An analysis of military operations
May 29th, 2008
by Col R Hariharan (retd.)
There should be no illusion that despite the flare of success in repelling a division strong security forces offensive at Muhamalai in April 2008, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) is fighting a war of survival. The continuing ground and air operations of the security forces after Muhamalai debacle, and the progress they have made during this month in Mannar sector capturing Adampan and other outlying LTTE defences have further constricted the territory under active LTTE control in the Northern Province.
The fall of key LTTE defences in Mannar sector indicate that the LTTE probably pulled out some of its forces earlier to reinforce Muhamalai-Kilinochchi. This would enable the LTTE to repel future forays of security forces into the vital heartland of the LTTE from the north.
As the troops advance further in Mannar and Vavuniya sectors, and as pressure builds up in Welioya, even without a major offensive along Muhamalai, the LTTE’s options would be reduced further. As the war prolongs further, the constraints of conventional warfare dictate that the LTTE has to progressively pull back its defences, and reduce its frontage to conserve its strength to offer better resistance. This would be the long term picture even if the security forces have a few debacles along one or more fronts in their offensive, as long as they do not give up half way.
There had been few pro-active LTTE operations after Muhamalai. These were limited to dropping of three bombs on the security forces in Welioya front by two Air Tiger aircraft, and sinking of A 520 (MV Invincible), a naval logistics vessel in a clever underwater suicide operation by the Sea Tigers in Trincomalee harbour during mid May. This would show the LTTE has severe limitations in its conventional operational capability.
The security forces have carried out relentless bombing of suspected LTTE assets. The LTTE has accused the security forces’ deep penetration unit of killing 17 people including women and children in a claymore blast well inside the LTTE territory in Vanni. This is the third time the LTTE has accused the security forces of carrying out such clandestine attacks deep inside its territory. The security forces have routinely denied these allegations. These killings targeting civilians are probably retaliatory in nature for settling scores for the LTTE’s killings of civilians elsewhere.
While they do not directly impact the current operational situation, they impose caution on movement of cadres and spread insecurity and panic among the population. These could get worse as the war makes further inroads. If the LTTE accusations are true, they show the weakening ability of the LTTE to dominate areas under its control. If it is not the security forces, who are behind these deep penetration operations in depth? Are they the handy work of one of the shadowy “para military” outfits that the LTTE accuses of colluding with the security forces? These questions are probably being debated within the LTTE and some of its attention would be diverted to prevent such attacks as the war progresses.
Recourse to unconventional war
LTTE’s strong suite had always been its guerrilla capability in areas outside its direct control. Under present circumstances, to compensate its limitations in conventional operations, the LTTE appears to have stepped up its unconventional actions with a series of bomb blasts in areas outside the battle zones.
The LTTE attacks outside the theatre of operations started the day after Muhamalai attack, with the killing of 26 civilians in a bus bomb blast at Piliyandala on April 28, 2008. This was followed by the Amparai caf頰arcel bomb blast on the eve of the eastern provincial council elections in which 11 people were killed and 29 others wounded. There was a motor cycle-borne suicide attack on a police van in Colombo on May 16, 2008 killing 10 persons including seven policemen. The latest in the series was the bomb blast carried out in a train at Dehiwela near Colombo on May 26, 2008 in which nine people were killed and 73 others were injured. Only two days before the train bombing, three time bombs were defused before they exploded – two on passenger buses near Colombo and one in the Kandy area.
Of course, there was the tragic, gangster style LTTE killing of Ms Maheswary Velayutham, while visiting her ailing mother in her Jaffna home. She was better known for years of yeoman service in the cause of human rights and Tamil refugees than for her later day role as advisor to the Eelam Peoples Democratic Party (EPDP). And how her killing makes it easier to gain Tamil Eelam is a question only the LTTE’s warped logic can answer.
Essentially an insurgent force, the LTTE probably feels more comfortable in carrying out bomb blasts, suicide killings, and other such attacks targeting civilians. Such acts by themselves do not win wars. But they tend to create panic among the population and psychologically pressurise the government to ease military operations if the social and political environments encourage such developments. Whether these happen or not in the current situation in the country, the feeling of insecurity among Tamils living in Sri Lanka will be increased every time the LTTE carries out such strikes due to inherent ethnic overtones of such acts. In any case President Rajapaksa appears to be undeterred in his intention to crush the LTTE after each bomb blast. In fact, he has reiterated the same sentiment after the May 26 train blast. And after his successful election foray in the east he would have no hesitation to enlarge its scope further.
