Sri Lanka: The Dangerous Delusion of an Imminent Military Victory
By Ravindra Wickremasinghe
The belief in the possibility of a short decisive war appears to be one of the most ancient and dangerous of human illusions - Robert Wilson Lynd - (1879 - 1949) - Irish writer and nationalist.
The government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa buoyed by the victory in the two Provincial Council elections last weekend is well aware that the military campaign in the Tiger heartland will have to be halted or considerably slowed down in the coming eight weeks with the arrival of the pro-LTTE monsoon.
Having failed to achieve the objective of taking the Tiger headquarters of Killinochchi by Election Day last Saturday, as predicted by Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake, the President may now hope to do so by the third anniversary of his own election victory on 17th November 2008. This will be about a week before the LTTE leader Vellupillai Prabkaran celebrates his 54 birthday – a day which is commemorated as Heroes Day.
While there are hopes and fears in the hearts and minds of the public, it is important note that the possible failures by military planners in formulating a worst case scenario of a counter counter-offensive strategy will be responsible for any potential debacle in the coming days.
Why? Over the past year, the government’s news managers have not made much attempt to explain to the people as to why the retreating Tigers are not engaged and destroyed either by the Air Force or by elite commando units. Are we allowing the enemy to flee so that he can regroup to fight us another day? And may be next time around be better prepared to do so?
The picture that this writer has managed to piece together primarily by studying the failed military operations launched by successive governments from 1983 onwards, inter alia, reveals a lack of actionable intelligence, unintelligent use of airpower as well as the inability to hit the Tigers at their strongest fortifications. It appears that there never was a policy to apprehend or target Prabakaran, but only one to fight a large scale war against a terrorist group. If you want to get rid of rats do you burn down your home?
Sadly, Sri Lanka seems to be stubbornly adhering to the same failed policies (what to do), and strategies (how to do it), in both the battle and cricket fields as was evidenced by its defeat at the hands of a weakened India team in the series deciding ODI on Wednesday in Colombo. How about a surprise raid on the Killinochchi town or an aerial bombardment of the Mahumalia FDLs?
The forces seem to be advancing into Killinochchi and other Tiger-held areas in a linear and predictable manner without resorting to surprise attacks. This is very helpful to the LTTE which will therefore be well aware of potential troop movements.
In the next two weeks this virtually resistance free advance is likely to end as the forces will encounter landmines and other traps as well as jungle guerrilla warfare. The Tigers seem to be successfully drawing the forces into its preferred battlefield according to its timetable and agenda. Regrettably the forces may neither have the luxury of time nor morale at this stage as most troops may now be fatigued after such a long military campaign. Even a professional army consists of human beings with a finite attention span. On the other hand the rested Tigers are ready for the kill.
Sun Tzu warns that “He who wishes to fight must first count the cost. When you engage in actual fighting, if victory is long in coming, then men's weapons will grow dull and their ardor will be dampened. If you lay siege to a town, you will exhaust your strength”.
Once the Tigers launch a guerrilla campaign the advantages provided by the Sri Lanka Air force (SLAF), will be minimised, however, the LTTE with possible access to homing/listening devices and spies will use its crude planes to target us at will and return to their hangers. Will the next air attacks come during broad daylight?
One would have hoped that with the installation of an advanced radar system, the forces would have been better prepared for the air Tiger attack on the Trincomalee naval base on Monday night, sadly, however, the plane managed to get away. This attack came more than an year after the last one and regrettably once again we have not learnt anything. We are still failing to locate, engage or destroy the Tiger airforce. Our response continues to be like trying to swat a fly with ones bare hands. At present the score is LTTE Air Force: 6 SLAF: 0.
Should the government acquire or study the type of planes the LTTE has and try to counter them? Or will the purchase be another opportunity for a merchant of death (arms dealer), to make more money? Let us not forget the on 19th April 1995 the LTTE attacked the Trinco harbour thus signalling that it was returning to all out war.
Apart from the imminent Monsoon, landmines and other surprise traps, the forces may be faced with an impossible challenge if and when the LTTE sends hundreds if not thousands of civilians who are in its captivity into the path of the advancing forces. Now can the troops separate the 10,000 odd professional Tigers from the 200,000 civilians? Many of them are said to be currently undergoing forced training for suicide bombings and other counteroffensive operations. How many non-combatants will be killed in this melee?3,000? This may create the conditions for an international humanitarian intervention. India may itself declare that it has a Responsibility to Protect (R2P), the Tamils from genocide.
