Army 60 years today
General Stanley McChrystal, the commander of 68,000 US troops as well as 100,000 NATO forces deployed in Afghanistan, recently revealed serious differences over US military strategy in Afghanistan.
Unlike the US, the Sri Lankan political and military leadership spoke in one voice during the largest and longest ever combined security forces campaign against the LTTE until the army wiped out the last group of LTTE on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon on May 18, 2009. Had the political and military leaderships not clicked, the army would not have an advantage as well as confidence which it never had before to finish off the LTTE.
Referring to the dicey situation in Afghanistan, the outspoken General told a recent issue of Newsweek, "You can’t hope to contain the fire by letting just half of the building burn." McChrystal’s call for the immediate deployment of 40,000 additional US troops, thereby having more US personnel than the combined strength of US allies, has received widespread support from top US military figures.
The US military has bluntly dismissed calls to step up air attacks, particularly missile strikes by drones and Special Forces operations instead of bolstering ground forces to meet the terrorist challenge. An angry US President Barack Obama went to the extent of summoning General McChrystal for a meeting onboard Air Force One on the tarmac in Copenhagen to express his displeasure at the open campaigning by the army to pressure him to change his policy vis a vis Afghanistan.
It would be now pertinent to discuss the entire gamut of issues relating to the successful ground offensive against the LTTE and Sri Lanka’s greatest and unparalleled post-Independence achievement as the Army celebrates its Diamond Jubilee on October 10.
Let me emphasise, had the army failed the government wouldn’t have survived for long. UNP dissidents, who had switched their allegiance to the UPFA for perks and privileges, would have quit the government along with some SLFP dissidents. Ex-UNP media gurus now batting for the President, too, would have embraced Ranil Wickremesinghe again. Today, the Opposition and their foreign backers had been reduced to nothing due to the army’s success otherwise the UPFA would have been in total chaos unless it was already in the opposition.
The war victory would not have been possible without Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, formerly of the Army, who ensured that no one interfered with President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the service chiefs as the army brought the LTTE gradually to its knees in the bloodiest single phase of the conflict. Although this was the mother of all battles faced by the army, no one should forget its triumph over the JVP twice. Although, the 1971 insurgency couldn’t be considered a real threat, the 1987-1990 JVP terror campaign almost brought the then UNP government to its knees. To the army’s credit, it resolutely battled the JVP and within three years wiped out JVP leader Rohana Wijeweera and his chief lieutenants. Unfortunately, those who successfully fought the JVP never received the recognition they deserved. Major General Janaka Perera, one of the finest battlefield commanders produced by the army died at the hands of the LTTE years after he left the army. Although he had every qualification, the then government overlooked him and the same could have happened to General Sarath Fonseka. But to the credit of President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, they put all their eggs in Fonseka’s basket.
The liberation of the Jaffna peninsula (Riviresa) in 1995 (August-December) could be considered the army’s biggest single achievement before the Vanni liberation. The largest ever amphibious assault (Balavegaya) in July 1991 to save the army trapped at the strategic Elephant Pass base was another achievement but unfortunately the army never managed to maintain the momentum. Had the army top brass done that the LTTE would have been history.
Under war veteran General Sarath Fonseka, undoubtedly the country’s most successful service chief, the army achieved what the entire world firmly believed could not be realised. The hot tempered General, whose public pronouncements on many occasions caused media furore, relentlessly pursued the LTTE until the army on the Vanni front declared Prabhakaran dead. Even at the height of the war and the army faced heavy attacks, he never even discussed the possibility of terminating Sri Lankan military mission in the Caribbean Island of Haiti in support of the UN.
The army also exploited to Karuna’s split with the LTTE to its advantage though the LTTE, too, caused unprecedented threat by infiltrating the army. Their successes in targeting the then Lieutenant General Fonseka within walking distance away from his Colombo office was nothing but one of the most daring intelligence operations carried out ever. But Fonseka, maintained maximum possible pressure, thereby denying the LTTE an opportunity to raise its head though it scored some significant battlefield as well as ‘intelligence’ success.
Both officers and men involved in the offensive believed that one of the primary reasons for their success was their capacity to fill vacancies in fighting formations. Although, some major battles had caused heavy losses, in some instances, hundreds of men, the army maintained the momentum. At the end of the two year ten month long offensive, the army liberated the entire country and gave Sri Lanka a real opportunity to revive the economy. Although, the army could not have overwhelmed the LTTE on its own without unprecedented success achieved by the SLN, SLAF, the police, particularly its paramilitary wing as well as the Civil Defence Force, this piece would be dedicated to the army in view of its 60th anniversary. But the major credit should go to the top, middle and junior leadership who made seemingly impregnable Vanni region accessible to all in less than two years (exactly 21 months.)