Human rights issue
The failure of Sri Lanka’s bid for getting elected to the membership of the UN Human Rights Council for a second term was not unexpected. On this count the President had probably underestimated the increasing importance attached to human rights questions in many democracies regardless of their own human rights record. At present no counter insurgency operation can be carried out with utter disregard to human rights issues. And Sri Lanka had continued its war with total indifference to human rights. Moreover, it has not covered itself with glory on this count even on the eve of the UN HRC elections. The international group of eminent persons called upon to advise the commission of inquiry into killings quit in disgust after a long tussle with the bureaucracy. Strong arm tactics have continued to suppress dissonant voices of the media. Reputed international NGOs have been castigated and prevented from entering or working freely in Sri Lanka. And Sri Lanka has persisted in refusing to allow a representative of the UN HRC to be positioned to monitor its human rights performance.
Notwithstanding the rhetoric of Bruce Fein and the detailed reports of Human Rights Watch, even nations which voted against Sri Lanka are unlikely to pressurise Sri Lanka to curb the President’s pursuit of war effort immediately. Such pressure is applied in small doses and often gets diffused due to diplomatic and political compulsions of different nations. Moreover, globally counter terrorism and human rights aberrations are far from being equated as a zero sum game. Perhaps, the flow of foreign aid and the vigour of foreign trade would be affected if Sri Lanka persists in errant ways on human rights. But the President retains the option of visibly improving his human rights record, and carry on with the military operations when the chips are down.
Though the LTTE propaganda machinery had been harping upon the human rights issue, its own hands are tainted with too many human rights violations to point a finger at others. In fact, its dismal human rights record has been used by Sri Lanka to ward off the flack in international forums on this count.
Sri Lanka security forces
Muhamalai was undoubtedly a debacle for the security forces in that they suffered probably double the number of casualties suffered by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. And in the operations probably 300 fighters from both the security forces and the LTTE lost their lives. Offensive troops always suffer more casualties in operations. However, the operation should be put in perspective while assessing the future capability of the security forces. The security forces had shown three weaknesses in this operation.
The first was not coordinating the Muhamalai offensive with other simulated or actual operations on other fronts. That would have prevented the LTTE from beefing up its Muhamalai defences by milking forces from other sectors on the eve of operations. Though operations have been launched in multiple fronts for some time, the security forces appear to have failed to take advantage of creating confusion in the minds of opposition by coordinating them and fine tuning them to derive maximum advantage. Despite expanding the army, this weakness to coordinate formation level operations on multiple fronts exhibited in earlier Eelam wars has persisted in the higher direction of war.
The second relates to tactical intelligence. The security forces probably went in for a silent attack, a very sound proposition if the surprise element was there. But there were enough battle indications in Jaffna peninsula for at least ten days in advance about the impending operation in this front. When surprise was neutralised the silent attack becomes a futile effort. The LTTE is a past master in deception and the offensive troops appear to have been taken by surprise when they ran into unexpected resistance from defences. This would show battlefield intelligence acquisition was not real time. Moreover, silent attack requires accurate real time tactical intelligence and probably this was lacking despite the modern battlefield surveillance equipment available to the security forces.
The third major weakness is strategic. Sri Lankan operations are slow and plodding which fails to take advantage of tactical success in conventional operations. It also gives sufficient time for the opposition to readjust, reinforce or pull out from defences. There could be non military reasons for not pushing through with the offensive for fear of suffering more casualties. According to the figures of the government, since January 3,873 LTTE cadres have been killed as against the loss of 298 soldiers in operations. While these figures might be disputed, there is no doubt the LTTE losses had been heavier. But the operation has gone into the third year, and the indications are that it would be a long haul if present strategies are continued.
While tactical weaknesses can be set right, the strategic weakness might continue to dog the Sri Lankan operations. And that could prolong the war and increase its human and material cost to the nation.
Overall, LTTE actions outside the operational zone are unlikely to discourage President Rajapaksa from his pursuit of military option. And if he stays determined and the security forces do not blink as they did in their infamous Elephant Pass disaster in 2000, the military operations are likely to gobble up further territory in Mannar sector in the coming months. The LTTE attacks on civilians are not going to put a stop to the military operations. They only show that the LTTE for all its pretensions of de facto governance has not changed its Tiger stripes. As the LTTE has little choice, one can expect more LTTE attempts at creating mayhem, chaos and killings as the war intensifies in the coming months.
The strong defences of LTTE in Muhamalai axis to Kilinochchi show that it is not going to allow easy passage through. Strategically, the security forces will have to probably consider coordinating the Jaffna offensive along A9 with offensive along A32-Pooneryn to enhance the threat to Kilinochichi and weaken the LTTE defences. Whether the security forces have the wherewithal to carry out such a complex operation is the question only the Army commander can answer best. [saag]
(Col. R Hariharan, a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia, served as the head of intelligence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka 1987-90.He is associated with the South Asia Analysis Group and the Chennai Centre for China Studies. E-mail: email@example.com)
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