One year has gone by since the LTTE began Eelam War Three on April 19, 1995. The major operation to capture Vadamaradchi and Thenmaradchi has begun. The Tigers have withdrawn all their bases from the region leaving behind a large number of attack groups which will harrass the army once it has established its positions there.
An assessment of the first year of Eelam War Three will give an indication where things would be headed once the Vadamaradchi-Thenmaradchi operation is complete.
How have the government and the LTTE fared during this period in realising their respective immediate and long term objectives?
Firstly, there are the simple Profit and loss accounts. The government thinks that it made the following significant gains in the first year of Eelam War Three:
1)The capture of the Valikamam division of the Jaffna peninsula, including the Jaffna town.
2) The destruction of a substantial portion of the LTTEs forces in the aborted attack in Weli Oya in August last year and during Leap Forward and Riviresa.
3) The interdiction of the LTTEs main external supply line with the assistance of the Indian government.
During this one year, the government lost- in the sea, two large Radar Command vessels which had been converted into supply ships, two Shangai class gun boats , three Dvoras and patrol boats; in the air, two Avro aircraft, one Puccara, one Mi 17, one Y8 and two Antonov troop transporters. Although the exact number of the soldiers who were killed was difficult to come by,
The Special Task Force which has been the most effective among the elite forces of the government has lost more than hundred of its men in the Batticaloa and Ampara districts during this year. This is unprecedented in the STFs career in the east.
Those who continue to insist that militarily the government is on the correct path - lets call them the Gung Ho Theorists - see the Third Eelam War as the LTTEs Waterloo. They say:
a) that once the Vadamarachchi and Thenmarachchi divisions are brought under government control, the LTTE Ñ which then would never be able to recapture the peninsula to restore rule there Ñ will therefore inevitably be drawn into a guerrilla war which can in the long run drain its morale and resources.
b) that the war ravaged economy of the northeast cannot sustain or withstand a large scale guerrilla warfare over a long period which in turn will compel the Tigers, as Riviresa has already done, to scale down the size of their operations.
c) that this would soon help the government to consolidate its supply lines which is currently a major problem impeding the war effort in the north.
d) that once all this is achieved sufficient troops would be available to swiftly dislodge the LTTE from the east where military supply lines, terrain and population do not constitute a special obstacle to fighting the Tigers.
If these were to be achieved , as predicted, before the end of this year, say the Gung Ho theorists, it may even be possible to constitutionals and gradually implement a political solution to the conflict which envisages separate units of devolution for the north and the east.
There are certain aspects of what the Gung Ho Theorists say which no doubt have to be considered seriously in assessing the first year of Eelam War Three. There are, however, some assumptions which they have unwittingly taken as constants.
Their view presupposes that politics in the subcontinent will always be substantially unfavourable to the LTTE; that the Tigers cannot open another front in the conflict which can so jeopardize the states vital interests; that the government would be compelled to divert troops from the north to the new front and that all political leaders who may come to power in the future would follow the PAs military strategy to the letter.
This is a fundamental flaw in the assertions of the Gung Ho Theorists despite they being in the majority today.
There is another way of looking at Eelam War Three during this one year.
When the PA came to power in 1994, the course of the Eelam conflict had settled down basically on the government side to a policy of entrenching of defences and of containment on the northern front and a policy of pacification in the east comprising political economic and military elements; and on the LTTEs side it had standardised into a strategy of maintining and protecting an area of control through methods of deterrence and of defence on the northern front - an effort marked by a growing interest in structures for managing civilian affairs into which a sizable portion of the organisations resources were diverted and on the eastern front it was a policy of sustaining a low level of activity to impress the LTTEs political presence in the region.
In other words, there were just two theatres of operations or fronts Ñ one in the north and the other in the east Ñ towards the latter half of Eelam War Two.
The government appeared content , despite criticism , with maintaining and building on its advantage in the east. The LTTE, on the other hand, gave the impression that it was growing used to the idea despite criticism, of maintaining and building on its advantage in the north. (This state of affairs excited the suspicions of some at that time who were led to think that there might have been a trade off between what they saw as an unscrupulous UNP leadership and the cynical Tiger supremo!)
This military balance regardless of whether it could have lasted or not, gave the UNP sufficient room, despite reports of corruption, for keeping the war budget from critically affecting growth.
In contrast the PA government in the first year of Eelam War Three has wittingly or unwittingly been drawn into seven theatres of operations which, given the fact that the LTTEs military assets have remained largely intact during this period, are bound to place greater demands on the military resources of the government. Following Riviresa the theatres of operations in which the army has been deployed to counter the LTTE are Valikamam, the rest of the northern province, the LTTE controlled areas in the east, the rest of the east, Colombo and that part of the islands coastal waters comprising the northern, northwestern and eastern maritime zones.
In addition to this one cannot rule out the possibility of the Tigers opening another front in the west coast by stepping up the activities of their naval arm which over the years has become quite entrenched in the Gulf of Mannar which strategically is the key to the west coast.
The attack on the Colombo harbour leaves little room for doubt as to the LTTEs intentions in this regard. They have also made known their aim of opening a critical theatre of operations in the west coast for more than two years.
Towards the end of 1994 the Tigers stated in a special issue of their official organ Viduthalai Pulihal on the Sea Tigers that the west coast in general and the Colombo harbour in particular were key targets in their future naval strategy. In fact the writer of an article on the subject in the Tiger organ asserted that Sea Tiger boats could reach the Colombo port in two hours from their base near the Mannar-Puttalam border. The LTTE argued that government would come under severe political and economic pressure if the Sea Tigers were to develop their potential on the the west coast which is vital to Sri Lankas economy. Political difficulties would arise, said the Tigers, if the livelihood of the Sinhala fishing population on the west coast was adversely affected by the activities of their naval arm. The Sri Lankan economy, they also asserted, would reel under the impact of Sea Tiger operations on the west coast.
So we may somewhat safely assume that the west coast may in the course of Eelam War Three the eighth but critical theatre of operations.
Valikamam remains a difficult proposition militarily even after the reported success of Riviresa Two which was aimed at bringing down the level of Tiger activity in the region. The LTTE in Kilinochi continues to claim successful operations inside the Valikamam sector.
The Tigers have also declared recently that the government has lost more troops in holding Valikamam than what it lost in taking it. Even if one were to reject these assertions as Psy Ops ploys, one cannot but take into account reports of some in Vadamarachchi who have trekked into Valikamam in recent weeks and have prudently or secretly met relatives staying in army managed camps.
The imminent capture of Vadamarachchi and Thenmarachchi will transform the peninsula into a geographically small but operationally large and complex theatre. If their sea power remains intact as it is now, the Tigers will adhere to their present policy of hitting at the governments supply lines in the eastern maritime zone. Sending more troops after consolidating vital positions in the Vadamarachchi-Thenmarachchi sector may still not bring about any major change in the situation.
Can the government keep its military resources spread thus in seven or even eight fronts long enough to exhaust the LTTE into submission? This will determine the course of Eelam War Three.Return to the Editorial/Opinion contents page