Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Media victories, military victories and realities By Iqbal Athas

Ceasefire defunct, both parties prepare for escalation of undeclared war

Unlike in the movies where coming attractions are heavily advertised, it is just the opposite when it comes to the military.

Secrecy becomes the key element for safety and success of troops. The fundamental precept is not to alert the enemy. Not to warn them that tons of bombs would fall from the sky during air raids or fierce attacks would be thrust upon them when ground troops begin their assault. Not to rush them to be prepared.

This concept is among the basics inculcated to officers and men in all conventional military outfits around the world. More than 2,500 years ago, Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu underscored the essence of secrecy in his treatise The Art of War. Commenting on tactics, he said, "To see victory only when it is within the ken of the common herd is not the acme of excellence. Nor is it the acme of excellence if you fight and conquer and the whole empire says "Well done!!"

"True excellence is to plan secretly, to move surreptitiously, to foil the enemy's intentions and balk his schemes, so that at last the day may be won without shedding a drop of blood. To lift an autumn hair is no sign of great strength; to see sun and moon is no sign of sharp sight; to hear the noise of thunder is no sign of a quick ear. What the ancients called a clever fighter is one who not only wins, but excels in winning with ease. But his victories bring him neither reputation for wisdom nor credit for courage..."

But, in Sri Lanka, the separatist war of near two decades, interspersed by phases of ceasefires and peace talks, has many firsts or preponderant peculiarities that are unmatched. The greater part of the war has been under a State of Emergency and resultantly during long regimes of censorship. The ongoing undeclared Eelam War IV, is no different. There are constraints on reportage. This is particularly after the Prevention and Prohibition of Terrorism and Specified Terrorist Activities Regulations. Thus, perhaps Sri Lanka is the only nation in the world where direct access to theatres of conflict has remained denied to the media.

There may be reasons, either good or bad. It comes at a time when the gulf between the military and the media in the developed world has narrowed dramatically. The military now goes to war with the media. Embedded journalists join the foot soldiers or travel in battle tanks and troop carriers to report from the war zones. People throughout the world, including Sri Lankans, are able to see from their bedrooms and living rooms the goings on in other conflict zones, like for example, in Iraq, Afghanistan, Chechniya or until recently in Nepal.

A question that merits greater study is why the gulf between the media and the defence establishment has widened in Sri Lanka. Barring some exceptions, successive administrations have, perhaps quite efficiently, succeeded in telling their story, be it the whole truth, half truth or no truth. The response to "dissenting" or different versions, more than anytime in the past, has become vicious and insidious. They are not to counter such versions but to target those who author them. For obvious reasons, one cannot bare details of these sinister and shameless campaigns to hide the truth through intimidation and by infusing fear. Thus, "media victories," if one looks in retrospect over the past two decades, have largely overtaken "military victories." Some battles have been won in the news pages, prime time TV or radio and lost on the ground.

On the other hand, there have also been "military victories" over the years that have been exceptional. Successive Governments failed to take maximum advantage of some of them. The best example is the series of operations codenamed Riviresa to re-capture the Jaffna peninsula from the LTTE. It began on October 17, 1995. Weeks later, the conclusion of four different phases of the operation led to Security Forces taking full control. That is how the Jaffna peninsula, barring some small areas, is still under Government control.

Whatever the merits or demerits of the arguments for or against the CFA, the signing of this document was only possible because of the one time People's Alliance Government (PA). It is the PA regime's military action that led to the re-capture of the Jaffna peninsula. Without that re-capture, a CFA would not have been viable since the LTTE would have continued to dominate the peninsula. They were also, at that time, dominating most parts of the Wanni. Thus, from an LTTE perception the need for a ceasefire agreement would not have arisen. Hence, the CFA was built on the PA Government's military success.

That Ceasefire Agreement signed by the then UNF Government with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) turned five years last Wednesday. The resultant ceasefire is the longest though fighting escalated in the latter period. A statement received by the Colombo based media on Thursday night saw the LTTE, for the first time; drop a bombshell about the CFA. In their own words, they described how useful the five-year-old document has been.

The statement declared that the CFA "recognized Tamil Eelam's de facto existence, with its unique characteristics: a distinct population; a government comprising a defence force; a police force, a judiciary, a civil administration and other institutions for effective governance of a people, and capability of entering into agreements with other governments with a line of control reflecting the ground reality of the existence of the Tamil homeland demarcated with recognized borders. The CFA recognized the balance of power between the GOSL and the LTTE and was premised on this balance of power."

So, at long last, the LTTE has publicly admitted the benefits that flowed from the CFA - the creation of a state in waiting. And equally significant, the concluding paragraph of the statement said, "The marginalization of the 2002 CFA, which would have been a step towards just peace, has destroyed the confidence of the Tamil people and their expectations regarding future peace efforts. The Sri Lankan Government's ongoing war of aggression, aimed at the subjugation of the Tamil people under the guise of 'war on Terrorism,' will add to the bloodstained pages of the island's history. It has also compelled the Tamil people to resume their freedom struggle to realize their right to self-determination and to achieve statehood."

