Situation Report

27th May 2001

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Agni Khiela fiasco and return of Anuruddha

After seven years in of fice, the PA Govern ment appears to be still learning lessons of waging war and talking peace the hardest way.

Last month, it was the launch of "Operation Agni Khiela" (Rod of Fire) – the first major military offensive by the Security Forces without any political compulsions or deadlines. It ended up in a fiasco.

And, last week, news reports, authenticated by statements from state sector senior officials, claimed the Government was willing to temporarily withdraw a ban imposed on the LTTE, or in other words, de proscribe them for a limited period. These reports received wide play both locally and abroad. There were claims Cabinet Ministers were meeting on Thursday to formally decide on the matter. Not a word was spoken at the Cabinet, one senior Minister told The Sunday Times. The news of the purported Government move enraged Sihala Urumaya and other similar organisations.

Ironically, despite all the brouhaha, there was no move at all by the Government to lift the ban on the LTTE, either temporarily or otherwise. Nor had the Government thought of it.

"On no account can we lift the ban on them, (the LTTE)," was what President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, told Norwegian Special Envoy, Erik Solheim, on May 18. This was after he returned from the Wanni following talks with Tiger Political Wing leader, Thamil Chelvan, and conveyed their demand.

How then did local and foreign reports of a temporary lifting of the ban on LTTE originate ? Why did some officials declare a move to temporarily lift it was under consideration ? PA leaders did not have the answer. It became clear that maintaining stoic silence over a crucial national issue had given rise to much speculation. This was whilst the Tiger guerrillas made wide propaganda gains, both locally and abroad. The PA leadership was deeply perturbed over these reports and the damage it had caused. They moved to set the record right.

Foreign Minister, Laks-hman Kadirgamar, prepared a six page statement . It was released last night by the Department of Information after President Kumaratunga approved it.

The statement declared that the lifting or the suspension of the proscription of the LTTE cannot be accepted as a 'pre-requisite' or 'pre-condition' for commencement of negotiations.

This ban or proscription was imposed on January 27, 1998, after the guerrillas triggered of a bomb explosion at Sri Dalada Maligawa.

But, on Thursday night, a Cabinet Minister had already set out the Government's position. Justice Minister, Batty Weerakoon, told TNL Television there was no move to lift the ban on the LTTE. Mr. Weerakoon knew it since he was a member of a new "think tank" President Kumaratunga had put together to closely examine issues relating to the Norwegian peace initiatives.

The group had met last Tuesday and she had explained to them the sequence of events that followed Mr. Solheim's talks with Mr. Chelvan. There was no question of lifting the ban on the LTTE. That remained the Government's position though the official machinery, pathetic enough, could not get their act together. Hence, PA leaders had to wait till the news of the damage caused to do damage control. That was through last night's statement.

A more easy way out would have been to keep the public informed of important developments, as they occurred, thus winning their confidence and not arousing their suspicions. That there has been a lapse, or total disregard, on such a key national issue, to say the least, is reprehensible. It is only now that a fully fledged campaign to educate the public on key issues, including the subject of de-proscription of the LTTE, has been thought of. There will be a flood of it in the media soon.

Even after more than four weeks, the reverberations of "Operation Agni Khiela" continues to echo at the highest levels of the Government. Whilst PA leaders are closely analysing the outcome to ascertain serious lapses and those responsible for it, some top brass were propagating a different view. That included a few who were closely involved in the operation.

They assert that the operation was a success and accuse the so-called private media of concluding it was a failure. The views of this small section surfaced at various top level conferences.

One was a meeting at the Joint Operations Headquarters (inside the Army Headquarters Complex), where appropriate enough, the subject under discussion was psychological operations. Besides senior military officials, taking part were State officials dealing with the media and a Cabinet Minister. The conference heard one top runger declare "Operation Agni Khiela" was a success and accuse the "private media" of describing it as a failure. He appealed that the resources of the official media be used to counter those reports. Some official media accounts did later reflect this view

The same top runger, The Sunday Times learnt, expounded the same views at the National Security Council. That was when those concerned with the conduct of the operation were called upon to explain to President Kumaratunga, the Commander-in-Chief, the reasons why "Operation Agni Khiela" failed. Details of what transpired cannot be divulged for obvious reasons. However, one fact that impressed most was President Kumaratunga's deft handling.

