A brief history of a war that
How a many-splendoured and expensively accoutered Fighting Force
of the Sri Lankan State was beaten into submission by a rag-tag force
of dedicated Terrorists.
When the history of the Pirapaharan Rebellion is written by someone removed
in time and space from the hurly-burly of the current conflict, the first
impulse will be to express astonishment that a group that was at first
no more than a band of rustic adventurers had the better of a professional
army vastly superior in weapons and training. His incredulity will grow
as he learns of well-fortified bases overrun by bare-footed warriors,
field commanders snoozing undisturbed while the enemy battered at the
door, whole armouries abandoned by fleeing soldiers, airplanes vanishing
into thin air and shiploads of munitions falling into rebel hands under
conditions that would have puzzled even the famous Houdini.
Let us be very clear. This brief litany of the shameful disasters that
have befallen our forces is not to be understood as an advertisement in
poor taste of their cowardice and ineptitude in the battlefield. On the
contrary, it is an attempt to show that a confused command-structure,
a disastrous lack of clear strategic thinking by the military leadership
and crass scheming by a political caucus that regarded the outcome of
the battle as less important than its political fall-out are largely to
blame for the monumental reverses that our forces have suffered. We must
express our unreserved gratitude to our poor fighting men who, despite
paying a very heavy price for the follies of their leaders, have kept
at bay a ruthless enemy hell-bent on destroying our country. A mere expression
of thanks is no more than a poor token of our indebtedness to these men
for the heroic sacrifices they have made in defence of their motherland.
Confusions in Command-Structure that made things easy for the Enemy
While there are technical matters of mobilization, deployment and logistics
that are entirely within the province of Field Commanders, the overall
direction of a war-like strategy must have a clear apex - a source of
unwavering direction. That this was disastrously lacking in the case of
the Northern War against Pirapaharan is blindingly obvious to those who
make even a cursory study of the unfolding of events in the course of
this conflict. Let us restrict our analysis to the last few (and crucial)
years of this war during which the enemy wrested the initiative from us
and inflicted a string of humiliating defeats on a badly demoralized army.
Let us ask- who was the overall commander during this period of ignominy?
The President was nominally in control of something called a 'Security
Council' which was supposed to be the apex body, but did she have any
military-strategic skills? Did she pour over maps and inquire into the
layout of enemy emplacements? This 'commander in chief' commanded with
the disastrous instincts of a politician. It can be argued that the Service
Chiefs were there to fill the shortfalls in expertise. This argument fails
to take note of the fact that in our society the bold and the conscientious
are paid for their zeal by being left out. The Service Chiefs were loyal
servants of the politicians - necessarily so because their career-prospects
depended vitally on the goodwill of the ruling establishment. In this
climate of acquiescence, 'brainstorming' or 'error correction' becomes
impossible and the tendency to rubber-stamp that which was pleasing to
the political overlord become irresistible.
Astonishingly, the drive to weaken and confuse the command structure was
a matter of studied policy by the political leadership of the day. A braggart
with very limited brain-power was made overnight a 'General' and, as the
Deputy Defence Minister, was more concerned in throwing his weight about
than in facilitating the dialogue between experts that would result in
a coherent defense policy. As always in this country, toadies and yes-men
were promoted while the efficient and the patriotic were viewed with a
jaundiced eye. Patriotism was conflated with 'Sinhala racism' and was
regarded as abhorrent by no less a person as the President of Sri Lanka.
No surprise, then, that the charge that the 'officer-class' in the Services
worked for pay and promotion has wide acceptance. Symptomatic of the times
was the appointment of the former Commissioner of Elections as the 'Defence
Secretary' This nondescript bureaucrat was a nincompoop in defense matters
and was deliberately planted to weaken the possibility of a 'defence coalition'
that could pose a challenge to the overall authority of a capricious presidency.
With this kind of muddle and confusion at the top, is it surprising that
a sickness of spirit infected our fighting men and they turned tail when
the enemy advanced upon them?
How the Three Services competed for the latest in weaponry while the
foot soldier lay famished and neglected in trenches.
An eerie air of make-believe prevailed in the upper echelons of the three
Services. The Air Force demanded Helicopter Gun-Ships, sophisticated Ground
Attack Aircraft, Surveillance Craft, Drones, Heavy-lift Cargo Planes and
a whole lot else. A technologically dumb political establishment that
had no knowledge of cost-benefit analysis spent colossal sums of money
to appease the senseless importunity of those 'marshals' of the Air Force
determined to 'modernize' their outfit without a care for real requirements.
