There is heated discussion happening in Nepal about downsizing the military.

Two lawmakers’ statements sparked the heated discussion. If the “difficult” option of right-sizing the military is not made, MP Swarnim Waglé said on June 20, tragedy is inevitable in Nepal. The Rashtriya Swatantra Party lawmaker said that Nepal did not need 90,000 soldiers, pointing to the drawdown of forces in Sri Lanka as an example.

Ex-Foreign Minister Bimala Rai Poudyal questioned the need for such a strong deployment during times of calm ten days later. She maintained that the likelihood of a physical assault on Nepal from its neighbors was minimal and that the Nepali Army would be defeated in the event of an invasion.

The remarks caused an uproar in both online and offline communities. After receiving backlash from civilians and veteran leaders, both parties revised or softened their initial pronouncements. To paraphrase Waglé, “whatever is done should be done with the consent of the security agencies.” When asked about her motivations, Poudyal said she was just “seeking an answer from the government and defense minister whether we need the current size of Nepal Army.”
Defense Minister Purna Bahadur Khadka has said unequivocally that cutting down on the strength of the armed forces is not in the works.

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The economic expenses of sustaining the 96,000-strong army are typically cited as a rationale for shrinking the military, although Poudyal denied making such an argument.

For the fiscal year 2023-24, Nepal set aside 58.84 billion Nepali rupees ($450 million), or 3.5% of total government spending.

Since 2001, when the Nepal Army was recruited to face the Maoist insurgency, the military budget, as a fraction of government spending, has climbed dramatically, as the graph below illustrates. It peaked in 2005 and has been steadily falling ever then. Whether relative to government spending or GDP, Nepal’s military spending is lower than the global average. Therefore, there is no economic justification for reducing the size of the military agency’s budget or the number of troops.

However, 90% of the Nepal Army’s budget goes into operating costs and just 9.6% goes toward capital improvements. This is even more worrisome since it suggests the Nepal Army is cutting down on future investments. If the military were to be reduced in size without the total budget being slashed, it would free up more money to be spent on future technology.

Because the military is now involved in non-essential activities like building infrastructure and even starting businesses, the size of the army is now a concern. The army has grown less combat-ready and deployable as a consequence.

Therefore, the argument isn’t only about shrinking to save money, but also about making the military more professional.

The issue of the military’s “utility” as a whole is the more important one that Poudyal raises. She said the army had failed in its basic mission of protecting Nepal’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, citing multiple incidents of border incursion as evidence. Poudyal made the argument that Nepal’s armed forces couldn’t last long in a conflict with its neighbors.

Considering the size and influence of China and India, this may seem like a reasonable assumption. The military’s function cannot be understood or analyzed in such simplistic terms. The military’s job is to prevent invasions from happening and protect the country’s borders if they do.

Understanding the military better requires looking at what is happening in Ukraine, where a smaller army has been able to survive assaults from a bigger and richer nation.

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The purpose and function of the armed forces are two topics that need to be discussed. But it’s also important to keep the discussion civil and not denigrate the organization tasked with national defense.

The lawmakers’ and the army’s defensiveness in response to this pushback is also cause for worry.

Many others took to social media to accuse Poudyal of betraying the nation, working for a foreign power, or using the crisis to undermine the military.

She is within her rights and responsibilities as a legislator to raise questions about the size and function of the military in a nation where the military is subject to civilian control. Such discussion has long been needed. During the Maoist uprising, the Nepali military increased from 45,000 to its current strength of 96,000. There has to be a discussion about the country’s position and security policy now that the domestic political situation and regional and global factors have shifted.

Therefore, the military’s defensive posture raises concerns.

In March, Army Chief of Staff General Prabhu Ram Sharma brushed off pleas for reductions from “self-proclaimed academics, experts, and security experts working in non-governmental organizations and international non-governmental organizations.” He labeled them “outsiders” who were serving foreign interests. The military has now replied quietly, stating that the government decides the army’s strength.

However, former military leaders are now leading the counterattack.

General Gaurav S.J.B. Rana, a former head of the Army, has criticized the movement to reduce the size of the military as a “undeveloped” and “unschooled opinion.” Rana said 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” since the military is a treasured asset of the state.

General Binoj Basnyat, another former army leader, has advocated for a number of reforms, including the elimination of the expensive federal system, in order to provide the necessary funds for national development.

Furthermore, both Rana and Basnyat argue that the military should not be questioned since it is the most trusted institution in the nation.

An overwhelming majority of Nepalese (91.2%) have faith in the armed forces, whereas just 44% have faith in political parties. They contend that the military is a more responsible actor and should not be subject to public scrutiny.

Their words suggest that the legitimacy of the Nepali military cannot be questioned. Indeed, legislators are similarly circumspect when discussing the armed forces. A few days after her comments generated public outrage, Poudyal revealed that she was discouraged from commenting about the military problems by high officials of various parties.

Those who want to examine the army’s role and those who are hostile to the idea have certain things in common. Both sides are cognizant of the fact that regional and global geopolitical currents are shifting swiftly; a conflict between the two nations was once unthinkable but is now a very real possibility.

Because of these shifts, Nepal is now in the epicenter of geopolitical struggles on a local, national, and international scale. The altered internal security environment necessitates an examination of security policy and the related size, structure, and form of the military. The Nepalese military of 2005 is not up to the task at hand.

When civilian authorities discuss the military’s function and size, the military takes this as code for “downsizing,” and hence takes a defensive stance.

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Therefore, establishing mutual confidence between civilian and military authorities is the first stage. Then they may sit down together and map out a course of action that makes sense for the country’s immediate and long-term requirements, including any necessary military reforms.

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