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In writing about the ongoing war in the Wanni northern mainland,  I have  been regularly emphasising a salient point that goes against the   view  propagated by upper echelons of the power structure and dominant sections of society.

According to this viewpoint, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) faces imminent destruction and the war would be over very soon.

While subscribing to the opinion that the armed forces are indeed on the ascendant my take on the LTTE has been different.
Regular readers would recall that I have been constantly asserting that the Tigers are not a spent force as widely believed.

“The Tigers may be down but they are certainly not out” has been my frequent refrain.

This, to many may be like a discordant note in a harmonious melody.

Strong disagreement

To the average citizen things seem pretty simple and clear. The armed forces are on the ascendant while Tiger fortunes are rapidly declining. The Army advances and LTTE retreats.

It is only a matter of time before the military juggernaut would inexorably roll forward, grinding  down tiger defences.

Then the Tigers will have to run away   from Lanka or jump into the sea is the fond expectation.

It is against this backdrop of an “Okkoma hari” (everything’s okay) mood that I keep on saying, “the Tigers are down but not out.”

My strong disagreement with the LTTE over its objectives, ideology, methods and functional style are well – known to most regular readers.

Thus, some are genuinely puzzled and several are e-mailing me with queries.

With the LTTE being perceived as weak and security forces seen as strong I realise my assertion can upset some.

Succinct assessment

First of all, let me state clearly that the observation about the LTTE being “down and not out” is only my succinct assessment of the military situation and nothing more.

 I am neither a military expert nor a defence analyst. Therefore, my assessment could be wrong.

But I do feel strongly that this opinion which runs contrary to the current “gung – ho” school of thought must be expressed openly.

Why do I say the Tigers are down but not out?

Let me commence by referring to something I’ve said many times before about the Tigers.

Tripartite aspects

The LTTE is an organization with tripartite aspects or three dimensions.

Firstly it is like a conventional army or militia when it adopts positional warfare to acquire or retain territory.

Secondly it is like a guerrilla force when it conducts attacks and raids against legitimate military targets like the armed forces or police.

Thirdly it  is like a terrorist outfit when it indulges in terrorist  operations  where civilians are killed or democratic politicians  assassinated.

Fundamentally, the LTTE is a guerrilla organization fighting for the goal of national liberation but engages in terrorism at times.

The current phase of fighting in the north relates only to a singular facet of the LTTE.

The Tigers are engaging in positional warfare like a conventional army to defend territory under their control.

Whatever some pundits may say about “balance of power” and “strategic parity” the reality is that a  guerrilla organization cannot be a match for the armed forces of an accredited state , particularly  so in a situation where that state and its armed forces are motivated to a very high degree.

Full - fledged war

This is what is unfolding now. The Rajapaksa regime has mobilised maximum resources of the state and launched a  no - holds barred type of  full – fledged war against the LTTE.

In such a situation the LTTE is clearly at a disadvantage. Thus the question “Are the Tigers weak” is in a sense irrelevant.

The Tigers like any other guerrilla organization are certainly “weak” in positional warfare against the full might of a state.

Let us assume then that the tigers are dislodged from all their positions and deprived of all formal control of any tract of territory.

Let us say that residual elements of LTTE are “chased” away into the jungles or elsewhere.

End of one phase

This does not   automatically mean that the Tigers are finished or the war would be over. It would  only  mean,  end of one phase  and the beginning of  others.

Guerilla operations and terrorist type – attacks could proliferate.

In that context only a “hearts and minds” operation to win the Tamil people over can help the state  to withstand the fresh challenges.

In this , the Rajapaksa regime is ill - equipped.

The stupid manner in which it is alienating the Tamil and Muslim people of the Eastern Province  after “re- conquering” the “Kizhakku” demonstrates that this government could  commit blunders  in the North also.

Territorial control

This does not mean that winning in positional warfare and regaining territory is of no consequence at all.

It is rather significant because “territorial control” is the basis on which the LTTE has been promoting its  goal of “Tamil Eelam”.

By setting up administrative structures like Police, courts, banks, customs departments , inland revenue offices , immigration agencies etc the Tigers have claimed they were running a parallel state.

This in turn kept the “Eelam dream” flourishing as the given line was that gradually this  sphere of control would expand to encompass all of the North and East. Thereafter “Tamil Eelam” now a state – in – formation, would be a reality.

That myth or dream is now being demolished. The progressive march towards a separatist goal is thwarted.

Also loss of territory would seriously impair the planning and execution of certain types of LTTE operations.  It would not eliminate those totally but can certainly restrict them.

Given these realities the deprivation of territorial control would certainly be a major setback for the LTTE.

However, the Tigers though diminished would still remain a potent force with a reduced destructive capacity.This however is in a situation where the LTTE is defeated outright in positional warfare and deprived of territorial control.

Three defence rings

A moot point here is whether such a scenario would ever evolve as envisaged in the Colombo corridors of power.

In writing about the LTTE’s strategic approach towards the war, I have in the past referred to the three defence rings set up by the Tigers.

These appear in articles written for “Montage” monthly and “The Nation” weekly.