The BBC reports that the Catholic Church has already written to UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon highlighting the plight of civilians “Deaths, injuries, displacements and attendant misery pervade the lives of the innocent Tamil civilians. The Draconian economic embargo imposed slyly on Wanni has become a monstrous obstacle even in giving relief and solace to the 170,000 persons recently displaced. Day and night, Wanni is thundering with Artillery Guns, Multi Barrel Rocket Launchers, Supersonic fighter jets and Naval gunboats, Fr.Pathinathan states in his letter”. Can we resolve this situation without international intervention?
Interesting if one believes the official figures there is a ratio of about 16 soldiers to every Tiger, however, with the inclusion of the Tamil civilians who have fled to LTTE-controlled areas the equations is dramatically tilted in the favour of the Tigers. So will it be 160,000 soldiers fighting 200,000 plus civilians and 10,000 hardcore Tigers? Will this be an excellent opportunity for Tigers to enter into Government-controlled areas and attack troops from there?
It is very unlikely that the Tigers have lost their conventional capabilities as they still have an army, navy, air force as well as elite Black and Sea Tigers unites. The Tigers may still be fully capable of both conventional and asymmetrical warfare. Are we ready for their Kamikaze air commandos?
Recently a military analyst warned that “the rebels' quick withdrawals in recent weeks were a trap to lure the troops into the jungles in the interior, where the guerrillas, who still have artillery and other heavy weapons, will launch a major counterattack”.
In 1995 Sri Lankan forces captured much of Jaffna and to this day control it. What are the lessons that we have learnt from our success in clearing, holding and building on liberated territory? Can we use them in the battle to liberate Killinochchi and the rest of the areas illegally occupied by the LTTE?
During the period 1999 to 2000 the LTTE recaptured much of the Wanni in a battle lasting five days. This territory had been captured by the military after an operation of 19 months. Since terrorism is the weapon of the weak the LTTE has to be much more creative in the use of its limited human resources and military assets as unlike the government side it cannot rely on unlimited supplies and strength in numbers. Unfortunately, the strength in numbers of the forces is in fact a fallacy as each unit may believe that the other will come to its rescue – a dangerous illusion.
The post-Tsunami bonanza helped the LTTE to “legally smuggle” (via the Colombo harbour and airport), aircraft, advanced communication equipment and weapons (anti-aircraft missiles?), necessary for its growth. The Sri Lankan forces and the public are yet to get a full taste of its full assortment as we are in denial. We continue to dismiss the Tiger’s air capabilities and this may prove to be fatal. Prabakaran the master of misdirection may have perfected the Tiger’s retreat, pause and pounce strategy in the past four year keeping in mind the Karuna betrayal/defection and the loss of the Easter Province.
Prabakaran the master of disguise may do a Radovan Karadic and may “disappear” once we are close to his lair taking advantage of his illness. Since there is an Interpol arrest warrant out for him since 1994, no state can grant him refuge. Are there any failed states or other enemies of Mother Lanka who will assist him?
Unfortunately due to death threats, intimidation and regular physical attacks on its workers by state actors, the local media (especially the print media), can no longer fulfil its duty as a watchdog of the public. It no longer has the courage to speak the truth to those in power.
This writer worries that the Tiger’s counteroffensive will hit the people of Sri Lanka in the same way that we were overwhelmed by the December 2004 Tsunami. We will be very unprepared as we have already been fed the myth of an imminent military victory.
Media reports state that the LTTE has increased its intelligence gathering operations (spying), in the Eastern Province. They also report of weapons and bomb-making materials found in other parts of the country. Will these help the Tigers to launch an Island-wide counter attack targeting top political and military leaders?
Sri Lanka as the Chair of SAARC as well as a leader in fighting terrorism in South Asia must use the United Nation Anti-Terrorism Conference* to be held on 4th September to once again draw the attention of the international community to the steps it has taken to resolve the conflict. Several western nations must be persuaded to proscribe the LTTE and crackdown on its criminal activities conducted on their respective territories. Outside of Sri Lanka the LTTE is a transnational criminal enterprise.
This writer as a concerned citizen of Sri Lanka looks forward to the day very soon when the whole of Mother Lanka is free from the cancer of terrorism and those responsible are brought to justice as their escape would mean a colossal failure of the political and military strategy. This writer urges all patriotic, peace loving children and well-wishers of Mother Lanka to use the excellent forum provide by The Asian Tribune to discuss military and political strategies necessary to bring about a holistic peace which is acceptable to all communities.
- Asian Tribune -