Robert Kaplan Is An American Cowboy

Op-Ed Piece Sent To The New York Times

To: The Editor, Wall Street Journal.

My attention has been drawn to the recent Robert Kaplan article on Nepal in your newspaper. I am one of the leading Nepali democracy activists in the US, based out of New York City. I have received emails from friends asking me to write a rebuttal to the article.

Robert Kaplan's pride and joy is that he is not gun shy. I wrote the title of my blog entry on him - Robert Kaplan Is An American Cowboy - before I googled him. My suspicions have only been confirmed. This is a cowboy through and through. His prescription for the Nepali army is the same as for the US army. He emphasizes a light, agile force. I would not argue with that. It makes military sense. But he takes it one step further and thinks it has universal applications. He is so excited about the military idea that he has been cultivating for years that he totally misses the political picture in Nepal.

Expert after expert has come out saying there is no military solution to the civil war in Nepal, that there is only a political solution. That puts Kaplan in the wrong camp to start with.

The idea is to make possible a soft landing for the Maoists so that they end up one of several political parties in a multi-party Nepal. And I think peace and democracy will be hastened if the international opinion makers like Kaplan were to nudge the king towards a constituent assembly, the same idea for which America has spent $200 billion, 2100 American lives, and 30,000 Iraqi lives and counting. In Nepal the foreign powers can make the assembly possible simply by standing behind the idea. A respectful, partial integration of the Maoist army into the state army will have to precede any such elections. But before all that, the currrent regime has to fall, and an interim government has to take its place.

That is the roadmap we democrats are working towards. It is beneath someone of Kaplan's wide reputation to write so irresponsibly about Nepal. These are people who read books on other countries to get their ideas about Nepal. There are plenty of books and articles on Nepal available. He needs to be reading them instead.

Unless he was just passing through, as he has been wont to do through many a country.

Paramendra Bhagat
Brooklyn, NY

Who Lost Nepal? By ROBERT D. KAPLAN December 20, 2005; Page A14
Wall Street Journal

Nepal, sandwiched between the two rising economic and demographic behemoths of the age — China and India — could be the first country since the fall of the Berlin Wall where communists emerge triumphant. If the Bush administration does not act decisively, that’s what might happen. The administration should not take solace in the flurry of negotiations between the Maoist insurgents (who control most of the hinterlands) and the country’s political parties in Kathmandu, which could undermine the last vestige of legitimate royal authority while further strengthening the insurgents.

By canceling Special Forces training missions to the besieged Royal Nepalese Army, and with the possibility of lethal cuts of American aid to the local military, the administration, along with Washington, has bought into popular abstractions about how to best implant democracy while ignoring the facts on the ground.

Nepal is fast becoming a replay of both Cambodia in the mid-1970s and El Salvador a decade later. In Cambodia, the monstrous Khmer Rouge were threatening the capital of Phnom Penh, home to a pathetically undemocratic yet legitimate regime to which a Democratic Congress had cut off aid — a result of the Watergate-inflicted weakness of the Nixon administration. In El Salvador, murderous right-wing forces that nevertheless represented a legitimate state were pitted against murderous left-wing ones that represented the geopolitical ambitions of the Soviet Union and Cuba. Though the media emphasized the atrocities of the right wing, the Reagan administration had little choice but to work with them. Eventually, the right wing in El Salvador, with the help of a small number of Army Special Forces trainers, won the day. And in the years that followed the Salvadoran state and military were reformed.

Winning the day did not mean outright success on the battlefield. It meant bloodying the left’s nose enough to give the state an edge in negotiations. Ronald Reagan, a Wilsonian, was also a realist. President Bush now needs to take Reagan’s El Salvador model to heart in Nepal.

* * *

In Nepal, there is an undemocratic monarch (King Gyanendra Bikram Shah) who has canceled the political process, even as his military is guilty of human-rights violations including the undocumented disappearances of civilians. It is also true that the political parties the king has disenfranchised are comprised of feudal politicians, unable to rise above caste loyalties and whose version of democracy was responsible for bringing the country to its knees in the 1990s, thus igniting the Maoist revolt in the first place.

