A Case for Redesigning Nepal’s National Security Council

September 3, 2014

Nepal is at a crossroads. A comprehensive peace accord in 2006 capped a decade of protracted Nepalese armed conflict. In the years since, Nepal’s leaders have worked to build a resilient and inclusive political system capable of dealing effectively with the country’s internal and external challenges alike. Those challenges remain daunting. Geo-strategically located between two rising powers – India and China – Nepal faces an array of both traditional and non-traditional security concerns, including border management, environmental threats, food and energy crises, population growth and migration, terrorism, and trafficking in arms and persons. At a moment when Nepal’s political elites are debating the provisions of a new federal constitution, they would do well to consider the need for a new comprehensive national security architecture –including a redesigned National Security Council (NSC). Nepal’s neighbors and friends, including the United States, also have considerable interest in seeing reforms that enable Kathmandu to deal holistically and proactively with the challenges that lie ahead.

Geo-strategically located between two rising powers – India and China – Nepal faces an array of both traditional and non-traditional security concerns, including border management, environmental threats, food and energy crises, population growth and migration. Photo/Conor Ashleigh

Nepal’s existing national security architecture is inadequate for managing the country’s complex challenges. Two government bodies notionally serve an apex role in national security decision-making. The first, a Council of Ministers advised by Nepal’s various ministries, is in theory a forum for dealing with complex security issues. In practice, the ministries devote the vast majority of their time to managing day-to-day operational decisions, and have not shown an aptitude for cross-ministerial collaboration on strategic matters. The second, an existing National Security Council, decides on certain critical security matters. Unfortunately, not only does the NSC lack a comprehensive staff element, but its constitutional role is extremely narrow: its sole mandate is to advise the Council of Ministers on the mobilization, operation and use of the Nepal Army. The NSC does not address emerging or non-traditional security issues, and has met only less than a dozen times since 2001.

What Nepal needs, rather, is a flexible and resourced national security architecture by which it can seize opportunities created by the global security environment, deal with new challenges that cut across bureaucratic boundaries, and institutionalize the government’s strengths, including its notable contribution to global peacekeeping operations. As of today, Nepal is the fifth largest contributor of uniformed personnel worldwide with over 4,700 peacekeepers. To revamp this architecture, Nepal should rework its NSC into a strategic, proactive, cross-ministerial body that can advise the Council of Ministers on the full range of security issues. Though its structure may be reminiscent of certain aspects of the American, Indian, and Chinese models, Nepal’s NSC must be its own – designed to reflect its unique needs, and to be adaptive to its unique challenges.

The design of this new national security architecture should be guided by seven key principles. First, in order to foster legitimacy, Nepal’s new NSC should be authorized from parliamentary legislation and broad constitutional provisions, not merely by statute. Second, the NSC should be established under the auspices of the Office of the Prime Minister, rather than (as in its current form) narrowly under the Ministry of Defense. Third, the legislation should create and authorize the position of National Security Advisor (NSA), who would be appointed by and would advise the Prime Minister. Fourth, given Nepal’s Westminster-style political system, the NSC should take on an advisory role rather than one that formally adjudicates between ministries. Fifth, while not infringing on the authority of the relevant ministries, the NSC should serve as a strategic forum for coordination and monitoring, and should deal with crosscutting issues facing multiple ministries. Sixth, the NSC should include an Executive Secretariat and a robust staff element to support its various ad-hoc committees. Finally, the structure of an NSC and its standing committees should be carefully balanced to reflect the various tools and interests of state power in Nepal: political leaders, the civilian bureaucratic elite, and the military.

Nepal’s friends in Washington, New Delhi, Beijing, and farther afield should welcome its consideration of a new national security architecture. After all, issues such as terrorism, energy, migration, and climate change can only be managed holistically and in partnership with neighbors. Nepal’s global partners would likely also welcome the appointment of a National Security Advisor in Kathmandu who could serve as a key interlocutor on a wide range of traditional and non-traditional security matters.

More importantly, there is reason to believe that such an approach would find a natural constituency within Nepal itself. Already there are those in the government and parliament who recognize that an “à la carte” approach to national security policymaking is no longer desirable, or even possible in a globalized world. As Nepal seeks to finish writing its constitution and implement broader reforms toward effective governance, this is an important moment to consider an approach that balances key domestic interests, establishes a comprehensive but adaptable security architecture, and equips Nepal to face the national security challenges of the future.

This article was first published by Foreign Policy’s South Asia Channel.

Madhav Ghimire served as Minister for Home Affairs, Minister for Foreign Affairs, and Chief Secretary of Nepal. Most recently he was a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Stimson Center in Washington, D.C., with the support of The Asia Foundation. He can be reached at madhavghimire2001@gmail.com. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.