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Have we crossed a watershed? Reflections on the transformation of the LTTE’s military organisation

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Have we crossed a watershed? Reflections on the transformation of the LTTE’s military organisation
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The Sri Lanka Armed Forces (hereafter SLAF, not to be confused with the air-force alone) may, after Pooneryn and Mankulam, take Kilinochchi and push onwards to Mullaitivu, but the slow progress in the last three months – the army has been within "2km of Kilinochchi" and its fall imminent for eight weeks (!) – and the gridlock on all other fronts except north of Mannar must give us pause. The interesting question is how shall we characterise the LTTE’s military organisation? Shall we no longer depict it as a guerrilla force and shall we describe it hereafter as a full-complement armed force? If so what are the implications?

Armed forces

There is a lot of stuff in cyberspace and recently I found something that helped consolidate thoughts I was groping towards. Allow me to quote.

"The LTTE is an all-arms combat outfit; it has artillery, ships and aircraft. But more important it is able to stand up to and fight a well equipped army of 150,000 along a 150km front; which at the time of writing it has held, albeit with some retreat, over a period of two years. Thus the LTTE, as we should understand it and view it, is a cohesive comprehensive military force, with specialised arms and its own command and control network which is able to plan and prosecute a conventional war on a multitude of fronts in a rational considered manner".

"The LTTE began by robbing banks and raiding police stations, like other Tamil armed groups. Then it moved to unconventional or guerrilla warfare. Given the military superiority of its opponent it used small groups, stealth and surprise to attack isolated and vulnerable military camps; asymmetrical warfare in other words. Although it is still not generally accepted, the army’s failure to take Killinochchi will gradually change the perception of the LTTE as a guerrilla force. It is doing what a conventional army does and doing it effectively. Killinochchi may or may not fall, but that is immaterial; over the last three decades, the LTTE has evolved from a guerrilla force to what a rational observer will see as no different from an all round armed force".

I am inclined to agree with this argument as far as it goes, but to my mind there are political and a technological implications that go beyond the purely military. First, it is behaving like the armed forces of a proto-state defending the borders of a proto-nation, reminiscent of the proto-state entities into which Yugoslavia initially disintegrated, or the organised forces that prepared the way for the two breakaway regions of Georgia. If the SLAF defeats the LTTE in some battles, it does not mean very much, the future simply portends battles in other locations. Those who envisaged the LTTE quickly reverting to guerrilla tactics (the army commander is a recent convert to this view) have been too hasty in their prognosis. Yes, this is a possibility, but still some way off. Instead, Sinhala polity, in refusing to solve the national question for 60 years, has created its own nemesis, a formal army in a neighbourhood proto-state.

Second, the LTTE is building a human resources capital base, or technology, just as conventional armed forces and nation states do. Some observers speculate that LTTE pilots acquired night-vision capability before the Sri Lanka Air Force did, and others think the future acquisition of missiles to challenge jet aircraft cannot be discounted. Readers may laud or decry the LTTE’s military evolution - that is a separate matter – my point is that the changes that have taken place are transformative.

Victory and defeat

Schematically there are three possible short-term scenarios, battlefield victories for one or the other side, or a prolonged seesaw stalemate. In reality, however, all three options reduce to one; stalemate. The paragraphs above have emphasised that even if the SLAF takes Kilinochchi and progress beyond nothing fundamental will change well into next year; positional warfare will continue, at best large planned engagements will change to unconventional combat of high intensity attrition. If on the other hand the LTTE turns the tables, as at the end of Jayasikurui, and inflicts a defeat forcing the SLAF to withdraw, this too will be but a temporary remission. The LTTE can never storm Colombo and capture such vital localities as Cinnamon Gardens and the Colombo Golf Club! Seriously though, given the Sinhala to Tamil demographic ratio, a complete, comprehensive and across-the-board LTTE victory is pure fantasy; and Thamil Eelam an infeasible dream because of Indian and international opposition.

The Achilles’ heel of a conventional army is the need for a good supply chain for armaments, fuel and funds and the importance of an international diplomatic and political support network. This is more important in the long run than losing ground as it now is. The LTTE has, over the years, squandered its international support in India and the West and is making strenuous efforts to repair the mistakes. The longer it sustains a credible ground war at home, and the more the government’s political folly (non-devolution) or military errors (pushing the military into unproductive actions to fit political or electoral timetables), the more time the LTTE buys to influence international opinion but I am in no position to judge how much longer the LTTE can sustain large scale conventional warfare against the SLAF.


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