As for the Royal Nepalese Army, or RNA, it is a typical Third World military with all which that entails, from poor discipline to poor record-keeping regarding detainees. The exemplary human-rights record that Washington demands will not be reached in Nepal until the society itself evolves. Meanwhile, the crimes that the RNA is alleged to have committed bear no comparison to those of the Maoists, such as “mutilation atrocities” in which a victim’s bones are broken before his limbs are cut off. Just as there are no good guys in this conflict, nor is there moral parity.

Unrestricted aid to the Royal Nepalese Army is neither necessary nor warranted. I am suggesting a resumption of Special Forces training to one RNA Ranger battalion in particular, as part of a broad-based political strategy that highlights a dialogue between the king and the country’s politicians. Special Forces are a tool, not an answer. The Nepalese Ranger battalion in question is one I know, having spent time at its training base with its officers and enlistees during a recent visit to Nepal.

The Nepalese officers are fluent English-speakers, graduates of Sandhurst, and of either the U.S. Army Ranger course at Fort Benning, Ga., or the Special Forces “Q” Course at Fort Bragg, N.C. These officers speak intelligently and specifically about human rights, and they bear striking resemblance to foreign students at our top liberal-arts universities. A sub-group of the global elite, they would likely make a better impression in Washington than many Nepalese politicians.

Nepalese Rangers fight and train at the squad and team levels, unlike most other third world military units that I’ve observed, which are only confident fighting in mass, at the company level or higher. Counterinsurgency, it should be said, is about small-unit penetration.

Because the political process in Kathmandu will take many months to at least ameliorate, this Ranger battalion is the best tangible mechanism available to keep pressure on the Maoists in the field while that happens. There is no military solution in Nepal — but concomitantly, there can be no political solution without military pressure. This is an aspect of the problem often missed by journalists and human-rights workers, whose relationship with each other is quite close, even as their one with military experts in Kathmandu is less so. In any case, the autocracy of the king and the periodic abuses of the RNA will be tossed aside by the media if the hammer-and-sickle ever does go up in Nepal, as the same media starts chanting, “Who Lost Nepal?”

Don’t discount the possibility. The Maoists have taken a cluster of ideological ideals and launched them into a full-fledged militaristic cult. I saw a similar process unfold in the 1980s in Eritrea, where the guerrilla movement went on to topple the Ethiopian government. Like the Eritreans, the Maoists are media-savvy, whereas the Royal Nepalese Army is not. (It took me weeks of lobbying with Nepalese officials to gain access to their elite Ranger battalion.) The political children of the 1990s in Nepal, who saw free-market economics and popular democracy breed greater social disparities, the Maoists embody a rebuke to globalization that cannot be divorced from social currents running throughout South Asia.

To wit: Nearby Bangladesh, which used to feature a relative easygoing coexistence between Hinduism and a mild Islam, is witnessing a starker and more assertive Wahabbist strain. A poor country that can’t say “no” to money, with an unregulated coastline, Bangladesh has become the perfect set-up for al Qaeda. As for India, because it is so diverse we have tended to see it in stereotypes: the locus of spiritualism during the hippie era and the locus of software genius during an era of global journalists who move between slick corporate headquarters and luxury hotels. But India, as usual, is seething with social unrest, renewed regional identities and impressively resilient leftist movements.

The Bush administration wants India to step up to the plate in Nepal. But India is itself conflicted about the Nepalese situation. Even if the Indian government wants to weaken the Maoists, left-wing parties within the Byzantine political firmament of New Delhi sympathize with them, and have the means of assistance across a porous border. While India does not want to see throngs of refugees from a Maoist Nepal stampede into its already unstable state of Bihar, India also enjoys the fact of a weak, divided client regime next door.

Alas, there is also China, which, just as it did in Uzbekistan, is waiting for human-rights issues to tie the Bush administration’s hands to the point where Beijing can walk in and provide aid without regard to the host country’s moral improvement. China has promised another $1 million in military aid to a Nepalese regime that the U.S. refuses to help, even as Nepal’s defense minister has met with his counterpart in Beijing.

