned challenges that the Nepalese military had. What do you think are some areas of improvement that the Nepalese Army could try to initiate or work on?

DHAKAL: That is always there, you know.

KATOR-MUBAREZ: Is it a logistical issue, or an issue of training?

DHAKAL: I would say it is an issue of strategy, of the defense policy and military doctrine. Before the civil war, the army was very conventionally trained because we thought we didn't have to do anything different on the domestic front. When we deployed our force against the rebels within the country, it was the first experience we had with this kind of warfare. So we were not well trained, not resourced, and not very well focused to get information regarding the domestic situation. To have a better result in the future, I think we need to have more focus on the unconventional part. Or else we need to have some separate unit to deal specifically with the internal problems. We still have the conventional type of force: battalion and brigades with conventional weapons. If some day we need to fight against the insurgents again, I think it would be better to have different, insurgency-ready military units, and experts to deal with the requirements and aspirations of the local populations. If you train your military in a conventional way and then fight in an unconventional battle, there will be problems. I think we need to have some different units trained for a counterinsurgency environment, and they need to have different resources to tackle the requirements of the local areas. It is very difficult to adjust from seeing things in the conventional way to seeing them in the unconventional way. So training has to be superior, and the main part is the issue of human rights. The people's rights are always an important issue, so we need to think about them more from the beginning. We didn't have that much detailed training about human rights, or training about the population's concerns during the insurgency. Now we have started, I think, to make it better, and we must continue so we will have better results in the future.

SKINNER: It sounds like you're talking about developing something like Special Operations forces. Are you getting any help to do that from the United States? Is that a process that is being undertaken, or is it still being talked about?

DHAKAL: Yes, Nepal is, you could say, politically in transition, but economically not much. We cannot sustain a big army. We need to have external assistance to develop a specialized unit to deal with internal security problems. During insurgency, we received wide-ranging support from friendly countries such as the United States, the UK, India, and China. As for the special security units, the United States helped us to establish, train, and equip our Special Forces units, such as a Ranger battalion that was stood up during the insurgency. It was a great help, and US assistance has continued even post-conflict. We want this to continue because we want to have an army that is better trained, more skilled, and more professional. To have this, we need to have exposure. I am here at NPS getting my master's degree because of US military assistance. This kind of assistance plays a great role, not only at the individual level, but also at the organizational level. I now can contribute something to my country in a different way. India and China are also helping a lot because, you know, we are sandwiched in between India and China. We have good relations and have been getting good support from them, both during the conflict and in the post-conflict environment as well.

KATOR-MUBAREZ: Shifting gears a little bit, how has your experience at NPS been? What do you think you will take back with you, since this is your last quarter?

DHAKAL: I had the great opportunity to earn master's degrees in two different subjects in my country. You know, the academic process here is very different and it's tough, but it gives you a world class education. It has also kept me busy. It is very good: good exposure, good experience, and good knowledge. We have the opportunity here to learn more about the world, whatever subject or elective we choose. It has been challenging—very busy and difficult to get free time with my family, but it has been good. I really enjoyed this experience.

KATOR-MUBAREZ: Are there any last remarks you would like to say or anything else you would like to add?

DHAKAL: Thank you very much for giving me this opportunity to come here and say something about my experience. What I want to say is that, being a military man, you have to be ready not only for fighting, but also for dealing with other issues as well. In a period of conflict, don't only think about using your weapon. Think about the people where you are living, and think about their problems before using your weapon. Try to find some solution to address their problems, address their grievances. We cannot operate in isolation. We are part of the civilian society. Again, I would like to thank you so much for providing me this forum to speak.

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWERS

Amina Kator-Mubarez is a CTAP coordinator, research assistant, and indispensable member of the Global ECCO project.

Elizabeth Skinner is the managing editor of the Combating Terrorism Exchange and has harbored a keen interest in Nepal's development for many years.

NOTES:

  1. The Combating Terrorism Archive Project aims to collect and archive knowledge on strategy, operations, and tactics used by military and other security personnel from around the world in the twenty-first-century fight against global terrorism. Collectively, the individual interviews that CTAP conducts will create an oral history archive of knowledge and experience in counterterrorism for the benefit of the CT community now and in the future. 
  2. This interview was edited for length and clarity. Every effort was made to ensure that the meaning and intention of the participants were not altered in any way. The ideas and opinions of all participants are theirs alone and do not represent the official positions of the US Naval Postgraduate School, the US Department of Defense, the US government, or any other official entity. 
  3. On 1 June 2001, Nepal's Crown Prince Dipendra massacred his father and mother, the king and queen, along with his brother and sister and four other family members, in a sudden rampage that remains only partially explained. Dipendra shot himself afterward and died three days later. His uncle, the dead king's younger brother Gyanendra, was crowned king but was deposed by popular demand in 2008, at which time Nepal became a parliamentary republic. 
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