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Mullaitivu: Closing time

The trick is to grasp the main needs of the present while being able to see into the future, with its problems and prospects, while being aware that the choices we make today, in the here and now, will determine the shape of tomorrow.

First things first: the Tigers have been almost completely overthrown and almost totally defeated, but not yet and not quite. The task is to stay focused and finish the job, resisting all external pressures from whichever quarter however exalted or powerful.

If the foot-soldiers of an army survive but not its General staff, it is almost impossible for it to continue to fight, but as long as a leader and his General staff survive, they can raise an army. Antonio Gramsci reminded us of this, with Napoleon Bonaparte as the classic example.

Velupillai Prabhakaran and his commanders are still alive, and as long as they remain so, they pose a deadly threat to the Sri Lankan state. The war can be said to have been won only when they are eliminated. That remains the task at hand.

The Tigers have a Plan A, B and C.

Plan A is to generate an international outcry which, together with Tamil Nadu pressure, will force a halt or slowdown of Sri Lankan armed forces operations, even if it does not result in their best-case scenario of a ceasefire and negotiations. The ludicrous but intentionally diversionary parallels with civilians in Gaza are best countered by reminding audiences that the Sri Lankan state is not preventing civilians from escaping the conflict zones, unlike the Israeli state which kept and keeps Gaza "an iron cage" or "open prison camp", with its exits — barring the one controlled by Egypt — sealed off.

Plan B is a sustained slow-burn guerrilla struggle in the Mullaitivu jungles, combined with terrorism in the urban centers. That is the Taliban strategy. This has dubious prospects given that the Sri Lankan armed forces won’t take their eye off the ball as did the Americans, and in any case, there are no Tora Bora mountains and a porous land border for the Tigers to escape into and across.

Plan C, that of escape and re-entry, is best set out by the late Sri Lankanologist Prof Urmila Phadnis’ student Sudha Ramachandran writing in the Asian Times Online (Jan 27): ‘Pro-LTTE sections of the Tamil Diaspora are in favor of Prabhakaran moving overseas, so that he can revive the LTTE from outside the island and "then strike at the Sri Lankan government at a time of his choosing to free the Sri Lankan Tamil people again". It is expatriate Tamils who funded the LTTE’s war for the past several decades, fueling Prabhakaran’s dreams of setting up an independent Tamil Eelam and ignoring his at-times brutal rule over the Tamils. And it is this community that he can count on now to provide him with sanctuary overseas’.

Sudha Ramachandran’s essay also hints, albeit unintentionally, at the downside of handing Prabhakaran over to any other country’s jurisdiction in the unlikely event of capture: "…Prabhakaran has been captured alive before. That was in Chennai (then Madras) in 1982, when he, along with a leader of a rival militant group, was arrested for exchanging fire on a busy street. The Sri Lankan government pressed India for his extradition and India agreed. But then things changed. Mass rallies organized by P Nedumaran, a Tamil nationalist who continues to be Prabhakaran’s most loyal supporter in India, opposed the deportation to Sri Lanka on the grounds that the two would be tortured there. The pressure worked. India said Prabhakaran would be tried here and stayed the deportation. He never was tried. Prabhakaran was granted bail, which he eventually jumped and went on to wage a deadly separatist war against the Sri Lankan state."

There is only one way to pre-empt these fallback options of the Tigers and their supporters, namely to crush all LTTE resistance, extirpate the LTTE’s leadership and annihilate its fighting cadre in the ongoing campaign in Mullaitivu and whatever un-liberated residue of Kilinochchi.

There are those such as the highly regarded General Kalkat who commanded the IPKF, who give credence to the guerrilla option. Talking to him, Kallol Battacherjee of The Week (India, Feb 1, 2009) retraces the important history of the decisive days in the IPKF-LTTE confrontation:

"Velupillai Prabhakaran was no mouse in October 1988. …The IPKF captured the land routes of the Tigers. Then they took Wanni, Jaffna and Kilinochchi. At Nitikaikulam, they cornered Prabhakaran. Sensing his end was near he turned tail and escaped through a 7km tunnel into a forest near Mullaiteevu. The Indian soldiers had it easy till then. But what followed was decisive, and still shapes India’s response to the Sri Lankan conflict. "The LTTE surprised the IPKF by booby trapping the forest near Mullaiteevu; they knew the terrain like the back of their palm and put up fierce resistance," said IPKF commander Gen. (rtd) A.S. Kalkat. The Indian attack plan was to drive the Tigers from the forest, but Kalkat found that the forest was the Tigers’ best ally."

What is Lt. Gen. Kalkat’s conclusion? "It is perhaps one of the most dangerous forests in the world and till the Sinhalese forces defeat the LTTE there, they cannot be called real victors," Kalkat said. For him, the Sri Lankan campaign of 2008-09 is a copy of his campaign of the late 1980s. "The ultimate battle of the Sri Lankan army against the LTTE is yet to be fought".

This much is true, but the conclusion he derives or seems to derive, that the outcome is still wide open and victory is uncertain for the Sri Lankan forces, is unwarranted. It is unwarranted because Gen Kalkat tells the truth about Nithikaikulam and the IPKF experience, but not the whole truth.