The LTTE's seven page statement traces, from its point of view, the events that have occurred since the CFA was signed. It is strongly critical of President Rajapaksa and his administration. It says that humanitarian and human rights crisis is deepening. An international bias against the LTTE, it argues, has strengthened Government's intransigence and encouraged an even more hard line.

The statement assumes the character of a "charge sheet" being served on the Government. There are overtones of a military response in the light of this.

What does the LTTE mean by saying that the ongoing "war on terrorism" will add to "bloodstained pages of the island's history"? What does it mean when they say that it has also "compelled the Tamil people to resume their freedom struggle to realize their right to self-determination and to achieve statehood"?

Is it a re-iteration of their previous assertions that they were veering away further from the CFA to the battlefield? Is it a forewarning of things to come?

This is the third time in the past three months that similar statements have been made. On "Maveerar (Great Heroes) Day" on November 27, last year, LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran declared "the uncompromising stance of Sinhala chauvinism has left us with no other option but an independent state for the people of Tamil Eelam…" In a statement issued after talks Norway's special envoy to the peace process, Jon Hanssen Bauer held with Political Wing leader, S.P. Thamilselvan in Kilinochchi, in December, last year, the LTTE warned that a "military solution will steadily push the island into monumental irrecoverable state of destruction."

In the coming weeks and months that will naturally turn the focus to the battlefields of the north, east and other parts of the country. In the weeks that preceded the launch of Operations Riviresa, then Deputy Minister of Defence, Anuruddha Ratwatte, who once had undisputed control over the military, made a string of public announcements that Security Forces would soon re-capture Jaffna peninsula. It later became very clear that the LTTE had, taking the cue, evolved counter measures.

Whilst preparing to resist a military advance, to cause maximum damage to men and material, they immediately embarked on counter measures. Most of their military equipment was moved hurriedly across the Kilali lagoon to Wanni mainland. When the LTTE lost Jaffna in December 1995, it was widely believed then that the guerrillas had received the severest blow to their military machine. Yet, barely eight months later, on July 18, 1996, they carried out a conventional style attack on the Mullaitivu Security Forces complex, then headquarters of the 225 Brigade.

Shocking statistics

Deputy Defence Minister Ratwatte told Parliament on August 7, 1996 that the strength at the Mullaitivu military base was 1407. They were made up as follows: Army 1268, Navy 9, Police 49 and civilians 81. "We can conclude as killed in action only 12," he said. The ICRC had handed over 415 bodies which were not identifiable and a further 43 have been categorized as Missing in Action (MIA). With a tight censorship in force, the matter ended there.

Shocking details of the incident were later unearthed by a four member Army Court of Inquiry headed by Major General (now retired) Patrick Fernando. Their 125 page report, with its contents still unpublicized, revealed that two officers and 62 soldiers had returned. With the 12 declared dead and 64 who returned, those who were then declared missing were 1331 Security Forces personnel. Together with the civilian staff, the toll of those now established as dead in the incident, still the worst single one in Sri Lanka's military history is 1627 persons. That number includes the 71 troops engaged in Operation Trivida Pahara, launched as a rescue effort. The Court of Inquiry findings revealed that nearly Rs. 290 million rupees of military and other hardware were destroyed, damaged or was seized by the guerrillas.

In the recent weeks, some military top brass have not confined their plans to attack the LTTE and re-capture Toppigala (north west of Batticaloa) to closed door conferences or to the National Security Council. Departing from customary military tradition, they have announced publicly that their next target would be Toppigala. Thus, the LTTE has been put on notice. The logical choices for them would be to stay put, fight and withdraw when they come under heavy pressure. They did so in Sampur and later in Vakarai. The Army has focused on Toppigala since a larger concentration of guerrilla cadres fled to that area when they hurriedly vacated Vakarai. Intelligence sources speak of cadres stockpiling food. How the guerrillas fled is still a hot topic, with the Army insisting that they moved by sea. However, the Navy argues it was through land routes. They claim that their radars had not monitored large scale boat movements during that period.

Toppigala, also known as Baron's Cap (or Kudumbimalai in Tamil) is located north west of Batticaloa. Whilst the area is made up of thick jungle, paddy and chena cultivations lay on the outer fringes. It is fed by water from Tharavikulam, Vadamunai and Vakaneri tanks. There are four different access routes to the area - Padiyatalawa - Pullumalai Road, Batticaloa-Pullumalai Road, Chenkaladi-Pullumalai Road and the Ampara Central Camp - Batticaloa Road (off the main Polonnaruwa - Batticaloa highway)

Toppigala, where LTTE groups that fled the Vakarai area are reportedly concentrated in numbers, has been a hideout for guerrillas for over 20 years. This makes it different from Sampur, where a large LTTE concentration developed during the period of the ceasefire. When it was re-captured by the Security Forces in September, last year, they moved to Vakarai. The latter coastal town fell to the Army in January, this year.

