|Sri Lanka: War after the fall of Vidattalthivu|
Keeping up the momentum of their offensive, Sri Lanka army's 58 Division and Commando troops advanced another 10 km to the north to capture Illuppakkadavai on Sunday July 20, 2008 close on the heels of their success in capturing the Sea Tiger base of Vidattalthivu on the Mannar coast on July 16, 2008. According to Defence sources, the Commandos pursued and attacked the cadres of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) fleeing Iluppakkadavai, three km to the north on the A32 Mannar- Pooneryn road.The rapid progress of the Mannar offensive and its quick successes send clear signals of the intention of Sri Lanka President Mahinda Rajapaksa to fight the LTTE unto finish despite his recent statement in India about his readiness to talk to the LTTE. At best the statement was a palliative to mollify ruffled sentiments in India where the LTTE enjoys a love-hate relationship in Tamil Nadu. (And the scale still appears to be weighted against 'love'.)
The military victories should enable the President, who had been beleaguered by issues of high inflation, food shortages and financial tight squeeze due to war expenditure, to more confidently host the forthcoming summit of South Asian nations at the 15th SAARC meet in Colombo. The demonstrated military strength of a leader always sends a stronger message than words. In his case it would show his determination to pursue military objective first, regardless of the subterranean rumblings about it among the international community.
The capture of Vidattalthivu and Iluppakadavai are hard earned victories that have come about not a day soon. Though Adampan was captured on May 8 after prolonged efforts to penetrate its satellite defences, obviously it was the breakthrough at Periyamadhu on the
eastern side that had enabled the security forces to speed up their offensive. The fact the offensive troops have kept up their momentum to secure Iluppakadavain, a well established LTTE location, in four days shows that the army is overcoming its past weakness of slowing down after every success.
Apparently the operational plans now had been reworked and better orchestrated than the half-hearted efforts that got bogged down for quite sometime around the Giant's Tank on the flank of Adampan last year.
Though 200 cadres of the LTTE managed to pull out of the Vidattalthivu base before the security forces took it over, the operation was a difficult one as it involved reducing well fortified defences built around the base with a network of defensive positions on three sides providing depth to it. This was the reason why its capture took so long as it involved reducing the satellite defensive positions on the south and east. No doubt the injection of additional troops of the newly raised 61 Division and the linking up of 57 and 58 Divisions had boosted the chances of success in the Vidattalthivu-Iluppakadavai offensive.
With these successes, not only the LTTE's clandestine logistic umbilical chord from Tamil Nadu coast is cut, but the manoeuvring space of the LTTE to switch troops from east to west and ability to coordinate operations on more than one front are also reduced. As against this, the security forces have now gained a decisive advantage with the linking up of forces operating on a wide front from the key road junction at Iluppakadavi to areas west of Mankulam on the A9 highway.
After the fall of Iluppakkadavai, the Nachchikuda LTTE base located 17 km further to the north becomes an important objective in the security forces offensive towards Pooneryn. Sea Tiger operations from Nachchikuda in tandem with Vidattalthivu had been a thorn in the flesh of Sri Lanka navy. The shallow waters of Vidattalthivu and the hundreds of Indian fishing boats in the vicinity had enabled the Sea Tiger boats to carry out sneak operations with little interference.
As the Sea Tigers would be handicapped after the fall of Vidattalthivu, the navy should be able to control if not totally curtail sea movement across Palk Bay and Nachikuda either towards island territories off Jaffna or to the Tamil Nadu coast. It would also help the navy in providing better support to its outposts and detachments operating along the coast from the Mannar salient to Delft island.
The land offensive building up against Nachchikuda might well turn out to be a combined army-navy operation. The offensive patrolling operations of coastal patrol vessels of the navy reported in the seas around Vidattalthivu and Nachchikuda on July 20 indicate the likelihood of greater naval involvement in operations against Nachchikuda and more importantly in Pooneryn later.
However, before Nachchikuda is taken the security forces will have to secure and consolidate their hold on line Vellankulam-Tunukkai-Malavi on the road branching off from A32 to Mankulam. (This would probably involve further advance on a broad front for about 4km.) In the present operational situation, the Mankulam-Vellankulam axis to the east of A32 provides perhaps the best opportunity for the LTTE to launch a counterattack to dislodge the security forces as they are stretched now with the rapid advance. So we can expect the 57 Division sector to the west of A9 road become active in the coming week.
