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20/08/2007 | Sri Lanka - Attrition in the North

Ajai Sahni

With the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelamís (LTTE) eviction from Batticaloa after a succession of reverses , and their eventual collapse at Thoppigala on July 11, 2007, the expulsion of the rebels from their strongholds in the Eastern Province was complete. Well before these successes, outlining the Sri Lanka Armyís (SLA) strategy, on January 4, 2007, the Army Commander, Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka, had declared, "After eradicating the Tigers from the East, full strength would be used to rescue the North."


This broad perspective has been powerfully underlined by the political executive and, on July 9, 2007, President Mahinda Rajapakse vowed to ‘wipe out’ the LTTE from the Northern Province, declaring that blunting the rebels’ military prowess was the only way to achieve permanent peace in the country. The President’s assertions have found strong support among his political allies and constituencies, located principally within the Sinhala Right.

With a tremendous surge in confidence in the Sri Lanka Army (SLA), and a continuous escalation of political rhetoric at the highest level, a Northern offensive appears increasingly likely. Indeed, firefights along the currently held Forward Defence Line (FDL), both in the Jaffna Peninsula, north of the Elephant Pass, and along the mainland, north of Vavuniya, are now daily occurrences, and SLA sources indicate that ‘long range operations’ deep into LTTE territory have also been initiated in a campaign of attrition intended to weaken the rebels in their final bastion. These operations have created some difficulties for rebel movement along roads in LTTE controlled areas.

Nevertheless, a high measure of caution – contrasting significantly with the character of the public postures and rhetoric – characterises the present military perspectives on the issue. While it has long been believed that the LTTE’s prowess has been exaggerated, and has suffered substantial diminution over the past years as a result, first, of the ‘Colonel’ Karuna rebellion in the East, and thereafter under the ravages of the Tsunami, there is general agreement that the group’s residual capacities are not insignificant. The area remaining under LTTE control is roughly 7,500 square kilometres, and the topography and terrain of the North, with dense tropical jungles across vast stretches, favours guerrilla forces. Further, some of the principal LTTE citadels are located in densely populated civilian areas – including the ‘political headquarters’ at Killinochchi, and a frontal assault would be exceptionally bloody. Historically, the LTTE has tended to position its defences, including its artillery, in civilian concentrations, to raise the risk of collateral damage in the event of an attack. Indeed, Killinochchi has never been subjected to any kind of military pressure – including the possibility of aerial attack – because of the concentration of political offices, hospitals and civilian areas in the city, and deliberate policy of locating military assets in close proximity of civilian concentration. Further, the Northern Province has undergone repeated processes of ethnic cleansing, and is now exclusively Tamil – and principally ‘Sri Lanka Tamil’, the primary ethnic support base of the LTTE, with only small numbers of ‘plantation Tamils’ (later immigrants from India, principally indentured labour brought in by the Colonialists), who are generally looked down upon by the LTTE leadership. This creates limited avenues for intelligence flows to the SLA and will act as a significant constraint to operational effectiveness of the Government Forces.

The SLA also remains aware of the risks of a rearguard campaign of terrorism, hit and run attacks, and frustrating harassment in the East. While most surviving LTTE cadres have filtered out of the province, seeping gradually towards the North, with the Tigers making desperate efforts to extract isolated fragments of their Forces stranded in the region, the potential for a rash of guerrilla and terrorist attacks remains. The LTTE leadership has, in fact, explicitly warned of guerrilla action in the East, and consolidating Government presence in the province will remain a significant challenge over the foreseeable future, increasing demands for military manpower, and diminishing the probabilities of a major Northern offensive. The Government has, in fact, announced a 180-day ‘Accelerated Eastern Development Programme’ named ‘Reawakening of the East", which is intended to consolidate its position in the province, and to facilitate the progressive stabilization of the area and its handing over to the Police and Civil administration, thereafter freeing the bulk of its military Forces for operations in the North.

The surviving capacities of the LTTE, now progressively concentrated in the North, remain substantial and are being urgently renewed, both in terms of manpower and weaponry. While hard estimates of capacities are nigh impossible to secure when dealing with a secretive rebel group, crude indicators do help draw up a tentative profile of capacities. According to Government sources, some 3,087 LTTE cadres have been killed in action since December 2005 (when hostilities resumed, and till August 2, 2007), with another 1,589 wounded in action. Despite these losses, LTTE is currently thought to have roughly seven thousand soldiers, including a significant proportion of child recruits. Moreover, there are roughly 600,000 civilians in the LTTE controlled areas, and the LTTE enforces a norm of one person per family to be recruited into its army. Further, all civilians of ‘fighting age’ (including a significant proportion of children, principally in the 14-16 years age group, but sometimes younger) are required to undergo two hours of military training every day. While much of this mobilisation is coercive, the LTTE would clearly be able to muster a very substantial force in any eventual frontal conflict with the SLA.