The LTTE set up three broad defensive rings around and within the areas controlled by it in the North.

The first was around all territory under Tiger control. The second was around territory to the east of the A – 9 highway or Jaffna – Kandy road. The third was around  strategically important areas in East Wanni , including access to beachfronts.

The prevalent situation today is one where the fighting around the first ring of defence is nearing its end. Almost all territory to the west of the A – 9 are in the hands of the security forces.

Only some pockets , South of Kilinochchi along with Kilinochchi and areas north of Kilinochchi and west of Paranthan are not taken yet.Also tiger territory within the Jaffna peninsula is not taken yet.

Fighting is also going on in and around the second defensive ring. Soldiers have advanced from the southern Weli – Oya/Manal Aaru region and reached the outskirts of areas like Nedunkerni . Troops have also moved eastwards from Mankulam up to Olumadhu and Ambakamam.

Whatever the intended time – frame, it does appear that fighting around the first defence ring is reaching its end and the fighting around the second ring is escalating.

At some point  of time there will be fighting around the third defence ring. This will be the hardest fight of all.

Strategic rear base

This strategic zone is of crucial importance to the LTTE. Important LTTE military installations and institutional assets are located within this zone. Besides, some access to the coast is necessary to procure supplies via sea.

More importantly the LTTE does need specific territory to be used as a “strategic rear base”. Thousands of LTTE personnel, close supporters and families need a safe haven.

A protected enclave is also needed to be used as a rear base to fall back on as well as to use as a  launching pad.

Therefore, the LTTE can be expected to fight fiercely to safeguard the strategic “space” required for a rear base.

The senior Tiger leaders are in no shape for a prolonged guerrilla struggle. The best bet therefore is to create a special “safety” zone and safeguard it.

The Tigers have been systematically herding the civilians into this strategic area. The civilians will be the ocean for the guerrilla fish to swim.

In another sense they would function like human shields. The Tigers may be banking on a potential international/Indian initiative that could ensure civilian safety which by extension could ensure Tiger security.

Defensive war

So far, the LTTE has been fighting a defensive war. The initiative is with the armed forces who pick the time and place of attack.

In a way traditional roles are reversed with the LTTE defending territory like a conventional army and the armed forces engaging in unconventional type of warfare like guerrillas to dislodge the Tigers.

There is a school of thought, which believes the LTTE would launch a counter strike soon.

On the other hand LTTE track record of recent setbacks coupled with intensive propaganda barrages  by Colombo have created an impression that the Tigers are a rapidly declining force and cannot withstand the army advances let alone launch a crippling, counterstrike.

This impression is seemingly correct at face value but needs a closer examination.

It is certainly correct that the LTTE has not been able to prevent army advances despite offering stiff resistance. It would however be a mistake to depict the Tigers as being “weak” on account of that alone.

What has to be noted is the resilience and tenacity of the Tigers in fighting against overwhelming odds against a superior foe. A lesser force may have crumbled quickly if placed in a similar situation.

Multiple fronts

The armed forces have opened up multiple fronts in diverse locations.  Battle manoeuvres are varied with offensives and pushes being launched on a regular, rotational basis.

There has been constant aerial bombardment and artillery shelling. When the LTTE air wing struck the sixth time, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa boasted  that Colombo had air bombed more than 6000 times.Despite this intense pressure on multiple fronts, the tigers have not wilted.

Hard as it may  be for defence circles to admit the bitter reality is that in spite of major advances there are  not  many  instances where the armed forces shattered tiger defences, broke through  and  overrun Tiger positions.

What has been happening is that the armed forces have gained territory mainly due to superior tactical manoeuvring.

Time and again the armed forces have found Tiger defences impregnable and got around them literally and metaphorically.

Manoeuvring warfare

Generally, it has been manoeuvring warfare where the forces have worked their way around Tiger positions , coming up behind and encircling them.

The Tigers were outfoxed in these flanking manoeuvres where the armed forces both “single – enveloped” and “double – enveloped” the enemy.

This naturally compelled  the Tigers to withdraw and later launch limited, counter- attacks. The armed forces to their credit held on to positions.

There have also been instances where the armed forces succeeded in breaching the  earth bunds erected by the LTTE.

Nevertheless it must be said that the  old fashioned “Trench – Bund”  defences of the LTTE possess   tremendous utility value.

In this scenario  the LTTE has been able to withdraw rather than  stay on and be destroyed. Thus very few military assets of the Tigers were demolished or seized by the armed forces.

Except for a negligible quantity the bulk of military assets were safely relocated by the LTTE.

Salient factors

There are  other salient factors to be noted.

Strenuous claims have been made that the LTTE has lost more than 9,000 in the fighting to date on the northern fronts. This however is not true. The Tigers may have lost half that number around 4- 4500.

Sadly, the bulk of those killed were those conscripted against their will and sent to the frontline as cannon fodder without adequate training.

The state’s propaganda machinery dscribes the corpses of these pathetic war victims as “terror  bodies” and gloats about the numbers killed.In actual terms these youngsters are not accredited by the LTTE as full – fledged LTTE cadres.

