Learn from the past
Call it 'strategic retreat', 'pull back of troops in the face of heavy casualties' or by any other name, 'Operation Agni Kheela' was certainly no victory.
The main reasons for the pull back of troops have been given as: intense land mining that caused immense injuries to foot soldiers and intense bombardment of mortars and artillery. The man-on-the-street, no military expert, who had read reports of this conflict for over one and a half decades would be asking: Didn't they know it would happen? Certainly every lay person would have expected that during the five-month ceasefire the LTTE would not have been sowing brinjals in the Jaffna peninsula but landmines. And that they appear to have done it very well. There was no doubt at all that the LTTE had enough and more of artillery guns and mortars because they had been in possession of such equipment when they came through Elephant Pass and was stopped on the outskirts of Jaffna. Since then there had been no major conflict and the mortars and artillery equipment would have remained in their possession.
So why was 'Operation Agni Kheela' reminiscent of the Charge of the Light Brigade launched? Not even the dependable journalist taken on a conducted tour of the theatre of war last week could provide a plausible answer.
Our intention of posing these questions is not to deride those brave men who went forth and came back safe and sound, were injured or paid the supreme sacrifice but to find out the motives that led to launching of this operation. An operation of this kind is no longer a skirmish between a rag-tag guerrilla band and a ceremonial army in the battlefield. In an operation of this kind not only military strategies but political implications and now diplomatic considerations too come into play.
Thus, the questions that are being asked are: Were there compelling military considerations that demanded the operation to be launched at this time? Did military intelligence indicate that conditions were favourable for such an attack? Was it felt that the LTTE may go on the offensive soon and thus a pre-emptive attack was called for? Did political considerations such as the prospects of an immediate victory to boost the sagging image of the PA government come into play? Or was it diplomatically advantageous to launch this operation at this time? If the government does not, Time, we hope will provide answers.
In any field of endeavour, experience gained has to be studied and made use of for further progress. The Sri Lankan armed forces have suffered many defeats and won many victories. Have we learnt anything from the defeats suffered?
We were told that equipment that government forces lacked when the Elephant Pass debacle occurred had been bought at tremendous cost and flown into the Jaffna peninsula. Was this equipment that was said to have played a major role in halting the drive of the LTTE into Jaffna town and other equipment purchased recently effectively used in operation 'Agni Kheela'?
In studying lessons from the past an important question will be: To what extent do we use talents of our experienced field commanders? We have seen those with proven track records and brilliance in the battlefield being hastily seen out of the forces while proven failures continue to linger in the higher echelons. Could this be one of the major contributory causes for successive defeats?
Is providing diplomatic appointments a way of showing appreciation of the good work done by servicemen and policemen? A joke enjoyed by diplomats on military top brass being given top diplomatic appointments is of a retiring Commander of the American Mediterranean Fleet telling an American diplomat that when he retires he wants to become an Ambassador to a powerful country to which the Ambassador replied that when he retires he wants to be the Commander of the US Mediterranean Fleet! Sri Lanka has not learnt the lesson that good generals need not necessarily make good diplomats and that they perform better on battlefields than at international conferences. One fortunate failure of Sri Lanka has been that we have not been able to make a diplomat or bureaucrat a general in the army, although in some ministries they lord over the generals!
The government should by now attempt to gain experience from this 18-year-old conflict and learn lessons from the past.
It would do well to commission a study preferably with the assistance of foreign experts on where we had gone wrong in the battlefield.
Much has to be learnt about the LTTE. In situations similar to the aftermath of Agni Kheela, they have launched devastating attacks on major military establishments of the government and carried away armaments lock, stock and barrel.
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