The Blog

Maoist Insurgency: A Blast From The Past

Today's guerrillas no longer fight for Communist revolution--they battle for religion, tribe, or material gain.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

Since the end of the Cold War, non-state threats have predominately consisted of terrorists, ethnic separatists, holy warriors, and transnational criminals. The leftist insurgencies and terror campaigns that once haunted the developing world have largely vanished due to the discrediting of Marxism and the collapse of the most prominent political and material patron of leftist guerrillas, the Soviet Union. Today's guerrillas no longer fight for Communist revolution--they battle for religion, tribe, or material gain. Even the true believers of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), who have waged a 40-year leftist insurgency, now fight merely to protect their own drug-dealing profits. Gone too is the traditional hierarchal structure of guerrilla bands, replaced now by loose transnational networks with only ideological affiliations. So what should we make of two traditional Maoist insurgencies in South Asia that have succeeded in sowing havoc among the civilian population and security forces?

For those unfamiliar with the various Marxist doctrines, Maoism is a branch of Marxist ideology developed by Mao Zedong. To Mao, the rural peasantry would lead the revolution, rather than the urban proletariat vanguard feted by Marx and Lenin. He famously organized a guerrilla band that hid among the "sea" of rural Chinese peasantry, setting the pattern for many other guerrillas, the most successful of which were the Vietcong. Maoism became an attractive ideology in much of the Third World because it spoke to rural peasants, who far outnumbered urban workers.

In India, a Maoist group calling themselves the "Naxalites" have exploited economic inequalities to carve out a "red corridor" of activity that runs from the Nepalese border to the jungles of central India. Operating in thirteen of India's twenty-eight provinces and boasting between 10,000 and 20,000 dedicated followers, the Naxalites pose India's biggest internal security challenge. In contrast to the scattered actions of the Pakistani-backed Kashmiri separatist terrorists, the Naxalites are in every way a traditional communist insurgency.

Hiding in the jungles and moving among the impoverished, the Naxalites raise funds through extortion and taxation of rural farmers' output in areas where the central government is absent. The targets of their recruitment efforts are the ones left out of the increasingly high-tech Indian economy: the landless, the low-caste, and ethnic minorities. The Naxalites' cause is aided by India's industrialization campaigns which have resulted in the seizure of vast swathes of forest by commercial interests, driving poor farmers and low-caste tribes off their land.

Eschewing flashy suicide bombings and hostage-takings, the Naxalites carry out a campaign of violence, intimidation, kidnapping, and stealth attack against government security forces, native militia, and villagers who do not recognize their authority. They marshal hundreds of fighters for deadly attacks with machine guns, grenades, gasoline bombs, and anti-personnel land mines before melting back into the jungle--a marked contrast to Iraqi insurgents who are unable to muster comparable resources for concentrated attacks and prefer using remotely detonated explosives and attention-grabbing attacks targeting key points.

In contrast to the myriad insurgent factions proliferating among the Sunni underground in Iraq, the Naxalites fight under a unified central command structure. And according to a report by the South Asia Intelligence Review, they follow a traditional Maoist strategy: consolidating strategic bases in difficult terrain, organizing political support, and planning to expand their operations into "the plains of India." Their task has been made easy by the Indian government's inept response. Instead of trying to alleviate popular grievances with social reforms, the government has responded by raising a popular militia, the Salwa Judan, which has been accused of human rights abuses. Unless the Indian government makes a serious effort to provide relief to the impoverished and disadvantaged attracted to the Naxalite banner, the Maoist reign of terror will continue.

In Nepal, a similar Maoist faction called the Communist Party of Nepal waged a bloody ten-year campaign to destroy Nepal's constitutional monarchy and replace it with a revolutionary regime, a campaign that only ended last November. Similarly, their support was strongest among impoverished low-caste members of Nepalese society.

Armed with weapons stolen from Nepalese security forces or smuggled over the open Indian border, the Nepalese Maoists deployed at least 15,000 fighters. Their control and influence over the countryside was undisputed, and at their peak they even threatened the capital city of Kathmandu. A November 2006 negotiated settlement brought the Maoists into the government and induced them to disarm, but it appears that the they have gone back on their agreement, hiding fighters and weapons from the UN-supervised disarmament program. With rumors of government subterfuge circulating and the increasingly unpopular royal family refusing to relinquish power, a return to the battlefield seems increasingly likely for Nepal's Maoists.

Why have these anachronistic movements prospered even after the fall of the Soviet bloc? Widespread poverty and caste discrimination make the rhetoric of class war attractive to masses of desperate people with little chance of social advancement. And by focusing on class resentment instead of religious or ethnic identity, insurgents can create a broad coalition. Additionally, the proximity of the region to China and the former Soviet Union and India's former status as a socialist Soviet ally makes the populace of both nations familiar with Communist doctrines.

The jungles and mountains of India and Nepal are also conducive environments for hierarchal insurgents, because they allow them to build and consolidate centralized bases and control vast swathes of rural environments--areas the government cannot easily reach or exercise control over. In contrast, the open deserts and urban environments of the Middle East, Europe, and Northern America force terrorists and urban guerrillas to go underground to avoid security forces. Organized resistance mainly takes the form of scattered urban combat and terrorism.

In order to defeat these Maoist insurgents, the government must win the population's "hearts and minds" with massive aid. Yet because of the government's limited ability to project power into Maoist-controlled regions, such aid campaigns will always come up short. Widespread corruption in local Indian governments and the corrupting influence of the Nepalese monarchy on Nepal's democratic institutions also contributes to the failure of outreach campaigns. A lack of resources and poor training of police and military forces rules out a traditional "population-centric" counterinsurgency approach, as such a poorly equipped and undisciplined force cannot be trusted to control the population and drain the "sea" that the guerrillas in. Without control of the population, guerrillas can derail the aid campaigns with vicious attacks against civilian personnel. Lastly, widening economic disparities and institutionalized discrimination against low-caste tribes isn't so easily dissipated by government bureaucrats.

Policymakers should not write Nepal and India's troubles off as a regional issue. Even in a security environment largely dominated by religious, nationalist, and ethnic militants, class resentment is still a potent force. In a world where urban slums are fast proliferating and globalization has exacerbated steep economic inequalities, Mao and Lenin's doctrines of revolution still have potential mass appeal.

Popular in the Community