A few Special Forces training teams and some basic weapons — as a tool to everything else we’re doing in the political sphere — is all that should be needed. The earlier in a crisis we intervene, the smaller the military footprint required. That’s how to prevent future Iraqs and Afghanistans.

Mr. Kaplan is a correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly and author of “Imperial Grunts” (Random House, 2005).

Kaplan Biography
The Globalist | Biography of Robert Kaplan
The Media and Medievalism by Robert D. Kaplan - Policy Review, No. 128
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Robert D. Kaplan - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia a prominent but controversial American journalist currently an editor for the Atlantic Monthly. His writings have also been featured in The Washington Post, The New York Times, The New Republic, The National Interest, and The Wall Street Journal ...... his more controversial essays about the nature of U.S. power have spurred debate in academia, the media, and the highest levels of government ..... He lived in Israel for several years and joined the Israeli army...... when the Yugoslav Wars broke out, President Bill Clinton was seen with Kaplan's book tucked under his arm, and White House insiders and aides said the book convinced the President against intervention in Bosnia .... his popularity skyrocketed shortly thereafter along with demand for his controversial reporting..... Kaplan had not set out to influence U.S. foreign policy, but his work began to find a wide readership in high levels of government..... New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman called Kaplan one of the "most widely read" authors defining the post-Cold War, along with Francis Fukuyama, Harvard Professor Samuel Huntington, and Yale Professor Paul Kennedy. ...... In his book Warrior Politics: Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos, published shortly after 9/11, Kaplan offered the opinion that political and business leaders should discard Christian/Jewish morality in public decision-making in favor of a pagan morality focused on the morality of the result rather than the morality of the means...... Kaplan predicts that the age of mass infantry warfare is probably over and has said that the conflict in Iraq caught the U.S. Army in between being a "dinosaur" and a "light and lethal force of the future."........ Kaplan sees large parts of the world where the US military is operating as "injun country" which must be civilized by the same methods used to subdue the American Frontier in the 1800s. At one point he observes a Filipino and says that: "His smiling, naïve eyes cried out for what we in the West call colonialism."....... He has lectured at military war colleges, the FBI, the National Security Agency, the Pentagon's Joint Chiefs of Staff, major universities, the CIA, and business forums, and has appeared on PBS, NPR, C-Span, and Fox News..... "Kaplan, over his career, appears to have become someone who is too fond of war. "It could be said," he has written, "that occasional small wars and occupations are good for us." He's expanded on this topic: those "occasional wars" are "evidence of humanity." This is because "peaceful times are also superficial times."" -- David Lipsky ...... and his argument--that our future is being shaped far away 'at the ends of the earth' ..... Here is a serious writer in 2005 admiring the Indian wars, which in their brutality brought about the end of an entire American civilization." -- David Rieff in The New Republic ...... "Because he specializes in exploring the San Andreas faults of the modern geopolitical system, his books have had more influence on politicians and policy makers than most travel writing." -- Adam Garfinkle .......
Robert D. Kaplan "A Post-Saddam Scenario," The Atlantic Monthly ...
Financial Sense Newshour's Ask The Expert: Robert D. Kaplan


rjhintz said…
One criticism that Paramendra Bhagat makes of Robert Kaplan's Wall Street Journal opinion piece of 20 December 05 is that Kaplan "is in the wrong camp," because Kaplan is in the camp of those who advocate a military rather than a political solution. But this criticism seems to be a misreading of what Kaplan said.

The Robert Kaplan article that's quoted says in part, "There is no military solution in Nepal--but concomitantly, there can be no political solution without military pressure."

So, Kaplan apparently believes that there is no military solution and implies that only a political solution will solve the conflict.

Also, it's not at all clear that Kaplan believes the prescription for Nepal's, or America's, for that matter, military should be a light, agile force. Kaplan only proposes the training of the Nepalese Ranger unit, which seems much more restricted than a wholesale "prescription for the Nepali army..."

One would have to ask Kaplan to be sure, but presumably Kaplan would not replace the components of American military with strategic missions such as missile submarines and long range bombers with Ranger type units.

There may be arguments against what Kaplans proposes, but they probably should be based on what Kaplan actually says.