The fact that a military offensive is in the offing in Toppigala has triggered off an exodus of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) from the area. The Korale Pattu South Division in the Batticaloa district, which encompasses the Toppigala area, has until last Monday recorded an exodus of 1,952 families or 7,640 persons. This is in the Batticaloa district. Those who have fled to IDP centres in the Trincomalee district are 835 families or 2,963 persons. This brings the total to 3,139 families or 11,710 persons. Officials say the number would be higher when those who have sought shelter outside IDP centres are taken into consideration.

By last Monday, the IDP count in the two districts stood at 20,812 families or 76,224 persons. The task of resettling them, particularly those from Vakarai, has become a formidable task. The subject figured at a top level conference in Trincomalee chaired by the Governor, Rear Admiral (retd.) Mohan Wijewickrema. In view of the reluctance of IDPs to return for fear of resumption of hostilities, representative groups are now being taken on conducted tours. They have been told to observe the normalcy brought about by the Security Forces before deciding to return.

The Army's 22 Division has given authorities the areas where re-settlement should not be carried out in the Trincomalee district. In other areas, particularly those near the strategic port, re-settlement would be 50 metres away from the main highway and 500 metres away from the coastline. The authorities in the two districts have set a target date of March 31, this year, by which time all IDPs should be re-settled.

This task will be daunting particularly in Vakarai and surrounding areas. Those who are to be re-settled will be required to undergo security screening. Police and Security Forces personnel will thereafter have to be present to prevent large scale infiltration and attacks. It will thereafter become a task to prevent the guerrillas, who are shifting from one ground to another as the Security Forces move in.

In the run up to the publicly declared push for Toppigala, troops have also begun limited operations to smoke out guerrilla positions south west of Trincomalee. One such operation got under way on Thursday in Kadawana, west of the Habarana-Trincomalee highway. In this area, the LTTE is said to have re-established a camp that had remained shut down. This is widely believed to be an area the guerrillas used to cross to their northern hideouts. Hitherto all offensive operations have focused largely on the eastern side of the highway. The Air Force has also carried out repeated air attacks on Kumburupiddy, north of Trincomalee, where the LTTE had expanded a base.

These developments come amidst a continuing military build-up by the LTTE in and around the Jaffna peninsula, as reported last week. There were reports this week that newly trained cadres were being deployed in their rear defences and other localities. The regular cadres were being moved to their frontline defended localities astride the one time Muhamalai entry-exit point. Food and ammunition stocks were being moved in large quantities to their front lines. Another unusual feature has been a series of lectures given by medical personnel to the senior cadres who are to be deployed on offensive roles. That is on how to cope with casualties including their evacuation from battle zones.

The Security Forces, no doubt, will be compelled to plan out counter insurgency operations in the wake of the new threats that are looming. Though in a much smaller sense, some of the observations a bulky US Army Counter Insurgency manual made public on December 15, last year, contains some interesting parallels. This manual spells out the American military doctrine and security policies for counterinsurgency (COIN). It is the first such manual since the end of the Vietnam war 30 years ago.

The introduction notes that the US possesses overwhelming military superiority. It notes, "This capability has pushed its enemies to fight US forces unconventionally, mixing modern technology with ancient techniques of insurgency and terrorism. Most enemies either do not try to defeat the United States with conventional operations or do not limit themselves to purely military means. They know they cannot compete with the US forces on those terms. Instead, they try to exhaust US national will, aiming to win by undermining and outlasting public support. Defeating such enemies presents a huge challenge to the Army and Marine Corps. Meeting it requires creative effort by every Soldier and Marine." Though in a lesser way, the same equation applies to the Sri Lankan Security Forces. In conventional terms, the LTTE is no match for them.

The manual says, "One common feature of insurgencies is that the government that is being targeted generally takes awhile to recognize that an insurgency is occurring. Insurgents take advantage of that time to build strength and gather support. Thus, counterinsurgents often have to "come from behind" when fighting an insurgency. Another common feature is that the forces conducting COIN operations usually begin poorly.

"Western militaries too often neglect the study of insurgency. They falsely believe that armies trained to win large conventional wars are automatically prepared to win small, unconventional ones. In fact, some capabilities required for conventional success - for example, the ability to execute operational maneouvre and employ massive fire power - may be of limited utility or even counterproductive in COIN operations. Nonetheless, conventional forces beginning COIN operations often try to use these capabilities to defeat insurgents; they almost always fail."

The manual asserts, "the military forces that successfully defeat insurgencies are usually those able to overcome their institutional inclination to wage conventional war against insurgents. They learn how to practice COIN and apply that knowledge."

For nearly two decades, Sri Lankan Security Forces have battled the Tiger guerrillas. Their strengths have grown and their arsenal has expanded. Billions of rupees have been poured to achieve higher levels of sophistication. More are now being poured as military procurements increase. Now, bigger challenges lay ahead as the protagonists flex their muscles disregarding the almost defunct five-year-old CFA.