When one official mentioned the absence of a particular piece of equipment as one of the causes, she asked whether such equipment had ever been used in the past. They were not. But at a subsequent meeting, The Sunday Times learnt that Deputy Minister, General Anuruddha Ratwatte, who has made a come back now, raised some pertinent questions. Answers were not forthcoming.

The two reasons held out to conclude that "Operation Agni Khiela" was a success, as against claims by the media that it was a failure, were: (a) More than 190 guerrillas were killed and over 400 were wounded. (b) The operation thwarted an offensive planned by Tiger guerrillas for April 26, a day after the launch of "Operation Agni Khiela."

These two assertions were not new. The "Special Press Release" put out by the Special Media Information Centre (SMIC) on April 28, barely 12 hours after troops of two divisions deployed in the operation returned to their original defence lines, made the same points. Here are excerpts:

"Security Forces engaged in the OPERATION AGNI KHIELA I were successful in achieving their main aim of destroying the terrorist deployments which posed a immediate major threat to their own forward defence line ELUTHUMADUVAL and MUHAMALAI.

"Timely launch of this operation pre-empted the LTTE plans of conducting a major attack on the Security Forces in JAFFNA peninsula. In view of the weapon systems and the facilities they had brought to the ELEPHANT PASS sector it was obvious that LTTE was poised to launch a major operation. … … …

"Most of the casualties suffered by the Security Forces were due to very heavy use of Artillery and Mortars by the terrorists.

"It was observed terrorists have used anti personnel mines in an extensive manner to further restrict the movement of Security Forces …."

It is no secret that the news releases put out by the SMIC, though authenticated with the signature of affable Ariya Rubesinghe, Director of Information and Director General (Media) in the Presidential Secretariat, comes from the military. It is well known that some of the news releases are drafted by none other than the military hierarchy itself. That is in the backdrop of a Censorship.

During a war or an internal conflict, contesting parties often disseminate information that is advantageous to each one of them. Such a process, could and often does, contain misinformation and propaganda for their own parochial advantage. Neither side can be faulted for such activity and the practice, though viewed with caution by the media, exists. But in the Sri Lankan context, it exists in the backdrop of a Censorship and, hence, raises some fundamental questions.

Raising them in the context of "Operation Agni Khiela" is in no way intended to undermine the courage, commitment and the valour of the brave men and women in the battlefront – the real heroes or heroines of this separatist war. This includes those who paid the supreme sacrifice during Agni Khiela and those who lost their limb, were maimed or injured otherwise.

Questions are being raised in the national interest in view of the many disturbing aspects that have come to light after the launch of "Operation Agni Khiela." This was the first major military offensive in 2001 which was executed without any form of political compulsion. No demands were placed by the PA leadership nor deadlines given. The "operation" received "political blessings" only when it was close to being executed. For the public, who had endured many an economic hardship to fund the war effort, this was the first time in the year a further modernised Security Forces were going into action.

The Sunday Times has seen a six page copy of the op instructions for "OP AGNI KHIELA I" issued to those in the senior command level responsible for the conduct of this operation. It was circulated by Security Forces Commander, Jaffna, Major General Anton Wijendra, who was tasked with the responsibility of directing "Operation Agni Khiela." In view of its sensitive nature, it is not proposed to deal with the contents of the op instructions except to refer to one or two matters which are no longer a secret.

One is the mission (or aim) of "Operation Agni Khiela" – SF (J) is to attack to (a) Capture area upto Pallai – Ittavil (b) Establish an FDL in general area Pallai-Ittavil ( c ) Inflict maximum casualties on terrorists.

A degree of a success or failure of a military operation is gauged by the extent to which the mission, the objective or aim is achieved. In this instance Pallai-Ittavil was neither captured nor an FDL established in that area. That leaves behind only the question of how maximum a casualty has been inflicted on the enemy.

