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A brief history of a war that became 'Un-Winnable'.
R. Chandrasoma

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.

Concluding words
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 ultimate disaster.



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