I know, because General Kalkat used to report up the chain of command to general Suneet Francis Rodriguez, the Chief of Staff of the Indian Army who was in overall command of the IPKF operation, and while the Nithikaikulam battle was on, EPRLF founder-leader K. Padmanabha, Suresh Premachandran (deputy leader) and I were in General Rodriguez’ office, with its maps and scale models of the terrain. I was, of course, using an assumed identity.

The top brass was gung-ho. The IPKF Para commandos were going in after Prabhakaran, braving the booby traps and the claymores, and may well have got him — except that politics intervened.

As several top Indian personalities including Shri JN Dixit have disclosed, at the same time the IPKF jawans and the Para commandos were risking their life and limb, the RAW was in negotiation with the LTTE’s representative in Madras, Kittu. Those talks seemingly bore fruit, if fruit it was, in the form of a package deal which permitted the LTTE to keep a specified number (300, if I remember rightly) of automatic weapons including M 16s for the personal protection of the leadership, while it came into the mainstream of the Accord. It is possible that Kittu negotiated in good faith, not knowing the real thinking of Prabhakaran who kept his cards very close to his chest. It is also likely that the RAW negotiator (in charge of the Sri Lanka operation and named as such by Lalith Athulathmadali) was already in the LTTE’s pocket or was in the process of being ‘turned’ by the Tigers—something that was suspected only after the Rajiv Gandhi assassination a few years later, though it should have been suspected after EPRLF leader Padmanabha’s murder in Chennai in 1990, the year before Rajiv was killed by the same LTTE cell.

RAW chief Anand Verma took the Kittu deal to the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) and won over some top officials eager to secure the Tamil Nadu vote. Not everyone was that gullible in New Delhi and with the decision making circle divided and in deliberation, a compromise was struck: General Kalkat was asked to draw up encirclement – in the event, involving 5,000 troops. This delay in pressing home the advantage with the elite Para Commandos permitted Prabhakaran to escape, dig in and turn the tables eventually on the IPKF. This he did, not merely militarily but politically and psychologically.

JR Jayewardene was still Sri Lanka’s President at the time. Mr. Verma even flew to Colombo to persuade President Jayewardene to endorse a ceasefire with the LTTE but failed in his effort, with JRJ insisting on the total decommissioning of weapons.

Even if the Ravana-esque villain of the Indian re-telling of the IPKF tale, namely Ranasinghe Premadasa, had not been born, the IPKF would have been pulled out, because that was a solemn campaign pledge made, in order to win Tamil Nadu, by VP Singh, who triumphed at the general election.

This is why the IPKF analogy does not hold, though the Tamil Diaspora and Indian analysts may find some comfort in the thought that Prabhakaran will do to the Sri Lankan armed forces what he did to the IPKF from his redoubt in the Mullaitivu jungles. The IPKF was not motivated, there was political dissent in its rear, the institutions of the state were at variance, the standard armament of the infantryman was the ridiculous SLR (the FN rifle) pitted against the Tigers’ Kalashnikovs and M-16s (mostly purchased with RAW funds or procured through its channels, bypassing the procurement red tape which ensnared the IPKF), and there was hardly any use of tactical airpower—except on October 10th 1987, in Chavakachcheri, courtesy of the Sri Lankan side, a strike that injured Prabhakaran.

Of central importance is also the main goal and objective of military strategy. The IPKF had a wholly erroneous goal of pushing the Tigers to the negotiating table. It wasn’t even sure if killing Prabhakaran should be an objective, and it certainly wasn’t one held to consistently. In a brilliant piece of deception, the LTTE fed the RAW who fed the IPKF the nonsense that LTTE deputy Gopalaswamy Mahendraraja alias Mahattaya was a deadlier foe; more anti-Indian because he was allegedly "Naxalite influenced", and should be eliminated so his baleful influence on Prabhakaran was ended. Rajiv Gandhi was victim of this utterly erroneous reading.

By contrast, this time the Sri Lankan government and state have political clarity and a unified will to win. This time, a gutsy Deputy Minister of Defense isn’t having to fight a war while recruitment is drying up due to a unilateral antiwar campaign ("Sudu Nelum"- White Lotus) spearheaded by a fellow Cabinet Minister. This time the Sri Lankan armed forces have a clear objective: the elimination of the LTTE as a fighting force. This is as it should be, for General Vo Nguyen Giap has said that the goal of all military strategy should be the annihilation of the living forces of the enemy. The IPKF ignored this dictum.

The Sri Lankan armed forces have none of the disadvantages and delusions the IPKF labored under. Therefore Prabhakaran cannot perform the same miracle of survival and recovery that he performed against the IPKF.

There is something to be wary of though. As the latest issue of Security Index, the premier Russia journal on international security, co-published by the Centre for Policy Studies, Moscow and the Centre Russe d’etudes Politiques, Geneva, says: "America’s serious mistakes in Iraq and Afghanistan were not so much military as political, made well after the main stage of the military operation was over." (Yuri Fedorov, ‘Black August or The Return of History’, Security Index, Winter 2008/9, p.95)

This then is the category of mistakes Sri Lanka must avoid, and be conscious of as the victorious end of the war draws closer like the red sail of an incoming ship on the horizon, to use Mao’s metaphor. These were the mistakes of the Bush administration, and with our own version of the Republican neoconservatives, cultural warriors and religious right-wingers who determined and distorted US perspectives forcing a deviation from Realism, it is the kind of mistake we could easily make. Unlike the USA we will have no Barack Obama to redeem us from their consequences.

(These are the strictly personal views of the writer)


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