Fonseka on victory
General Sarath Fonseka said that no one could challenge the sacrifices made by the Army or claim equal credit for the successful conclusion of Eelam War IV. The first serving four star General said that the SLA lost 190 officers and 5,200 men while 27,000 received battlefield wounds. Addressing officers and men in June this year following a parade at the SLA headquarters in honour of him, the war veteran declared that 96 per cent of total losses suffered by the armed forces were borne by his forces.
The tough talking army chief estimated the number of LTTE cadres killed at the hands of his forces at 22,000 and over 9,000 captured during the two year ten month long offensive. According to him, this was 90 per cent of the total losses inflicted by all forces on the enemy.
Recalling the sacrifices made by war heroes in all four phases of eelam war, he said that he felt sad when he thought about officers and men who paid the supreme sacrifice. He expressed satisfaction that they were able to wipe out the cause of all Sri Lanka’s misery.
While taking the credit for the destruction of the bulk of LTTE assets on the ground, he said that the army had displayed its discipline by not executing surrendered LTTE cadres.
The General said that he was proud to declare that 70 per cent of the Sea Tigers and Air Tigers assets, too, had been destroyed by his forces. He emphasised that no one could match or at least come close to the army’s contribution in the successful war.
Commenting on major factors which contributed to the success, he said that the expansion of the army from 116,000 to 200,000 was one of the key reasons. If they didn’t join the army a final triumph over the LTTE wouldn’t have been possible, he said. Fresh troops held the newly captured areas and also filled vacancies in fighting formations, the General said.
He said that he would like humbly to mention a rapid modernisation programme carried out on his instructions had facilitated the victory. He said that under this programme, fighting forces were given training to meet LTTE tactics, acquire much needed armaments and the required facilities, appointed capable officers to lead troops and gave soldiers an opportunity to function as ‘junior leaders’ on the battlefield. According to him his strategy helped the forces to conclude the offensive two months short of three years as envisaged in their original plan. He declared that they had destroyed the first three levels of LTTE leadership thereby preventing a possible attempt to resurrect the group.
Declaring that the army had successfully met a challenging task in keeping with the Constitution, he emphasised the importance of thwarting a future threat on the sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Recalling an LTTE attempt to assassinate him on April 25, 2006, the General said that he was grateful to President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and the public for their blessings and support during the campaign to eradicate terrorism. He thanked his wife, children and the army headquarters staff for their support, too.
He paid a glowing tribute to fighting formations and support services for bringing the Tigers down to their knees. He also commended officers and men tasked with holding newly liberated areas as fighting formations pushed deeper into the LTTE held territory until the final battle in the third week of May.
The army chief recalled the political leadership given by President Rajapaksa’s administration and the support extended by the Defence Secretary. He went on to appreciate the support received from overseas backers of Sri Lanka’s war against terror.
Tigers on top
Even after the army scored some significant battlefield victories on the Eastern front, the LTTE remained exceptionally strong. An attempt by the army to pierce LTTE fortifications at Muhamalai on October 11, 2006 (the day after 57th anniversary of the army) caused massive losses on the army. The offensive launched by the Jaffna based Divisions ran into stiff LTTE resistance forcing the army to retreat leaving over 100 bodies of soldiers. The LTTE also successfully targeted four Czechoslovakian-built T 55 main battle tanks as well as two other armoured fighting vehicles. The Air Mobile Brigade received a heavy beating. The Muhamalai debacle was followed within a week (on October 16) by the worst single suicide attack on the forces when the LTTE killed over 100 navy personnel at Diganpothana between Dambulla and Habarana junctions. A few hours later, an SLAF fighter aircraft crashed causing perhaps one of the darkest periods in our history. But within three years, the army had the LTTE’s conventional fighting capacity eliminated while confining over 10,000 terrorists, including members of Black Tigers and some of their elite fighters and intelligence cadres to maximum security detention centres.
Once the army received the political approval, General Fonseka ordered rapid expansion of the army. Within one and half years, he had almost 100,000 officers and men to take the battle to the LTTE. The Sri Lanka Light Infantry, Sinha, the Gemunu Watch, Gajaba and Vijayabahu received a tremendous boost by way of fresh men and material. The Sri Lanka National Guard, too, received an unprecedented number of fresh recruits while the elite Special Forces and Command Regiment were given whatever they needed to meet operational requirement.
