Can the current cost of the war be brought down? This has become a central question in the context of the growing power crisis, the spiralling cost of living, the persistent resistance to privatisation etc.
There was a general willingness in the south since the beginning of Eelam War Three to tighten belts and tolerate without grumbling the rising cost of living. The general view was that the war had been thrust on the government by the recalcitrant LTTE and the government therefore had no alternative but to fight it at any cost.
The people in south, it appeared, felt almost duty bound to support the war effort by putting up with adverse impact it was to have on the economy.
Jaffna has really been secured. The government says it and the people in the south generally tend to believe it . The government censor leaves them with no alternative anyway.
The government cannot tell the people now that they should continue to tighten their belts and endure the cost of living because the war is yet to be won. It cannot contradict the impression it has wittingly or unwittingly cultivated since the conclusion of Riviresa Three to extricate itself from the crises which appear to be engulfing the economy regularly now.
So the question again Ñ will the government be really able to bring down the cost of war within a reasonable period of time now that Jaffna has be brought under the control of the army?
To find an answer one has to first tentatively identify the main components of the high cost of prosecuting Eelam War Three against the LTTE in the northeast CENSORED and inquire whether these key elements which keep the defence spending quite high can be rationalised or made redundant.
The main components of Eelam War three's high cost are:
1) the large deployment of troops in Jaffna
3) the expansion programmes of the Navy and the Air Force
4) the demand for high-tech equipment and heavy armour
5) expansion programmes of the military and naval intelligence and the National Intelligence Bureau.
6) the military programme to bring the east under complete control which has to be implemented sooner or later.
In my view none of these components of Eelam War three's high capital and recurrent costs can be brought down significantly anywhere in the near future - unless of course the LTTE implodes into militarily negligible pieces.
The expenses of a war can be trimmed to suit a country's growth and fiscal discipline only if its conflict zones are pacified.
It is pacification which permits a government ultimately to pull out troops from a region where they have been deployed over a certain period of time. It is a process which ensures that an insurgency is contained politically and militarily to a degree which does not require the deployment of troops but just the normal law and order machinery.
We can say that the south was pacified in 1990. The JVP insurgency was contained in a manner which helped the government pull out a very significant number of troops from the affected areas in the south and then bring those areas under the supervision of the normal law and order machinery (Police, courts and prisons).
Can anyone say this about Jaffna even by the end of this year? No.
The mere denial of access to Jaffna to the LTTE by cutting off all known routes from the Vanni is not equal to pacification because the removal of troops from those access routes or the development of new ones would give rise to a situation where the management of the region cannot be left to the care of an army much reduced in size and handling at most a low intensity conflict assisted by normal law and order machinery .
There are two instances which will illustrate the dimensions of this problem in the Eelam wars. In 1989, it appeared that the north and east was completely pacified and the Indian army high command claimed so. If this claim was correct then the EPRLF should have been able to carry on, on its own, in the NEPC.
Instead the well armed militia of the EPRLF collapsed like nine pins and in a matter of months following the TNA debacle the LTTE was able to recruit thousands of cadres and run a vast military and administrative machine in most parts of the north and east.
The same claim was made by the Sri Lankan army in the latter half of 1993. Many, including western diplomats who visited the province found the claim quite credible. Those who were convinced at that time that the east had indeed been pacified were so convinced by what the government had to show them in the province that they refused to see that the fundamental elements of pacification were missing in what the government claimed to have achieved in the east.
Nevertheless they were proved wrong when the government had to pull out troops from there in mid 1995 to launch operations in the north. They were also proved wrong when more than three thousand boys and girls were recruited in the east by the LTTE during the peace talks it held with the P. A in late 1994 and early 1995.
The army commander spoke of reducing the war to a low intensity conflict. This is based on the assumption that some degree of pacification is possible in the main theatre of operations in Eelam War Three - the north.
This is not possible, as we argued in these columns earlier, as long as the LTTE is in a position to sustain its military assets and resources in the Vanni region.
In the face of all this some military analysts are inclined to believe that the establishment of an Main Supply Route to the peninsula through the Vanni would vastly reduce the cost of the war and hence possibly help the army in reducing Eelam War Three into a low intensity conflict. It is true that the government incurs a very high cost in keeping the north supplied by sea and air. The potential of the LTTE's Sea Tiger arm and limited anti-aircraft fire power have made these lines of supply very expensive and precarious.
The opening of a land route can improve the army's logistics but cannot significantly reduce the cost of prosecuting Eelam War Three.
Some supplies have to be still sent by sea and air. Until the LTTE's military assets and resources are substantially diminished, a large number of troops would be required to keep the MSR secure. Supply convoys might be ambushed and destroyed.
In short, it is too early for the government to approach and handle the latent and manifest economic crises in the south as though the success of Riviresa Three has ensured the inevitable diminution of Eelam War Three's high cost.Go to Rajpal Abeynayake's Column