The A32 provides an alternate route to Jaffna from Pooneryn across the Jaffna Bay. Pooneryn's location on the western flank of A9 road can bring the war closer to Kilinochchi. Even if Pooneryn is not captured, the successes of the security forces on A32 road have increased their options to further progress their offensive because they will be operating on a wide front with a choice of multiple thrust lines with the advantage of secure flanks.
In spite of the quick successes, Lt Gen Sarath Fonseka, the Army Commander is understandably cautious about the course of operations in the future. This is evident from the interview he had given to the Sunday Observer on July 20. His guarded approach had enabled him to carefully plan and conduct his operations probably at a time of his choosing. So he usually avoids coming up with rash promises on operations unlike some politicians. Perhaps he remembers that nearly a decade ago when the LTTE was not having so of much fire power, it had upstaged the Sri Lanka security forces in the same sector though they had scored initial successes. It is interesting to see despite the official claims of killing 9000 LTTE cadres in Eelam War-4 he still credits the LTTE with a strength of 5000, which appears to be a realistic assessment. This strength includes hardened elements as well as raw inexperienced and ill trained hands. How they fare against the armed forces will be seen in the coming weeks.
During the last one week, Sri Lanka army has kept up its momentum of advance. According to defence sources, the troops of 57 Division are on the periphery of line Tunukkai-Mallavi, west of A9 highway. We can expect them to secure the line from Vellankulam on the coast to Mallavi during the course of the week The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)'s failed attempt to dislodge the security forces in area South of Vavunikulam tank by last Wednesday is significant. Vavunikulam is astride the Vellankulam-Mallavi-Mankulam road axis and provides a take off point to build up the threat to Mankulam on A9. Even if the LTTE had succeeded, at best it would have bought a few more days of respite. However, the fact is that the LTTE was beaten back at Vavunikulam with a body count of 29 LTTE dead.
The LTTE counter attack probably did not have either the force levels required to stall the advancing troops or the fire power to unnerve them. The overwhelming size of the security forces offensive has cast the odds heavily against the LTTE. By present reckoning the LTTE at present can respond only fight defensive battles to save its shrinking territorial assets rather than mount a forceful offensive.
The LTTE has to halt the troops in their tracks in a series of delaying actions, or build a major offensive to cut the advancing military's long line of communication at a place of its choosing. So can the LTTE do it? And if so, where will it do? These are questions which Sri Lankan operational planners must be looking at. It seems from the Sri Lanka Army Commander Lt Gen Sarath Fonseka's statement that he expects the LTTE leaders to be huddled in their Vanni bunkers in a bid to save themselves when the LTTE Heroes Day comes in November 2008. He probably implied that the security forces would secure the territory west of A9 road by then. The build up of a three-division offensive on a broad front extending the whole of Mullaitivu district from Vellankulam on the west to Welioya on the east could aim at making a sweep from west to east to make the line Pooneryn-Kilinochchi untenable for the LTTE to hold in the coming month. However this military conjecture is only one of wide options open to the security forces now.
The LTTE appears to be responding in the way it knows best. Strategically, make a play internationally with an eye on drawing the overseas Tamil support, kindle Tamil Nadu's latent sympathetic embers, and step up killings and mayhem around Colombo and the heartlands of Sri Lanka. On the tactical front its actions are hazy and uncertain.
The LTTE's damatic announcement on July 21 to "observe a unilateral ceasefire that is devoid of military actions during the period of the SAARC [South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation] conference from 26th July to 4th August and give our cooperation for the success of the conference" is undoubtedly part of this strategy to buy time and aspire for a sympathetic audience when international attention focuses on the 15th SAARC summit conference is held in Colombo.
Apparently the LTTE gesture was laudable and would be welcomed by the people of Vanni who have been suffering immensely in the conflict. Tactically it would be unacceptable to the security forces when their offensive had made substantial progress and pose a real threat to the LTTE stronghold at Pooneryn/ Kilinochchi in the near future. A ceasefire even for 10 days would break the momentum of Sri Lankan advance. That would provide a vital breathing space for the LTTE forces now under tremendous pressure to recuperate their losses, tighten up defences and be prepared to respond to the security forces better. So it came as no surprise that the Sri Lanka government rejected the LTTE's unilateral ceasefire announcement.
