Overview of the US policy in Nepal

Although strategic interests of the US dictated its policy on Nepal in the initial years of the bilateral relations in the context of Cold War, in the later years it became a strong advocate of human rights and democracy.[i] During the year 1977 when Nepali Congress leader B.P. Koirala was arrested by the palace-led Panchayat government, the Carter administration in Washington had categorized Nepal as one of the lowest nations in terms of respect for human rights values.[ii] Similarly, in the democratic parliamentary movement of 1990, the US under Bush administration supported the political parties who were protesting the monarchy, which it had always backed to seek political stability.[iii]

The Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (CPN-Maoist) waged an armed movement in 1996, which grew significantly within five years period. The Maoists were engaged in committing violations of human rights in pursuit of taking over the state with arms. In that context, the US reinforced its military cooperation with the Royal Nepal Army (RNA) under the king Gyanendra as a counter-insurgency measure. Since Secretary of State Collin Powell’s visit to Nepal came in the aftermath of the 9/11 and the launch of the global war on terror, a general understanding emerged that the US supported the king Gyanendra in order to defeat the insurgents as a part of the United States’ global campaign.[iv] It declared the Maoists as terrorists in the aftermath of the Maoist attack on the US embassy guards, following suit to the Nepalese government which had declared them terrorists a year earlier.[v]

The US strongly opposed and lobbied in Kathmandu and in New Delhi to stop any possible agreement between the Maoists and the Nepalese democratic parties. The then-US Ambassador to Nepal J. F. Moriarty, who publicly expressed his position, strongly resisted the Maoists’ aim of joining politics given their violent character and speculations about their intention of power grabbing. The US put pressure on the king to reconcile with political parties. As the deal happened in New Delhi anyway, it (the US) endorsed the deal, called the “12-point understanding.”

Meanwhile, the king, further strengthened by the leverage of the US military aid, did not seem interested in restoring democracy. He rather staged a coup d’état to take the executive power. The violations of human rights increased under his direct rule. Against this backdrop, the US stopped its military cooperation.[vi] After the king stepped down following a popular movement in 2006, the US continued its developmental aid and got engaged with the Maoists to put pressure on them in view of a definitive end of violence.

When the Maoists, surprisingly, won the Constituent Assembly (CA) elections in 2008, the US welcomed the results. Many stakeholders had claimed, however, that the elections were not free and fair and were heavily influenced by the Maoist menace. Similarly, the Maoists kept the combatants under their control against the provision and spirit of the peace agreement – the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), 2006 – which caused an atmosphere of distrust. There were speculations about the Maoists’ intention of state takeover. But after a much tumultuous development of the peace process, conflict simmered in the cantonments among the Maoist cadres themselves. When the situation got out of control of the Maoist leaders, they handed over the key to the authority. Immediately after that, the US delists the Maoists from its terrorist list. Incidentally, the Maoists had tried very hard to convince the US authority from Kathmandu to Washington to New York to remove them from that list. The US had always responded by saying that it had its own special procedures to follow in that regard.

While all the crucial events of conflict and the presumed policy shift of the US took place during the Bush (George W. Bush) administration, the delisting of the Maoists happened during the Obama administration.

As of 2017, the US’ Nepal policy vis-à-vis India is again taking another turn, this time resembling its traditional policies, which means the US is clearly not seeing Nepal through Indian eyes as many had speculated. These changes are apparent in recent diplomatic interactions, development pledges, and endorsing local elections in controversial circumstances.

[i] See Khadka, US Aid to Nepal in the Cold War Period.

[ii] John T. Scholz, “Nepal in 1977: Political Discipline or Human Rights,” Asian Survey 18, no.2 (Feb. 1978): 135-141.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Jha, A Nepali Perspective on International Involvement in Nepal.

[v] The US listed the Maoists in Specially Designated Global Terrorist entity under Executive Order 13224, and as a terrorist organization from the Terrorist Exclusion List (TEL) under the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) in 2003.

[vi] During this time, there were serious concerns among many stakeholders about the deteriorating human rights situation in Nepal; because Nepal already had one of the worst record on disappearances and extra-judicial killings, according to the reports of the International Crisis Group. European Parliament had passed a resolution condemning the king’s takeover. For the details, see Bruce Vaughn, “Nepal: Background and US Relations,”  Congressional Research Service, 2006, The Library of Congress.