Moreover, this was Not the main aim of the operation as claimed in the SMIC " Special Press Release" as can be seen from the op order. 

Some of the other relevant points in the op instructions"

"Unable to withstand the firepower of SF and increased number of casualties suffered during recently concluded Kiniheera operations, the LTTE have resorted to its defensive posture in the peninsula. In anticipation of further SF operations LTTE has strengthened its defences …….

"….. Approximate fighting cadres in the first line and prepared positions in the rear are estimated to be 260. These cadres from……….. are responsible for handling mortars and artillery…..

"…..The departure of KARUNA and some of his cadres to Batticaloa, has resulted in the reserve maintained with Batticaloa cadres being reduced. The present estimated reserve is approximately 150. In analysing the present activities, it appears that the LTTE is preparing for a defensive battle in the peninsula to prevent any further Security Forces advance into the areas controlled by them…."

How then did the claim that the "Operation Agni Khiela" launched on April 26, pre-empt a guerrilla strike the very next day, April 26? More so when Security Forces Headquarters, Jaffna, had concluded the LTTE was on the defensive.

It was evidently based on a LTTE radio intercept (see text in Situation Report – May 6, 2001) revealing a conversation between Karuna, in Batticaloa and the 28 Base in Elephant Pass. It took place on April 25. During the conversation, a voice from the LTTE base Kilo Sera said …. "We were to start the offensive on the 26th . But the Army has come to know of it and attacked us earlier…." Were the remarks an LTTE deception ? More so since the Security Forces had made significant advances during day one of the operation, the day the radio intercept was made. Something had to be said to save face.

In any case, until then the Security Forces were unaware of any plans by the LTTE to launch a major offensive operation. They were of the view that they were maintaining a defensive posture as Maj. Gen. Wijendra's op instructions would reveal.

This matter is being highlighted, in the public interest, to show the high degree of confusion caused by these developments both in the minds of PA leaders and those of the public. A clear instance of how much damage a prolonged censorship could cause. It would be both in the Government and the public interest to withdraw the censorship and urge the media to observe certain guidelines. That way, the flow of correct information cannot be retarded or manipulated to mislead both the Government and the public.

Quite apart from the seemingly lack of co-ordination within the security establishment itself and the unilateral military action without political direction, what appears to be the cause for the failure of the operation seems to be the lack, paucity or incorrect information that was given. From what has been revealed so far, the Security Forces offensive on the Tiger guerrilla positions was on the premise that the enemy troops deployed plus the reserve totalled just over 400 with Karuna and his Batticaloa cadres also withdrawn from Pallai reserve.

This should have given the Security Forces the obvious conclusion that the LTTE known to have difficulty in recruiting cadres were not deploying their forces in strength in the Pallai sector. This, then leads to the obvious conclusion that the LTTE were focusing their defence with minimum cadres to canalise the troops to selected killing fields dominated by enemy manpower supplemented with heavy artillery and mortar support.

To so canalise the Security forces into selected killing fields, the commonest known defensive measure is the tactical use of minefields combined with terrain to lead the SF into the selected killing field. In the process, it is also to divide the infantry and armour so that the military offensive could be piecemeal for the LTTE to use their resources to best effect.

The extensive use of artillery and mortar by LTTE has been a recognised feature of their defence strategy for the past few years. The LTTE re-inforcing of MBRLs has further enhanced that capability. It is also a recognised fact that over past years most casualties to the military offensive have been the intensity of guerrilla artillery and mortar fire.

How come that the SF after two days of operations claim that the attrition to the offensive was as a result of the intensity of artillery and mortars combined with minefields ?

Even to a non military person, there seem to be something amiss on this aspect and military decisions on enemy capability. Having said that, the next factor where the SF failed is their singular inability to neutralise enemy artillery and mortar fire. Any military offensive is combined with planned and pre planned offensives to neutralise enemy artillery and mortar. With the SF further modernised in the past one year, equipment to counter enemy artillery and mortar were an item of priority.

