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The Blind Men Of Hindoostan

2009 has begun with a startling victory at Kilinochchi. With the necessary political and military will, this may well be the year that a 33 year old terror is finally extinguished in Sri Lanka. There are lessons in it for India -- and the world at la

The Blind Men Of Hindoostan
The Blind Men Of Hindoostan
outlookindia.com
-0001-11-30T00:00:00+05:53

Colombo is clearly readying for a final showdown, and the LTTE has limited capacities to resist the state’s armed forces in positional warfare. 

--Shattered Haven, November 2007

It is evident that Colombo currently wishes to see this war out to a finish, hoping that the present impetus can be sustained to the point of a decisive victory. It is also clear, as the Army asserts, that the rebels no longer have the capacities for conventional warfare that they had demonstrated in earlier phases of the movement. What remains to be seen is whether the LTTE still retains a sufficient capacity to mount paralysing terrorist operations outside the theatres of conventional warfare, and whether these can, in fact, undermine Colombo’s determination to push for a final victory. 

--LTTE: Heartland Imperilled, August, 2008

After exactly one year of ‘declared war’, the Sri Lanka Army (SLA) overran Kilinochchi town, the de-facto capital of the projected Tamil Eelam (Homeland). The SLA captured Kilinochchi, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam’s (LTTE) political and administrative headquarters in the early hours of January 2, 2009, as they launched simultaneous attacks from three directions in Paranthan, Iranamadu and Adampan. The defence ministry disclosed that troops of 57th Division entered the highly defended stronghold from the southern and south-western boundaries while Task Force-I troops marched in from the north and the northwest. The Army had earlier taken the Jaffna-Kandy (A-9) Highway on the Omanthai-Paranthan stretch. Notably, it was on January 2, 2008, that the Sri Lanka government had decided to withdraw from the Cease-Fire Agreement (CFA) signed on February 22, 2002, between the then United National Front (UNF) Government and the LTTE. 

The fall of Kilinochchi has, at once, exposed the myth of the LTTE’s invincibility and the credentials of many a much-experienced ‘strategic expert’. Some uncomprehending experts have currently succumbed to inexplicable bouts of breast-beating at this decisive defeat of what has long been recognized as one of the most lethal and enduring terrorist organisations in the world. Thus, one such expert, who had earlier warned that the conflict in Kilinochchi would be "a long and fatal kiss" for the "young and hastily-trained Sinhalese recruits" of the SLA, quickly shifts his dire predictions to Mullaitivu. He had warned that Army Commander Lt. General Sarath Fonseka’s "keenness to keep his promise of ‘In Kilinochchi before the New Year’" would prove as disastrous as General Douglas McArthur’s promise of "home before Christmas" in the Korean war, because "Kilinochchi has now nothing but death traps for the SL Army laid by the LTTE". Adding some historical wisdom to these assessments, he asserted, further, "The battle being fought for Kilinochchi is a combined miniature version of the battles of Stalingrad in the erstwhile USSR and El Alamein in North Africa". This expert now draws parallels between "scenes witnessed after the US Army moved without resistance into Baghdad" and notes that, "Almost six years later, the violence still continues in Iraq." The learned conclusion drawn is that "the end of the LTTE’s campaign will come not when it loses an important piece of territory, but when it loses the support of the Tamil people in the areas still controlled by it and in the Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora."

This is just unqualified nonsense and is based on an inversion of the logic of counter-terrorism successes in theatre after theatre across South Asia. The reality is, the defeat of terrorism results in a dissipation of the legitimacy of rebel forces and of what passes for ‘popular support’. Rebel groups and the ideologies they propagate have repeatedly been discredited by defeat. The reality of ‘popular support’ moreover, is that it is based at least as much on the terror the group is able to inflict on its ‘followers’ as on any ideological appeal (though this may not be as much the case with vocal, affluent and unduly influential Diaspora elements who operate outside the risk and terror of the actual conflict). 

Another notable expert-in-mourning sees the defeat at Kilinochchi as a disaster for Indian foreign policy: "We have lost the game", he notes theatrically, "Whatever influence India had would diminish as a result of Sri Lanka being able to handle the situation entirely on its own… It is a strategic error (for India) not to keep back channels with the LTTE". It is, indeed, astonishing to learn that India has no leverage in Sri Lanka other than the option of supporting a terrorist organisation that is banned on Indian soil, and a terrorist leadership that was responsible for the assassination of one of its former Prime Ministers. Incredible, moreover, that Sri Lanka’s abilities to "handle the situation entirely on its own" (a small exaggeration, certainly), undermines the possibility of diplomatic influence in a country that has a long tradition – only occasionally marred – of friendly relations with India. 