When injured they are handed over to families instead of being nursed at Tiger hospitals. When killed the bodies are disposed of unceremoniously or given to the families for last rites.

No LTTE funeral ceremony for these “children of a lesser God.” No permanent abode at Great Hero cemeteries.

It is estimated that roughly 3000 – 3500 of those “Tigers” killed in the fighting to date were these raw, recruits or conscripts.

What this means is that the bulk of those LTTE cadres killed were these “new” youths. The “old” experienced cadres have suffered comparatively less losses.

Finest and fittest

Therefore the LTTE continues to retain the majority of its trained and experienced  cadre base.

Interestingly very few of the LTTE’s specialised, elite formations like the different “special Force” units or the “Leopard” commando division have been killed or injured in past fighting.

This in turn means that Prabhakaran has held in reserve the greater or best part of his fighting formations. The “finest and fittest” are being preserved for use at a later stage.

As stated before setting up three rings of defence and deploying personnel and resources to safeguard those suggest that Prabhakaran has determined his defence priorities.

In that respect, the greatest importance is afforded not to territory on the whole but only to strategic areas. It is not quantitative but qualitative territory that counts most in Prabhakaran’s calculations.

In the final analysis the boundaries of a state (or state – in – formation) are those which can be maintained and defended absolutely.

Instead of trying to hold on to  lands  that are in terms of  ratio, disproportionately larger to  the number of  cadres available to help retain  it, Prabhakaran seems to have opted to define a viable, strategic area and defend it with an optimum force.

War of attrition

Another reason perhaps for Prabhakaran to keep the best of his lot in reserve may have something to do with the avowed war of attrition waged by the armed forces.

As  stated many times the objective of the armed forces in the earlier stages was not to capture real estate but draw out as many LTTE cadres as possible and kill them.  History is replete with instances of attrition warfare.

It appears that in his own cold – blooded way, Prabhakaran has avoided the attrition  trap by expending only a defined number of inexperienced in the early phases of fighting.

He has opted to forego territory rather than lose his elite fighters.

Final showdown

The stage then is being set for the inevitable finale or final showdown. The important question is how many cadres does the LTTE have?

Once again we would err grievously if we rely solely on figures furnished by those in high places about the depleted tiger cadres.

These assertions with several inconsistencies are presumably made for propagandistic purpose and should be taken with more than a pinch of salt.

According to informed Tamil sources the LTTE at the time of the ceasefire in February 2002 had  around 23, 000 full time cadres.

The Karuna revolt, the dropping out of cadres wanting to return to civilian life or go abroad in a post – ceasefire scenario etc brought down the numbers to about 12,000.

However factors such as recent massive conscription, the raising of a civilian militia, re- inducting “retired” cadres and freshly inducting civilian  tiger employees such as Police etc have increased the number of  “personnel” available for fighting to more than 50,000.

Of these about 25,- 30, 000 are fighting fit . This included about 12 – 15,000 well – trained experienced cadres.

Military resources

Another pertinent fact is that very little is known about other LTTE military resources.

Much of recent fund – raising was for the ostensible purpose of “modernising”. Very little intelligence is available of what exactly have been acquired.

No one knows for instance the number and types of aircraft in the LTTE Air wing. Therefore, the Tigers are capable of springing quite a few surprises in this respect.

Sustained supplies

Finally, there is the multi – crore question of sustained supplies. As far as the LTTE is concerned a very great deal depends on its ability to ensure a steady supply flow from abroad by sea.

The reported successes of the Navy in taking down many Tiger ships seemed to have disrupted that flow in the past. This in turn was reflected in the battlefront contributing to low – key Tiger resistance at times.

In recent times there seems to have been a marked improvement in procuring supplies. This in turn is reflected in the battlefield where Tigers are raining shells and firing off myriad rounds.

This means that either the tigers have streamlined their supply modes again or those agencies that were helping Sri Lanka to restrict Tiger supplies are letting the LTTE off the hook or a combination of both.

Apparently many nations that helped Sri Lanka fight “terrorism” are now concerned at the Rajapaksa regime and adopting a “watch and wait” attitude.

Critical phase

It is patently clear that the war is now entering a critical phase.

The armed forces have virtually demolished the primary defence ring and have penetrated through the secondary defence ring. They are now at the gates of the tertiary defence ring around the strategically important LTTE zone. The alarm bells are ringing!

Strategic transformation

In such a situation it would be foolish for the LTTE to keep on fighting in the defensive mode as it has done so far. The situation is ripe for a strategic transformation. Events  are moving rapidly. It would be a monumental blunder to underestimate the LTTE and its leader. The situation is such that the Tigers have to strike back soon or be confined to the dustbins of history.

Velupillai Prabhakaran is a master strategist and certainly understands that the war has to be taken to the enemy instead of waiting for the enemy to come to him.

The crouching Tiger will have to pounce.

It would be hard to predict the final outcome of such a confrontation. But what is predictably certain is the discovery that the Tigers though “down are not out.”

By D.B.S.Jeyaraj

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