New Delhi, Feb. 5: The Royal Nepal Army's announcement yesterday that it was now being unshackled to take on rebels in Kathmandu's countryside will see the kingdom hurtling into the bloodiest phase of its nine-year civil war, military observers and Nepal watchers in New Delhi assess.
With communication links inside Nepal snapped, the observers say an offensive may have already begun in the countryside.
Nepal's army of about 78,000 troops is in the middle of an expansion and is largely equipped, funded and trained by India but the Maoist rebels are no pushover. Military assessments doubt the ability of the RNA to pursue a highly mobile war in Nepal's rugged landscape that gives the guerrillas a huge advantage.
But the takeover of power by the king will give the RNA unfettered authority in its war, says Sukh Deo Muni, professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University and an expert who has the ear of policymakers in New Delhi's security establishment.
'I do not think the RNA can win the war against the Maoists. True, the Maoists have been ruthless, but they have been no more ruthless than the RNA in the past. Even some RNA officers will tell you that 'we can't win this war',' says Muni. Despite that, he says, the RNA will be 'unleashed in the countryside' if the Maoists do not talk peace. That is a difficult choice for the Maoists who have described King Gyanendra as a 'national betrayer'.
Serving and retired Indian military officers are less sceptical of the RNA's ability but still doubt its efficacy.
'Today the RNA has much better equipment but so long it has been caught between two stools ' the palace and the government. Counter-insurgency operations have to be politico-military and the RNA can now shift gears. But there is some question mark on their mobility,' says former Indian Army chief General V.P. Malik, who led the army in the 1999 Kargil operations.
Major General (retired) Ashok Mehta, who has been active in Track II talks with Nepali outfits, does not think much about the 'professional competence' of the chief of the RNA.
The most crucial and mobile units of the RNA are in the Kathmandu valley. Among these are a special operations brigade, a reconnaissance squadron, a parachute battalion, a special forces regiment, a ranger battalion, an aviation brigade, an artillery brigade, an engineers brigade, a signals brigade and an armed police brigade.
According to Paul Soren, a researcher under Muni, the People's Liberation Army of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) has its headquarters in the mid-western region near Rolpa.
The rebels have smuggled weapons through fraternal outfits in India and have built up an arsenal by snatching guns from the RNA.