The success of "Operation Edibala" - the latest military operation that re-established the land-based Main Supply Route (MSR) between Vavuniya and Mannar - continued to cause euphoria at the highest levels of the defence establishment last week.
The jubilation was not merely to celebrate the successful completion of an operation. The hype was also heightened by the belief that the Army by developing an operational thrust westwards towards Mannar hoodwinked lock, stock and barrel, the LTTE expectations that the Army would develop its offensive to link the Vavuniya-Kilinochchi line of communication. This was the reason, Military Intelligence claims, why the LTTE did not confront "Operation Edibala."
Independent verification of the claim that they outwitted the LTTE, either by deliberate deception or by accidental windfall, was not possible. The LTTE media releases have also been silent on the issue. Could that be because they were caught with their pants down?
In the battle for intelligence it is known that at least one intelligence assessment by the Army in the run-up to "Operation Edibala" was incorrect.
Military intelligence assessed that the LTTE had strong points or camps on the axis of the Army advance from Poovarasankulam to Mannar. However, the advance did not meet any such expected LTTE defence positions or bases. The advance was virtually unopposed. The only casualties to the military were caused by landmines, which senior military officials state, could have been laid perhaps by the Army itself before they abandoned these areas to the LTTE.
In over-estimating the LTTE resistance or expected deployment on the Vavuniya-Mannar axis, did the Army wrongly assess the LTTE strengths and deployment? If that was so, would not the corollary have been to under-estimate the LTTE elsewhere? Flowing from this, some military officials themselves ask whether the wrong assessment was the result of an intelligence flaw or the result of enemy deception? This indeed is an interesting question, especially in the background of the known difficulties in penetrating the LTTE.
Against this backdrop, the remarks of Army Commander, Lt. Gen. Rohan Daluwatte, in an interview with me are revealing. He said the LTTE "did not face us in Operation Edibala. I feel they were completely suppressed and were not prepared to take us on." (See box story on this page for highlights of the interview).
Be that as it may, at a top level conference in Colombo, senior defence and security officials were also discussing the success of "Operation Edibala." More pointedly, the discussion centred on the issue of a media statement to say that the LTTE has been weakened to such an extent that it was no longer capable of executing major attacks. To bolster the argument, it was pointed out that, due to this reason the LTTE has not been able to penetrate the tight security in Colombo and suburbs. Though this was discussed in some detail, no conclusive statement was issued.
There is an inherent weakness in the argument that the LTTE has been weakened to such an extent that it is unable to mount major attacks or unable to penetrate tight security in Colombo. The former is valid. Even though one begs the question as to how the LTTE then succeeded at Mullaitivu, and had the audacity to dare the army at Paranthan?
The defence establishment should know the answers but to the public mind it is a bit mind-boggling.
As for the next premise of being unable to penetrate Colombo, is it not illogical an argument, for penetration and destruction of soft targets in the city does not necessarily depend on the military might of the LTTE as sabotage can be caused by less than a handful of men or women? - as indeed has been the case. In point of fact taking of soft targets in the fashion the LTTE has done, is more an action of the weak than the strong. This is not only in the case of the LTTE but the pattern of terrorist operations worldwide.
The arguments in support of the deduction that the LTTE has been weakened flows from two assumptions - firstly it is argued that the LTTE has lost considerable numbers of its hardcore cadres and leaders at both the top and middle level. Hence, whilst the LTTE is unable to replace the casualties of leaders, it has also been unable to recruit cadres since the LTTE no longer controls the population centres of the North and the East.
Secondly it is argued that since the armed forces have re-occupied much of the Northern province and are in control of the other areas of the two provinces, except the Wanni heartland, that the LTTE perforce has to undertake operations in a widespread area from Panama to Jaffna in the east through to Puttalam in the west, which is difficult enough of an undertaking but a near impossible situation in the face of the depleted cadres.
Combined with the above is also the belief that the LTTE's ability to replenish material and equipment by smuggling them in has become increasingly difficult. Furthermore that its overseas financial support is drying up.
There is some validity in all these arguments. This is perhaps why the LTTE has stepped down its strategy from a quasi-conventional posture to that of the more classical guerrilla-style operations.
In this situation, even though the LTTE has not achieved any large scale successes since Mullaitivu, it has nevertheless maintained relentless pressure, claiming regular security forces fatalities. The count of security forces casualties will bear out that the LTTE may, as assumed by the security establishment, be a weak force but certainly not a spent force.
In terms of material and military hardware, the LTTE no doubt is feeling the pinch of Sri Lankan and Indian naval vigilance against arms smuggling. However, the intelligence assessments of the LTTE's hardware inventory seem to discount the vast stock of weapons and ammunition it has seized from the security forces.
These include a Main Battle Tank, Buffels, armoured vehicles, 130 and 122 Calibre artillery pieces with ammunition, quantities of communication equipment and a considerable stock of small arms and ammunition of assorted varieties. They range from infantry mortars to assault rifles and pistols. One has no access to details of the captured arsenal. But if one were to garner from the talks in mess halls, the captured inventory runs to billions of rupees. Apart from costs, the stock seems large enough to last the LTTE for some years to come.
