The column originally appeared in The Diplomat on 31 July 2023. Please read the original article here.
Nepal is engaged in a fierce debate about rightsizing its army.
Statements by two members of parliament ignited the debate. On June 20, parliamentarian Swarnim Waglé warned that Nepal is headed to a disaster if the “difficult” decision of rightsizing the military is not taken. Citing the reduction of troops in Sri Lanka in the wake of the economic crisis, the Rashtriya Swatantra Party MP said that Nepal did not need 90,000 troops.
Ten days later, former Foreign Minister Bimala Rai Poudyal questioned the utility of a large troop force during peacetime. She argued that the risk of a physical attack on Nepal from the neighboring countries was low and pointed out that even if they did attack, the Nepali Army could not win against them.
The statements triggered a furor on social and traditional media. Following criticism from the public and senior retired military personnel, the two clarified or toned down their statements. Waglé conceded that “whatever is done should be done with the consent of the security agencies.” Similarly, Poudyal explained that she was merely “seeking an answer from the government and defense minister whether we need the current size of Nepal Army.”
Defense Minister Purna Bahadur Khadka has clarified that there is no plan to reduce the army’s size.
The argument for downsizing the military is often based on the economic costs of maintaining the 96,000-strong force, although Poudyal denied making such an argument.
Nepal allocated 58.84 billion Nepali rupees ($450 million), accounting for 3.5 percent of the total government expenditure for 2023-24.
As the graph below shows, the military budget, as a proportion of government expenditure, increased significantly since 2001, when the Nepal Army was mobilized to counter the Maoist insurgency. It reached its peak in 2005 and has declined consistently since. Nepal’s military expenditure, whether measured as a proportion of government expenditure or GDP, is below the world average. Thus, there is little economic rationale for downsizing the budget of the defense agency or troop size to cut costs.
However, the Nepal Army spends 90 percent of its allocated budget on recurrent expenditure and only 9.6 percent on capital expenditure. This is more worrying, for it means that the Nepal Army is investing less in the future. Any downsizing of the military, without reducing the overall budget, would free a larger share of the budget for the military to invest in modern technologies for the future.
The size of the army also becomes an issue because of the expanding footprint of the military into non-core areas, such as the construction of infrastructure and even business ventures. As a result, the army has become sluggish regarding combat readiness and deployment.
Hence, the debate is not about merely downsizing to cut costs but professionalizing the military.
The more pertinent question raised by Poudyal relates to the overall “utility” of the military. Citing repeated instances of border encroachment, she alleged that the army has failed in its primary role: to protect Nepal’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Poudyal pointed out that Nepal’s army would not be able to withstand any war with neighboring countries.
Given China and India’s relative size and power, such an assumption may sound logical. Nevertheless, analyzing the role of the military in such stark terms is a gross misunderstanding and reductive. The military’s role is not just to win wars but to thwart such attacks before they happen and defend the territory if attacked.
A look at what is unfolding in Ukraine, where a relatively more minor force has been able to withstand attacks from a larger and wealthier country, gives a broader understanding of the role of the military.
Issues including the nature and the role of the military should be debated. However, ensuring that such debate is proper and not disparaging to the force that is ultimately responsible for the nation’s security is also essential.
Equally concerning is the nature of the backlash received by the parliamentarians and the defensiveness of the army.
Poudyal’s social media was flooded with comments about her being a sellout, an agent of a foreign country, or taking up the issue to weaken the military.
As a parliamentarian in a country where the army operates under civilian rule, she has every right and responsibility to debate the military’s size and role. Such debate is overdue. The size of Nepal’s military almost doubled during the Maoist insurgency, increasing from 45,000 to 96,000 now. Now that the domestic political context has changed, as have the regional and global dynamics, there should be a corresponding debate on the role and security strategy of the country.
Therefore, the defensiveness of the military force is worrying.
In March, Army Chief General Prabhu Ram Sharma dismissed the calls for downsizing by “self-proclaimed academics, experts, and security experts working in non-governmental organizations and international non-governmental organizations.” He called them “outsiders” working at the behest of foreign powers. Now, the military has responded quietly, saying that the government determines the army’s size based on the needs.
However, retired military officials have taken up the mantle of counterpunch.
Former Army Chief General Gaurav S.J.B. Rana slammed the calls for downsizing the military as “undeveloped” and “unschooled opinion.” Stating that the military is a valuable asset of the state to be cherished, Rana insisted that the “process to determine the size, composition, and capabilities of the military is best left to the military professionals, under the stewardship of the government.”
Meanwhile, another retired army chief, General Binoj Basnyat, called for doing away with the costly federal system, among others, to bring in enough resources required for national development.
Besides, both Rana and Basnyat point out that the military remains the most trusted institution in the country and, thus, should not be questioned.
As per a survey, 91.2 percent of Nepali people trusted the military, compared to 44 percent who trusted political parties. Therefore, they argue that the army is a far more responsible actor and absolved of any public debate.
Their comments imply that the Nepal Army should not be questioned. Indeed, parliamentarians are also cautious when talking about the military. Poudyal said that she was discouraged by senior leaders of different parties from talking about the military issues a few days after her statement caused public fury.
In saying that, there are commonalities between those seeking a debate on the army’s role and those defensive about any discussion. Both understand that regional and global geopolitical currents are changing rapidly; a war between two countries, seen as unlikely over the past few decades, has become a reality today.
Such geopolitical changes have thrust Nepal into the center of regional and global geopolitical tussles. Together with the changed domestic security context, a discussion of security strategy and the military’s corresponding size, shape, and form is much needed. The Nepali military of 2005 will not be able to meet the challenges of today.
However, when civilian leaders debate the size and role of the military, the military understands it as “downsizing,” making it defensive.
Therefore, the first step is bridging the trust gap between the civilian and military leadership. Then both sides can sit together and rationally chart the way appropriate for the current and future needs of the country and reform the military as per need.