The role played by the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI) facilitated the offensive and also helped the police to eliminate covert LTTE operatives on missions in the South. The Armoured Corps, the Artillery as well as the Mechanised Infantry and every other unit, including engineers, signals and medical played their roles.
Regular Special Forces and Commando operations behind enemy lines as well as snipers increased pressure on the LTTE. In fact, their operations forced the LTTE leadership to curtail movements, but the army blew up some of their top operatives deep behind LTTE-held territory at the height of the war.
The army today comprises almost 200,000 regular and volunteer personnel. The deployment is covered by five Security Forces Headquarters, five Forward Maintenance Areas, 14 Divisions, six Task Force Headquarters, 64 Brigades, seven Area Headquarters, two Sub Area Headquarters and 23 Regiments.
15,000 sq.kms to zero
When fighting erupted in August 2006 in the East, the LTTE dominated about 15,000 square kms in the Northern and Eastern provinces. By August 2007, the army had liberated the entire Eastern Province. Perhaps one of the most significant moves in the entire war was made in March 2007 when General Fonseka opened a new front in the north. Launch of operations by the 57 Division west of the A9 road, caused the rapid collapse of the LTTE in the East. The Division, which was especially raised to liberate Kilinochchi, fought 14 months before it made its first significant territorial gains when troops brought the Madhu area under government control on April 24, 2008. Under the able leadership of Major General Jagath Dias, the Division regained Kilinochchi on January 2, 2009.
In September, 2007, General Fonseka inducted Task Force I (subsequently elevated to 58 Division). Commanded by Brigadier Shavendra Silva, the formation manoeuvred along the north-western coast to reach Pooneryn, thereby denying vital LTTE lifeline across the Palk Straits. After securing the coastal road, TF I turned eastwards and fought its way to Paranthan which fell on January 1, 2009. Silva’s moves both northwards and southwards of Paranthan helped the 57 Division as well as the Jaffna-based 53 and 55 Divisions to rapidly push towards Elephant Pass.
In fact, the 57 Division and TF I linked-up south-west of Periyamadhu on June 30, 2008 making it the single widest ever army front against the LTTE west of A9 in the entire eelam war.
Fall of Paranthan, Kilinochchi and Elephant Pass in quick succession in early January, 2008 made the entire eastern Vanni vulnerable to the army. By late January, 2009 Brigadier Nandana Udawatte’s 59 Division, which fought its way through Anandankulam and Nagacholai forest reserves that stood as natural defences for the main LTTE military bastion at Mullaitivu, had taken the upper hand on that particular front. The Division which launched operations from Weli Oya in January 2008 experienced some of the bloodiest fighting and suffered a heavy beating in February 2009 before the final battle in May. The February setback prompted General Fonseka to shift Brigadier Udawatte temporarily and make swift battlefield changes to stabilize the situation.
With General Fonseka throwing several fighting formations, including newly formed Task Forces and 53 and 55 Divisions into the battle in the eastern Vanni, the fate of the LTTE was sealed. Within three months, the LTTE was cornered on the Nanthikadal lagoon and the rest is history. 53 Division Commander Major General Kamal Gunaratne and Brigadier Prasanna Silva, Commanding Officer of the 55 Division, played critical roles with the latter earning the admiration of officers and men for his innovative strategies, particularly in crossing waterways defended by strong LTTE units.
Once General Fonseka moved Silva from 55 to 59 to spearhead the final assault across a waterway fiercely held by elite LTTE units. Although, the tigers defended its positions and suffered heavy losses, it could not withstand the combined firepower of the army.
A new role
General Fonseka’s successor, Lieutenant General Jagath Jayasuriya, who had functioned as the Vanni Security Forces commander during the campaign would now have to maintain combat preparedness though the LTTE could no longer pose a conventional military threat. The Directorate of Military Intelligence along with other intelligence services would have to keep an eye on LTTE activity both here and overseas as the Tamil Diaspora would strive to re-launch the group though Prabhakaran’s successor Kumaran Padmanathan aka ‘KP’ remained in Sri Lanka’s custody. The army would also have to continue with recruitment to ensure that it remained young and battle hardened ready to face any eventuality. Although a section of the international community had tried to bring the army to disrepute, no one could deny the credit it deserved for defeating the LTTE and rescuing the Tamil community. The army spearheads rehabilitation and resettlement operations in the Vanni as well as parts of the Jaffna peninsula. Resettlement process in the north as it did in the East primarily depend on clearing mines and other explosive devices abandoned by the LTTE as well as mines laid by government forces.