But such are the contours of strategic sagacity in South Asia.

Meanwhile, at the time of writing, the troops attached to Task Force-IV, operating in the East of the Jaffna-Kandy (A-9) Road, have captured the key junction town, Oddusudan, on the Mankulam-Mullaitivu (A-34) Road, taking full control of the Oddusudan-Nedunkerni-Puliyankulam Road, and are surging ahead, just four kilometres away from the centre of the LTTE’s military bastion at Mullaitivu. About 30,000 troops are also currently deployed in Kilinochchi to clear the town of booby traps and landmines.

Click To Enlarge

In a special address to the nation on State television Rupavahini, hours after the troops captured Kilinochchi, President Mahinda Rajapakse described the action as a "major victory in the world’s battle against terrorism." He reiterated the resolve of his Government to continue the fight till the LTTE was "fully and finally defeated," and asserted this was "the final message to the LTTE, to lay down their arms and surrender." He said his Government would continue the fight against the LTTE until the "final act of this false Eelam struggle is played to its finish" in the small territory of the jungle dominated Mullaitivu, where it is confined today. 

Acknowledging the loss, the pro-LTTE Tamil Net website stated that the SLA "has entered a virtual ghost town as the whole civilian infrastructure as well as the centre of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam had shifted further northeast." The Website claimed that the LTTE, who had put up heavy resistance, kept their casualties low in the defensive fighting, adding, "It is the first time after a decade the Sri Lankan forces have been able to take control of the town after several months of fierce fighting that has claimed hundreds of combatants on both sides of the war." 

The LTTE first took control of Kilinochchi in 1990, when the SLA withdrew its garrisons after the departure of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF). The SLA regained control of the town following operations Sathjaya I, II, and III in September 1996. The town was re-captured by the LTTE in September 1998, and has since been designated as the LTTE’s "administrative and political headquarters." Kilinochchi town, which lies about 334 kilometres (255 miles) north of capital Colombo, is where almost all decisions were made by the exclusive command of the outfit’s leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, and his top-rung leadership. The LTTE ‘courts’, ‘Police’ Headquarters, ‘Eelam’ banks, and the luxurious LTTE Peace Secretariat complex, all operated from Kilinochchi, lying along the main supply route (A-9). 

That the victory surprised even the Government is evident from its own admission, on December 25, 2008, that there would be a delay in capturing Kilinochchi, owing to significant numbers of civilians still remaining in the outskirts of the town. Defence spokesperson, Minister Keheliya Rambukwella, had claimed that 150,000 civilians still remained trapped by the LTTE in and around Kilinochchi. "The President is very watchful that no civilian is hurt in the ongoing battle. This is why the crawl to Kilinochchi by the Security Forces has been very slow." However, on December 29, 2008, Rambukwella declared that the SLA would arrest the LTTE chief Velupillai Prabhakaran and bring him to the courts before February 7, 2009. Speaking at a function in Kandy, Rambukwella said Prabhakaran was hiding in a bunker at a location limited only to a small area in Wanni. The Minister claimed Government troops would overrun Prabhakaran’s bunker in the immediate future. The hopes of speedy victory were rekindled further on January 1, 2009, when Lt. Fonseka told Daily News that the fall of Kilinochchi was imminent within the succeeding 48 hours, as the Security Forces (SFs) had already entered Kilinochchi Town from the South, West and North: "The Task Force I troops are operating just one kilometre short of Kilinochchi railway station…" he had stated then, "They have advanced beyond the Iranamadu Junction and are fast advancing towards the heart of Kilinochchi. There are signs that the LTTE will flee from Kilinochchi as troops advance towards the heart of Kilinochchi. But troops will have to engage in fierce battles in areas such as Ramanathapuram in the east of Kilinochchi."

The fall of Kilinochchi is the more momentous in view of the LTTE’s repeated claim that it had executed tactical retreats on other battlefronts only to give a ‘befitting reply’ to troops at Kilinochchi. As recently as on December 30, 2008, the leader of the LTTE political wing, Balasingham Nadesan, in an e-mail sent to Associated Press claimed, "We have made several strategic withdrawals in order to save the lives of our people and maintain the strength of our forces. When the time and place is conducive, we will regain the land we have lost."

Soon after the capture of Kilinochchi, the defence ministry stated, "There is no option available for the LTTE rebels other than to flee towards the jungle patches in Puthukuduiruppu and Vishvamadu in the East of Iranamadu Tank as troops aggressively advanced towards the heart of Kilinochchi on all fronts." Unsurprisingly, speaking at a special function in Colombo to announce the military success in Kilinochchi, Lt. Gen. Fonseka disclosed that over 1,500 LTTE militants had been killed during the preceding two months in the north, that small numbers of LTTE cadres were concentrated in Wanni, and that the SFs could neutralise them in the near future. 

