The Resident Expert: Insurgency in Nepal

By Matthew Corcoran, Writer & Multimedia Producer

Professor of Politics at NYU New York Michael Gilligan taught a class at NYU Abu Dhabi in January on the topic of insurgency. The course mixed reading and classroom learning with a trip to Nepal to interview people who fought on both sides of that country's Maoist insurgency, which ended in 2006.

What is insurgency? Is it the same thing as civil war? How is it different?

Experts use different definitions. I think of insurgency as a particular type of civil war with two essential characteristics: 1) an asymmetry of military power, with the state (counterinsurgents) possessing much more than the insurgents, and 2) the fundamental aim in an insurgency for both sides is to obtain mass-based popular support. The first feature gives insurgencies their essential military character. In conventional war the aim is to make contact with enemy military forces and destroy them. Since insurgents never have military superiority, except perhaps at the very end, their aim is to avoid any substantial contact with the enemy. Using extreme mobility and the element of surprise, they launch hit-and-run attacks against the enemy to wear them down while at the same time building mass-based support in the population. Second, while all war is "politics by other means," insurgency is different in that it is a political struggle for the support of the people. Once the insurgents gain popular support, they will be able to rely on the people to hide and supply them. If on the other hand the counterinsurgents gain popular support, they will be able to rely on the people to identify the insurgents, removing the insurgents’ crucial ability to hide among the population.

What are some examples of recent insurgencies?

There are almost 50 ongoing insurgencies. One prominent example is a set of insurgencies that make up what some pundits have called the "global Islamic insurgency." That is a misnomer because both sides of this insurgency, insurgent and counterinsurgent, are Islamic. This is a global struggle between insurgents who reject modernity and the remarkable economic, social and political progress over the last half century in places like Abu Dhabi. They wish to turn back the clock and reestablish medieval Islamic social and political institutions. The various groups associated with Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan are good examples. ISIS, which we have been hearing a lot about lately, shares these political goals, but it doesn’t operate like an insurgency. It doesn’t employ hit-and-run tactics, but instead takes and holds territory. It also eschews building true mass support and instead achieves control over the population through extreme terror. For these reasons, I am not sure I would categorize ISIS as an insurgency. Regardless, the counterinsurgents in these various cases are obviously the legal authorities in the countries plagued by these groups with help from many other countries around the world.

Why do insurgencies occur? How are they stopped, or resolved?

Insurgencies require a cause that is attractive to a sufficiently large group of people. Examples of such causes are economic deprivation, the desire by an ethnic minority for political autonomy or, as mentioned above, a fundamentalist rejection of modernity. A school of thought within political science argues that some such causes are present in almost every society and therefore what really determines whether or not an insurgency breaks out is the state’s capacity to deter them. Thus all the maladies of weak states: low per capita incomes, a small tax base, weak armed forces, and so on, are correlated with insurgencies. Mountainous and jungle-covered terrain makes counterinsurgency difficult and therefore insurgency more likely.

There is no general playbook by which insurgencies are stopped or resolved. Sometimes they end with the military victory of one of the sides. For example, about five years ago, Sri Lanka ruthlessly defeated the 30-year-old Tamil Tiger insurgency. Since the end of the Cold War, insurgencies often come to an end when, through the good offices of the United Nations or some neutral third power, the combatants reach a peace agreement in which the state, to varying degrees, accommodates the cause that motivated the insurgency. These peace agreements are more likely to last when outside peacekeeping forces are deployed to monitor the agreement. Often the international community offers assistance to address the state weakness that contributed to the insurgency in the first place. Given their extreme views, this latter sort of ending is not currently on the horizon for the conflicts with ISIS, the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

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Insurgents are often fighting for what, to their mind, is a better world, even if their vision of that better world looks rather warped to us.

Michael Gilligan

The word "insurgent" has a negative connotation. But are all insurgencies are bad? How can we think critically about insurgencies?

This is an important question because it highlights how crucial it is to understand insurgents' motivations. The United States was born from an insurgency against British rule. The Colonial’s campaigns — for example the campaign of Nathanael Greene, Daniel Morgan, Francis Marion (a fictionalized version of whom was played by Mel Gibson in the movie The Patriot) and others in the Carolinas — was a textbook, and extremely successful, insurgency. At least in the US these people are considered heroes. The way Americans think of these American heroes is probably the way many members of the Taliban, Al Qaeda, or even ISIS, think of themselves. I suspect they harbor the misguided belief that they are a ragtag group of rebels heroically confronting powerful evil forces. I think our counterinsurgency strategy suffers when we think of these insurgents as glorified Mafiosos who are just in it for money and power. That there are such people in these movements is beyond question, but I would be surprised if the typical member of these insurgencies is like that.

In our research in Nepal we found that Maoist insurgents were highly pro-social [meaning that these people felt that they were engaging in behavior that was helping others]. Some of this pro-sociality was indoctrinated into them by the movement’s propaganda, but they were also more pro-social before they even joined the insurgency. For example, more pro-social people joined the movement earlier than people who were less pro-social. This has important implications for counterinsurgency strategy. Insurgents are often fighting for what, to their mind, is a better world, even if their vision of that better world looks rather warped to us. That type of insurgent is not going to be bought off or scared off any more than we would be willing to be bought off or scared off from standing up for our most cherished beliefs. A counterinsurgency strategy that adopts that approach is not likely to be very successful. It misunderstands its enemy.

What did you and your students do in Nepal? Who did you speak with? What did your students learn?

We met with both insurgents and counterinsurgents. We met Prachanda (a nom de guerre), who led the Maoist insurgency from 1996-2006 and later served as Prime Minister. We also met Baburam Bhattarai, another leader in the Maoist movement and also subsequently a Prime Minister. He has one of the largest Twitter followings in Nepal and he tweeted about our meeting. We interviewed Pasang (also a nom de guerre), who was the commander of the Maoist forces.

These people were present at the start of the insurgency and they gave us fascinating insights into the very early stages of the insurgency — how they went about launching the movement from scratch, so to speak. We also met mid-level commanders who recounted the day-to-day practice of fighting in an insurgency, motivating recruits.

On the counterinsurgency side we met with two generals and one colonel. The generals described the overall strategy of the counterinsurgency campaign and some of the high-level political maneuvers that eventually brought about an end to the war. The colonel, who was a mid-level commander during the war, described what it was like to fight against an insurgency on the ground. We also met with a well-known journalist who is an advocate of the victims of the war and a dynamic young politician from one of the mainstream parties who provided a view from the younger generation on the prospects for peace in Nepal.

What was it like to teach this course here in Abu Dhabi and in Nepal?

This course, both this year and last, has been the most rewarding teaching experience in my 23-year career. The students in Abu Dhabi and those that join from Washington Square are so bright and enthusiastic. I am so proud of the way they engage, intelligently and respectfully, with our fascinating and distinguished hosts. In addition to learning the technical and historical aspects of insurgency and counterinsurgency, I hope the experience caused them to reflect on their beliefs and on the human condition: What would drive such seemingly reasonable people to such desperate acts of violence? Is violence ever justified even if it is for a cause you believe to be just? How do people and societies marred by violence move on? I hope the course is a transformative experience for the students. It certainly is for me.

Photo credit: Pavel Novak. "A family in Maoist-controlled valley in Nepal." This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license. Photo via Wikicommons.