Has an expert body in operational research found this massive investment
worthwhile? In the war against Pirapaharan has this mighty 'air arm' had
a single worth-while success? How many fabulously expensive machines have
they lost to an enemy bereft of even a flying saucepan? It can truly be
said that this Air Force became an Air Farce - its baptism under the latter
title was confirmed when a handful of lightly armed 'Kotiyas' succeeded
in penetrating a major base and destroying a greater part of the idle
aircraft stationed therein.
Let us talk of the Navy next. Unlike the Air Force (or Air Farce) an effective
navy is absolutely vital to our survival as an Island Nation. Was this
truism recognized? Did the leadership seek expert advice on the kind of
navy that could deal effectively with the very fast and heavily armed
boats of the Tigers? Did they have an answer to the 'human guided missiles'
(explosive-laden suicide boats) that made a mockery of the conventional
strategy employed by the navy? Large and fabulously expensive craft were
repeatedly purchased when it was very clear that coastal operation in
Tiger-infested waters was a death-mission for such vessels. They were
surrounded by dozens of 'decoys' to draw fire until a suicide boat delivered
the coup de grace. What was badly needed was a large and agile fleet of
heavily armed boats of the 'coast guard' type. Thinking along these lines
did not find favour with our Naval Brass who wanted a show-piece navy
to match the bravura of the Air Force. The fact that they have lost naval
superiority to the ultra-light 'bumboat' fleet of the Sea Tigers is damning
evidence of their incompetence. There is no need to add to this misery
by speaking of the financial rackets, top-level infighting and a host
of other misfortunes that have made this vital arm of our defenses a shameful
shadow of what it ought to be.
We must speak with due consideration and respect when we review the performance
of our National Army. There is no question that the murderous Tiger is
held in check by our brave troops manning the perimeter defenses of a
territory that is in constant danger of being overrun by an increasingly
confident enemy. There is, however, a disturbing thought that must arise
in the minds of all patriotic citizens of this country - what has led
to this sorry pass? How has it come about that a band of terrorists without
the sophisticated weaponry (at least, to begin with) that one associates
with a conventional army has overawed and defeated on numerous occasions
our well-supplied divisions? The issue of morale cannot be easily dismissed.
While the enemy fights with grim determination and treats the life of
its fighters as a commodity in the service of its Leader, our men have
no clear long-term goal and find to their utter dismay that their own
side is cheering the enemy. Wars cannot be won when a schizophrenic leadership
passes on its neuroticism to the men who are called upon to man battle-lines.
This is only a part of the story of defeat - the larger part must be found
in the strategic errors attributable to a military command-structure that
that had lost touch with reality. The Generals ordered Battle-tanks, Long
range Artillary, Armoured Troop-carriers, Howitzers, MBRLs etc. as if
a great set-piece battle was about to be waged with an equally well-equipped
enemy. Unfortunately, these costly devices were sequestered for long months
in bases where the troops were physically run down and alarmingly debilitated
in spirit. There were no experts in battlefield psychology to advise the
Generals. The appalling conditions in which the troops spent weary weeks
and months were not factored in by the High Command in making their calculations.
The enemy bided his time and struck when morale was at its lowest. The
results are too well known to warrant description here. In the few instances
where offensive action was taken, the enemy had prior knowledge and was
able, quite easily, to overcome the armour and fire- power of our forces
by strategic withdrawals and continuous harassment of advancing units
with sustained mortar bombardment. The capture of Jaffna is a notable
exception and a great success story. Here, again, there are question marks
about the strategic wisdom of this venture. The forces were bogged down
in an area with a very large civilian population and engrossed in tasks
that had no long-term military value. The enormous cost of this operation
seriously hampered the greater task of bringing Pirapaharan under control.
We shall have more to say on this later.
Is there an alternative strategy that could have been pursued with greater
hope of success?
Indeed there is - based on the recognition that it is essentially a guerilla
force that we confront. Our bases must be at the frontier of territory
that is securely our own and with supply lines that cannot be interdicted
by the enemy. These bases must serve as launch-pads for commando-style
special operations with the capacity to harass the enemy and to make it
impossible for him to marshal his forces for a major attack. The war must
be 'privatized' with special units given full powers to operate in enemy
territory without hindrance from a central command. Dissident Tamil factions
can (and must) be co-opted make these forays a real danger to Pirapaharan.
The redoubtable menace is, of course, is the Sea Tiger force of Pirapaharan.
As long as there is a life-line from the Vanni to the powers and sources
that nourish his insurgency, the man cannot be totally defeated. It is,
then, paramount that a revised naval strategy be put in place to interdict
this supply-line and to restore our supremacy of the seas off the North-Eastern
shoreline of Sri Lanka. That this must be done without dreadnoughts and
a blue-water fleet is the message that must register with the bearded
gentlemen in charge of naval policy.