There has been no pause in SLA operations after Kilinochchi, and troops have moved inexorably into Mullaitivu, where many envisage another intractable phase of the war in this densely forested region. It is useful, however, to recall, here, that some commentators had earlier spoken about the LTTE’s ‘invincibility’ in the jungles of Thoppigala, a large forest with 700 square kilometres, where the rebels took shelter after being evacuated from the entire Eastern Province in 2007. The LTTE was, however, quickly pushed out of this forest haven at that time. 

With a total forest area of about 1,712 square kilometres out of a total land area of 2,415 square kilometres (70.9 per cent) the Mullaitivu district has proven an ideal hiding place for the LTTE, alongside the Elephant Pass in Jaffna, to carry its guerrilla war in the past. With SLA Forces now pushing forward at the Elephant Pass as well – in an effort that would restore the road link between Jaffna and the Sri Lankan mainland, it is now only a matter of time before the LTTE succumbs in Mullaitivu as well. 

Government forces have already made deep inroads into the Mullaitivu district and the SLA’s strongest Force, the 59th Division, is pressing forward at the Welioya Front. By January 3, 2009, troops had advanced towards the LTTE’s military headquarters in Mullaitivu. "The battle for Mullaitivu has already begun," the Ministry stated, disclosing that Government troops were also moving further north of their positions in Kilinochchi in a bid to retake the strategically vital Elephant Pass, which was lost to the LTTE’s Operation Ceaseless Waves (Oyatha Alaigal) in April 2000. Elephant Pass lies at the entrance to the Jaffna Peninsula, which the SF’s wrested from rebel control in 1995. However, with most of the Kilinochchi populace having been forced to move eastward towards Mullaitivu even before the ‘Eelam war-IV’ began, it may be difficult for the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) to target LTTE forces. The Government’s ‘zero civilian casualty policy’ may hamper air support to ground troops, delaying the inevitable outcome somewhat.

While it is now evident that the LTTE is a progressively spent force as far as conventional war is concerned, and that it will be nigh impossible for them to regain the swathes of land they have lost, the outfit retains a significant residual menace. Even if the rebels are completely routed at Mullaitivu, the possibility of a terrorist and guerrilla hit and run campaign would remain, unless the top leadership is entirely neutralised. Balasingham Nadesan thus warns, "We are used to all types of wars… we will struggle on with the help of our people until their political aspirations are met." The seriousness of this admonition was demonstrated shortly after Mahinda Rajapakse’s victorious speech, when an LTTE suicide bomber blew himself up, killing three persons, including two Airmen, and injuring 37 others at the entrance to the Air Force camp at Slave Island in Colombo on January 2, 2009. Crucially, the Eastern Province may once again become the target of escalating LTTE violence and refuge. The province has already witnessed a rising graph of attacks, with as many as 232 reported incidents in 2008, in which 198 persons (69 civilians, 36 SFs and 93 militants) were killed (ICM database). The Sri Lankan capital, Colombo, itself witnessed 109 killings in 2008 (85 civilians and five SFs).

For Colombo, this is not a time either for triumphalism or for haste, but rather, for the steady consolidation of the victories of the recent past, and for the accommodation of legitimate Tamil aspirations within the Sri Lankan constitutional order, with no concessions whatsoever to terrorists. 

For the world, there are crucial lessons that can be learned from the successive reverses inflicted on the LTTE by the SLA. The most significant of these is that terrorism can, indeed, must, be defeated, if political solutions are to apply. Colombo’s long history of defeats was a consequence, not of the invincibility or intractability of the LTTE, but of the indecision, the weakness or the lack of realism in earlier political leaderships, which failed to make an objective assessment of the LTTE’s capacities, and to acquire and deploy the resources to neutralize these in the past, relying, instead, on what was seen to be the ‘easier’ option of negotiating with the terrorists. The lesson the world can learn from Sri Lanka – as indeed, from other theatres of successful counter-terrorism in South Asia – is that while the war against terror will never be easy, it will remain a necessity in ages to come; cultures that seek the ‘ease’ of political and negotiated solutions without addressing the challenge of the coercive and disruptive dominance of terrorist groups will, consequently, be condemned to the greater suffering of relentless victimhood. 

2009 has begun with a startling victory at Kilinochchi. With the necessary political and military will, this may well be the year that a 33 year old terror is finally extinguished in Sri Lanka. 


Ajai Sahni is Editor, SAIR; Executive Director, Institute for Conflict Management. Ajit Kumar Singh is Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management. Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal

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