In any case past experience of the LTTE misusing such ceasefire periods does not endear anyone fighting it to accept such offers. (Even Indian army experience of such 'LTTE ceasefire' was similar). When the LTTE was fighting the earlier episode of the Eelam War, it declared one such unilateral ceasefire on December 24, 2000 that continued up to April 2001. Even then the Sri Lanka government was cautious in its response, despite international efforts to initiate mediation. Barely three months later, in July 2001 came the daring LTTE Black Tiger raid on Katunayake airport crippling the civilian airlines and destroying substantial air force assets shocking the whole nation. Armies the world over go by lessons of war learned with their own blood and sweat. And Sri Lanka is no exception.
As far as the international audience is concerned, the number of ears sympathetic to the LTTE is dwindling. The global attitude to terrorism has changed. For all intents and purposes many nations consider the LTTE a terrorist organisation regardless of semantic arguments. Its international credibility is perhaps at the lowest now thanks to the nerve wracking experience of nations in handling terrorists of various kinds. Even those nations that do not call or consider the LTTE a terrorist body are cautious about coming out in support of the LTTE as they used to do in the 90s. So in reality the LTTE probably had no great expectations of any positive international response to its announcement.
The LTTE's strategic campaign among expatriates works best on an audience prone to be sympathetic to its cause. To augment its support base the LTTE will have to win over those who respond to the cause of Tamil autonomy but find the LTTE style of working abhorrent. This is what the LTTE is attempting among the Tamil expatriates at the large Pongu Thamizh public gatherings marshalled in key European capitals with strategically positioned LTTE flags and Prabhakaran portraits to catch the visual media. To make this strategy work the LTTE will have to do more than use its muscle power it had exercised among the expatriates all these years.
The LTTE's autocratic style has limited political appeal for expatriates who are enjoying the fruits freedom in democratic societies where they live. However, all these years they were impressed with its innovative conventional and unconventional operational skill. However, that fundamental military credibility on which the LTTE's reputation is built has now been shaken in the Eelam War-4. So the LTTE has to prove its military muscle in the war; and so far this is being weakened further with every success of the security
The best option for the LTTE is to look for an external power to bale it out of the war mess. In the past India, which has been sympathetic to the cause of Sri Lanka Tamil autonomy, did intervene in their favour till the LTTE shot itself in the foot when its assassin exploded the suicide bomb to kill Rajiv Gandhi. There were reports of India planning to induct substantial strength of Indian forces for the security of its Prime Minister during the SAARC conference. Immediately, the anti Indian lobby in Sri Lanka became vocal in their objection. Though the LTTE did not do so, it must have been really worried because Indian military intrevention for whatever apparent reason was the last thing it would like. So the LTTE's unilateral ceasefire announcement was also probably prompted by this desire ease India's apprehensions.
The ceasefire was also timed to coincide with the increasing incidents of Indian fishermen coming under the attack of Sri Lanka navy reported in Tamil Nadu. Such reports are stirring up the sentiments of Tamil population in India. When public sentiments are roused the technicalities of Tamil Nadu fishermen poaching in Sri Lanka waters or smuggling essential goods for the LTTE in the war zone are not considered germane to the larger interests of Tamils. So the LTTE stands to gain as long as this issue is on the boil. And as the battle progresses, we can expect the LTTE to offer more incentives for Tamil Nadu fishermen to lure them to smuggle supplies vital to survive and fight. With the security forces dominating the Mannar coast more and more such efforts could spark more flashpoints of attack on fishermen. How the Tamil Nadu government responds to such incidents is going to become crucial in the coming weeks.
The Tamil Nadu chief minister M Karunanidhi extended the whole hearted support of the Dravida Munnetra Kazagham (DMK) to the ruling coalition in Delhi when the recent vote of confidence for the Manmohan Singh government came up in Indian parliament. Having proved his credentials as a dependable ally, with the parliamentary polls coming up after four months the DMK leader can be expected to retain his strong links with the Congress party to fight his bệte noire Miss J Jayalalitha of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazagham (AIADMK). As the elections get closer, he will have to reiterate his credentials as a leader of the Tamils sympathetic to Sri Lanka Tamil cause. So the LTTE will have a difficult task to do the extra mile to enrol even his covert support unless it looks like the winning side in the war.
So the LTTE's war is looking loaded against it both strategically, and tactically. Can Prabhakaran pull the rabbit out of his hat to turn the war? And it is a tough take for anyone because that is a 64 dollar question.
Posted by R Hariharan