Weapons used by the LTTE in recent battles, as well as numerous seizures by the Government also suggest a considerable and varied arsenal, including artillery weapons, a limited supply of Surface to Air Missiles (SAMs) mortars, RPGs, machine guns, mines, very large quantities of explosives (more than 5,375 kilograms have been seized by the Government between December 1, 2005 and August 2, 2007), and huge reserves of small arms. A significant proportion of assets have, of course, been exhausted in the Eastern battles, and numerous caches have had to be abandoned in the province. These will be difficult to relocate to the North, under prevailing circumstances.

Replenishment of weaponry is, however, continuous (and necessarily so, as long-term maintenance of stockpiles is difficult, given weather conditions in the Island). The ‘Sea Tigers’ are charged with the task of transport of weapons, according to Sri Lanka Navy (SLN) sources, from Cambodia and Indonesia. The Sea Tigers have an estimated 450 senior cadres (in operation before the Cease Fire Agreement), and another 250 to 300 cadres recruited thereafter. The current fleet comprises no less than 60 improvised high speed fighting craft (each fitted with four 225 HP outboard motors brought in from Australia), capable of attaining speeds of up to 38-40 knots and at least another 15 ‘logistics boats’ for transport. Despite a number of devastating ‘wolf-pack attacks’ with up to 20 speed boats – including three to four suicide boats packed with explosives – attacking SLN vessels in the past, the SLN has been successful in interdicting Sea Tiger movements along the Eastern Coast. Weapon consignments are now transferred to civilian vessels – including commandeered Indian boats – outside Sri Lankan waters, to the South of the country, and are then transported all along the West to the North, entering Sri Lankan waters from the Indian side at Rameshwaram, under the cover of an estimated 300-400 Indian fishing boats that cross over into Sri Lankan waters every day. Interdiction in this case has been difficult, and has also resulted in some friction between Sri Lanka and India, as Indian fishing boats have been targeted.

Militarily, of course, Sea Tiger capabilities are insignificant. They are, of course, capable of inflicting a huge disruption of civil and military (including food) supplies to Government held Jaffna, which relies entirely on sea and air transports from Trincomalee, Muhamallai and India for all its needs, and are necessary to secure military supplies and the limited movement of cadres and resources for the LTTE. However, as one senior SLN officer expressed it, "Boat to boat, they have nothing compared to what we have. If push comes to shove, the Navy will take over. In an all out situation, we will win."

The ‘all out situation’ is what the LTTE is now desperate to prevent. This is the first time in nearly two decades that the initiative appears to have slipped entirely out of its hands, and where it has been forced into an entirely defensive position. The LTTE has, consequently, launched a strident campaign emphasising alleged ‘human rights violations’ by Government Forces, as well as a campaign for the creation of political conditions for the resumption of negotiations – including the ouster of the present hardline regime, and the restoration of a Government led by Ranil Wickremasinghe, whose commitment to the peace process and a negotiated settlement is known to be complete. There have been concentrated efforts by a range of front organisations abroad to mobilise the international community to these ends, and at least some international organisations have become willing dupes to this effort, with at least one issuing an ill-conceived and altogether insupportable call for international intervention on ‘Right to Protect’ (R2P) grounds which apply essentially to victim populations in genocidal situations in failed or failing states – circumstances that manifestly do not prevail in Sri Lanka.

In Colombo, however, opinion is progressively hardening in favour of continued military operations, even among advocates of a negotiate solution, who feel that pressure must be exerted on the LTTE if it is to be brought to the negotiating table in a measure of greater good faith than was the case in the past. The Rajapakse regime, on the other hand, believes that military pressure, combined with the evolution of ideas that could help arrive at a manifestly equitable political solution, are the necessary prongs of present strategy. The ‘Accelerated Eastern Development Programme’ is one step in this direction, and its successes are expected to impact on populations in the North as well, opening up spaces between the LTTE and the Tamil population. At the same time, the 215,000-strong Sri Lanka Armed Forces are expected to ‘open up’ military spaces in the North, as LTTE capacities are systematically targeted and eroded. [This perspective is, however, diluted by rising concerns about the capacity of the economy to bear the costs of the war over an extended period of time]. With the unequal military balance between the conflicting forces, and LTTE’s limited capacities for positional warfare, the LTTE can be expected to escalate terrorist attacks across the country as pressure mounts in the North.

Clearly, no tidy ‘surgical’ solution – negotiated or military – is possible in Sri Lanka within the present framework. A process of stabilization in the East, and of attrition in the North, has been initiated by Colombo. To the extent that its objectives are sufficiently met, a broader military offensive in the North will become inevitable.

South Asia Intelligence Review (India)


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