These shortcomings appear to have been a serious failure of military planning. Obviously the SF expected much more enemy manpower in the defensive positions for the simple reasons that two Divisions were pitted to attack some 400 enemy cadres. In terms of manpower, an overwhelming superiority.

Judging from all things, "Operation Agni Khiela" was not just a debacle but a total military fiasco. And not surprisingly, the accountability factor remains blowing in the wind.

If the military was left to their own plans, strategies and devices sans "political interference" as some of the top brass once called it – then the conduct of "Operation Agni Khiela" was a sorry display. One swallow does not make a summer and one failure does not necessarily mean that the Security Forces cannot win battles without the political leaders holding their hand.

But "Operation Agni Khiela" displayed in no uncertain terms that the military top brass and those in the field did not click. It has given the PA leadership an insight into many aspects of gross incompetence and other manipulations.

For some, may be they have got used to being under the wings of politicians for too long. They do not know how to move on their own. Their initiatives, their skills have not been honed because of years of saying "Yes, Sir !!" to the politicians and taking orders from the political hierarchy.

And yet again, the Ministers can justifiably turn around and ask "Was it any better without us ?" This brings us to the question on the lips of many Sri Lankans. Where was – or indeed – where is General Anuruddha Ratwatte, the once decorated and highly visible Deputy Minister of Defence.

Since "Operation Jaya Sikurui" (Victory Assured), Gen. Ratwatte has been taking a back seat due to a combination of factors. Differences with the Commander-in-Chief, President Kumaratunga not the least of them.

He has obviously been mindful of the complaint that political interference and therefore his interference in battle plans have resulted in disaster for the Security Forces. That his military deadlines with political agendas in mind caused casualties and loss of material.

Gen. Ratwatte had been dragging his feet or boots because President Kumaratunga deliberately delayed his re-appointment following October Parliamentary elections, a step that must have embarrassed him. Particularly so since it was Prime Minister, Ratnasiri Wickr-emanayake, who introduced the first two motions to extend the ongoing State of Emergency in Parliament.

But the fall of Elephant Pass and with Jaffna perilously close to falling to LTTE in April-May, last year, Gen. Ratwatte flew to the Jaffna peninsula. That was when the airfield was closed. Artillery and mortars were falling all over. An SLAF Mi-17 helicopter dropped him on a beach. The pilot, who got immediately airborne for fear of more attacks, radioed SLAF air traffic controllers he had dropped some important cargo on the beach. He and an entourage were later picked up by an Army truck.

Gen. Ratwatte is credited for getting the troops to return to the front and averting the fall of Jaffna. He ran into the equally high profile Major General Janaka Perera at the time and the fall out reverberated in an ITN interview in which Gen. Ratwatte lambasted Maj. Gen. Perera, then Overall Operations Commander, North. The move was to draw a letter of demand from Maj. Gen. Perera, who will shortly take over as Sri Lanka's High Commissioner in Australia.

All that fizzled out and Gen. Ratwatte went back to his shell keeping a hands-off approach from day to day military strategies. President Kumaratunga had in the meantime given the Security Forces chiefs the carte blanche to plan and execute their offensives without the political leadership hovering over their collective shoulders.

Is it fair then to judge "Operation Agni Khiela" – the first exercise of the Security Forces without 'political interference' as a total failure thereof ?

Gen. Ratwatte is back into the fold quite mindful of the allegations of political interference. On the other hand, as last month's offensive showed, without political leadership, the military machine was rudderless. 

Last week, Gen. Ratwatte chaired a conference at the Joint Operations Headquarters (JOH) attended by service chiefs. 

As a follow up measure, he was to fly to Trincomalee on Thursday with military top brass. A family bereavement forced a cancellation.

But the coming weeks will see him play a bigger role. If it is political direction, "Operation Agni Khiela," had demonstrated one was necessary. Equally necessary are important measures to ensure repeated failures do not occur. That means accountability. Those responsible for lapses and incompetence would have to be made answerable and not conferred with higher rewards. A delay will only force the Government to learn more bitter lessons the harder way.

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