A gathering of Fools. How a confused leadership failed signally to
arrive at a clear strategy.
A great expert in military strategy (Clausewitz) is reported to have said
the principal aim of war is the defeat of the enemy, not the capture of
territory. If we look back at what happened in Sri Lanka vis-à-vis
the great conflict in the North, it becomes painfully evident that the
leadership had no clear strategic vision of destroying the enemy. Was
it made clear to the Generals that our irrefragable aim was the destruction
of Pirapaharan and his forces? Unlikely - judging from the wishy-washy
utterances of the President herself. The rulers of the day had a soft
corner for the Terrorist and vacillated disgracefully on the modus operandi
to be used to make him tractable. The Generals were reduced to the status
of beggars, dependent on the whim of the political leadership to take
the kind of action that they thought was best. It is not surprising, then,
that a contradiction developed at the highest levels that blighted the
rational conduct of a conflict that was clearly military in nature. The
Politicians wanted Pirapaharan 'punished'. They wanted him 'weakened'.
They wanted territory taken from him to reduce his power and influence.
It ought to have been the prime duty of the generals to have reminded
these political fools that the first task is to destroy the enemy. They
did not do this. They were kept happy with expensive toys. They became
politicians themselves and became renowned for their cover-ups and inanities.
The confusion reached ludicrous heights when 'others' forced their way
into the war council. Who were these others? The NGOs operating with utter
impunity in this country formed a 'Peace Caucus' that had the backing
of powerful ministers. The Commander in Chief had one ear cocked at all
times to listen to the vehement denunciations of the military campaign
by these traitorous organizations. It appeared as if military-strategic
considerations were secondary while the need to be seen as a 'peace-loving'
administration forced to do unpleasant things was regarded as paramount.
The President repeatedly (and publicly) expressed her abhorrence of war
and pined for the day when she could attend to more wholesome matters
than the direction of the Armed Services in the battle against Pirapaharan.
While one must concede that 'non violence' and the 'love of Peace' are
estimable qualities, is it not obvious that a war against an utterly ruthless
enemy cannot be directed by somebody who believes that war is evil and
futile? If the President's moral qualms made the direction of a military
campaign a burden that she longed to cast off, it was her bounden duty
to yield her position to others who could do a better job. This did not
happen and the war roared on from disaster to disaster - with the horrendous
carnage being attributed to 'war' in abstraction. The 'conduct of the
war' had no importance.
There was another astonishing intrusion into the command structure. High
Commissioners and Ambassadors of the so-called Big Powers became confidants
of those directly involved in the conduct of the war. They had the status
of 'referees' in the conflict and had a strange proclivity to cry 'halt'
whenever the Sri Lankan Forces made a determined bid to inflict punishment
on the enemy. The despicable role of India in the early days of the conflict
is too well known to warrant discussion here. Less well known is the reach
and influence of the Western Powers in matters directly relating to the
conflict. They consistently took a line favouring the insurgents and afforded
all privileges to the latter in the conduct of a vicious propaganda war
against the Sri Lankan State. Notwithstanding this treachery, the emissaries
of these nations were front-line consultants in the prosecution of the
war. Their advice never helped us - it was always the enemy that found
patronage and protection.
More can be said - including some mind-boggling stories of how spies in
places high and low made things easy for Pirapaharan. Consider the stark
asymmetry - did we ever have reliable intelligence on the key movements
of the Tigers? Did a single spy in the service of the Sri Lankan State
ever penetrate the Pirapaharan's inner circle? Contrast this with the
spies, horse-dealers, agents and plain rogues that literally riddled the
command structure of our side - it makes the true patriot weep in shame.
And, it brings out a key attitudinal difference between the Fighting Tamil
and the Lackadaisical Sinhalaya. The latter treated the dire threat to
his survival with astonishing indifference and lack of spirit. There is
no need to comment on the commitment of the former - they are famous round
the world for the invention of that awesome thing called the 'female suicide
bomber'. The impending defeat of the Sinhalayas at the hands of the Tamil
Terrorists is just the beginning of succession of likely reverses. Our
ancient religion - Buddhism - is 'fighting' a losing battle with Cult-Religionists
and Evangelists. Our language - Sinhala' has loud detractors on its own
side and it will not be long before it is reduced to the status of a neglected
dialect for the poor and marginalized. Does not all this indicate a hopelessness
and a wanting of spirit on our part in the quest to overcome obstacles
and to survive as a people? And, - more catastrophically - does it not
indicate a loss of will to do whatever is needed to survive as a distinct
cultural species? Friends, reflect and bestirs yourselves to avert the