ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, July 22, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 08
Columns - Telescope  

Peace activists playing into government hands

By J.S. Tissainayagam

Those keeping in touch with current events would be aware that despite the capture of Toppigala, there is little likelihood of any letup in the escalating cost of living, the death toll, or from that intangible but vitally important factor that accompanies war - fear. The LTTE's political wing leader S. P. Thamilselvan warned in an interview with Reuters, "The government has accelerated its military offensives; to put an end to it we have to target economic targets."

Though it is not publicly accepted by the government, engaging the LTTE in the East is going to be a huge dilemma. This was rhetorically, but pithily put by a former commander of the Sri Lanka Air Force Harry Goonatilleke: "You needed around 1000 or 2000 soldiers to win the battle. But holding these areas would be very costly, as you would need to some 10,000 to 20,000 soldiers..."

Sri Lankan troops: Fighting in the north and defending the east

The government, though acknowledging the need to recruit 50,000 more military personnel, has not said from where they would come. Fifty thousand is no small number and let alone the additional cost to exchequer, estimated by Air Marshal Goonatilleke at Rs.7.2 billion in salaries alone, recruitment to the military is notoriously difficult in times of war.

While contending with the economic costs of the war, the government has to also weigh its options on countering the LTTE's tactics to restore the military balance in its favour. The Tigers of course have said they would return to the guerrilla mode of warfare in the East. The security forces, on the other hand, being a conventional military outfit, are not equipped to follow suit, except perhaps using the deep penetration units to strike selected targets within the Wanni.

So the Sri Lanka military has basically three options and all to do with territory: start operations to capture areas in the Tiger-held Wanni; defend the East from LTTE incursions; a combination of both.

This writer admits freely that he is not a military analyst. But there are certain matters that could be commented upon from a commonsensical point of view. The security forces have opened a front northwest of Vavuniya to break through the LTTE's flank. But the battles in Tampanai, Pompaimadhu and clashes on the Vavuniya-Mannar Road have proved bloody with the Tigers resisting any effort to pierce the present line of control. Therefore, the security forces know that if the army wants to capture new territory it would be fiercely contested.

Second, any conventional army advances using heavy armour as a shield. With northeast monsoon expected to set in by October, armour will find mobility a problem and any such operation to be carried out this year will have to be accomplished in the next month or two.

Operation Jayasikurui - the last occasion when government forces attempted a major thrust to wrest control of the Wanni - is a good example: it began in May, giving army at least six months before the terrain would render any sustained push forward difficult.

Therefore, once the rains set in, in October, till March at least, operations in the North will have to be confined to artillery duels and aerial bombardment on enemy positions, supply lines, and population centres, but not the capture of territory.

On the other hand, the monsoon does not hamper a guerrilla army. Its tactics do not depend on moving heavy armour. On the contrary, rain and inclement weather assist such forms of warfare that depends on surprise and stealth. In other words, the coming months will be favourable for the Tigers to attack strategic targets in the Northeast as well as economic targets elsewhere.

Under these circumstances, the politico-military conjuncture will become critical for the government. Politically, it faces immense challenges from the newly-formed National Congress, which is expected to mobilise the people on issues of human rights violations, erosion of democracy, corruption and the faltering economy.

Meanwhile the JVP is questioning the government's conduct of the war and the soaring cost of living. At the same time, the government's human rights record, disregard for the human cost of war and its inability to put forward a coherent set of political proposals for a solution has brought it international condemnation and isolation.

In the past few months, the government sought to tide over its problems by saying it was "regaining the East." It has now done so. With further operations to gain territory in the North rendered impossible due to reasons mentioned above, the government would have to face an increasingly hostile political opposition in the South with nothing to show but the army merely defending positions it took earlier in the North, East and elsewhere.

Seeing these problems ahead, President Mahinda Rajapaksa chose what he thought was a clever ploy, only to see it backfire. Taking heed of the Clausewitzian advice that "… the political view is the object, war is the means…", he sought to change the means by engaging the enemy with diplomacy instead of combat for achieving his political objectives.

This was the reason for the feelers sent by government around the time of the recent meeting of the co-chairs, to Norwegian Minister of International Development Erik Solheim that the government would be willing to facilitate a visit by Special Envoy Jon Hansen-Baur to Kilinochchi. The Norwegian mission in Colombo was to later deny any such visit had been planned.

The government hoped that by re-establishing contact with Kilinochchi it could guarantee immunity from attack by the Tigers in the coming months. Thamilselvan in his Reuter interview dismissed the sincerity of the moves saying, "After closing all avenues for the other party (the LTTE) to participate in meaningful negotiations, the government inviting (us) to attend talks is meaningless."

Therefore, the president's call for talks was not intended to be a genuine gesture for peace but hope that diplomacy could be used to suspend hostilities for the moment, only to begin afresh at a more opportune time. It was in alignment with Clausewitz: "it (war) can only be brought to standstill by either side by one single motive alone, which is, that he (the commander) awaits for a more favourable moment for action [On War, Bk. (I) Ch. (i)]."

In recent weeks the well-intentioned writers have berated President Rajapaksa for not calling for negotiations to halt the bloodshed. Little do they realise that by saying this they play into the government's hands and project the president's dearest wishes.

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.