This is not the first time that elation and euphoria had led to early conclusions about the LTTE. The first was in 1995 after the historic successes of the string of Operations Riviresa led to the re-capture of the Jaffna peninsula. The LTTE humiliatingly lost a unique distinction it had enjoyed for almost 13 years - the only guerrilla organisation in the world to have held territory and run a "parallel civil administration." They collected "taxes," ran a "Police Service," a "Judiciary," recruited youth for guerrilla training and operated explosives/bomb factories. Riviresa put paid to all this.
Whilst the elation over the success of Riviresa Operations was certainly justifiable in the context of the efficacy of the operation in its tactical and logistics aspects, as to what extent it weakened the LTTE militarily is questionable.
Certainly the LTTE lost territory and the semblance of a parallel state. Undeniably it was a loss of political face for the LTTE. However, military losses by the LTTE were not commensurate with the success achieved by the armed forces in liberating the heartland of Eelam. In fact, the only significant resistance by the LTTE was at Neervely.
Military observers say that for the rest of Operation Riviresa, the LTTE only offered limited resistance to cover its withdrawal intact onto the Wanni. Whilst the LTTE was regrouping in the Wanni, it was then claimed by the government and the defence establishment that the LTTE had been weakened as a result of the Riviresa Operations. Certainly this claim was politically realistic but militarily an exaggeration as Mullaitivu was to prove.
In the euphoria after "Operation Edibala", sections of the defence establishment repeat the same story of a weakened LTTE. Whether the LTTE did not offer resistance because it was militarily weakened or whether it was a deliberate strategy is still to be seen.
Not only Sri Lanka, but a whole world paid heed to the fact that the operations to recapture Jaffna and now to open the MSR from Vavuniya to Mannar itself was unique. Not necessarily as a military manoeuvre, but it was carried out without the presence of any media at the theatre of conflict, a somewhat unusual phenomenon in today's era of advanced information technology.
The only access the media had was to government-controlled reportage either through press releases of the Operational Headquarters of the Ministry of Defence and their heavily labelled video clips. Again, not an unusual phenomenon in Sri Lanka today.
Still the world media not only hailed the success of the security forces in Riviresa but also concluded that it was the end of the road to a fleeing LTTE. The successes of the security forces are no doubt laudable and remain, till today, symbol of the efficiency of the armed forces though the Government was slow in its follow-up action to restore normalcy by setting up a civilian infrastructure.
But what of the LTTE? In just seven months after the historic victory, the LTTE made history of its own. In what is unquestionably the worst military disaster in the country's history, the LTTE on July 18, 1996 attacked the Mullaitivu Military Base. More than 1,400 officers and men were killed. Billions of rupees worth of military equipment was lost. Instead of a pre-planned contingency operation to counter the attack, a hurriedly mounted rescue bid (seemingly ad-hoc) to recapture the camp was abandoned in the face of fierce resistance.
A Court of Inquiry has probed the Mullaitivu disaster. Like the incident, the findings of the court are shrouded in mystery. Both the Government and the military are accountable to the public in this issue. The public are entitled to know since it is their sons who have made the supreme sacrifice. It is the public who are funding this war. The politicians and the military must realise their public accountability.
Mullaitivu is an embarrassing blotch on the conduct of the war. It is not talked about much. Nor is it made known that the artillery used by the LTTE to shell Vavuniya and its environs last month was from the long range artillery weapons they seized at Mullaitivu. Though there is an embarrassing blanket of silence on the Mullaitivu debacle in Sri Lanka, it is not so overseas.
The LTTE is making capital of its video footage of its attack on the Mullaitivu military base. Not only is it to exhibit the LTTE military capability but is also used as a fund raiser.
In the past several weeks, a video film on the attack was being screened by the LTTE in hired auditoriums. An entrance fee was being collected. One of the sponsors claimed, they had collected £ 40,000 so far.
Reflections on the history of the LTTE have clearly demonstrated that it is a well-knit organisation. Its military strategies, political expressions, international operations are purposeful, planned and in concert with long strategic aims. Its military performance has been in peaks and valleys. Under pressure, the LTTE has always displayed a low profile militarily and resorted to alternate strategies to keep the Government off balance.
Are we seeing that phase now? Since October, 1995, the Army has gained much territory and beaten back the LTTE from the physical control of populated areas. Whilst this is to the credit of the military, the Government has yet to consolidate political control in those areas.
With the media denied free access into the reoccupied areas even after two years of "liberation," it is not possible to assess the impact of the Government vis a vis the marginalising of the LTTE politically. The very fact that media visits are not encouraged opens to question the claims of political successes by the Government. If there was a story to relate or visual proof of success, why should the media be denied freedom of access?
In doing so, the Government is basically shutting out the situation from the public. We are at a critical stage in the war against the LTTE. Large areas of territory have been re-occupied. These need to be controlled, maintained and secured against the LTTE. For this, more manpower resources are necessary. For this, public support is essential.
The disenchantment of US public with the conduct of the Vietnam war and the lack of home support were major contributory factors for the US reversals in Vietnam.
Without public backing no war can be conducted, much less won. For this the public must be taken into confidence and an instrument to do so is the independent media. The counter productiveness of managing the news has been historically proved in Sri Lanka. As the adage goes, those who do not learn from history are destined to live in it.
In the final analysis of the current situation, the armed forces are certainly on top of their current strategy. However, to under-estimate an enemy, particularly one as cunning as the LTTE, will be against the wisdom of history.
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