As expected Task Force-I of the Sri Lanka security forces captured Pooneryn on November 15 freeing A32 highway from the control of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). But the security forces used the continued spell of fine weather and the newly raised Task Force-3 to capture of Mankulam, a key junction on the A9 Kandy-Jaffna lifeline on November 17. On the eastern seaboard of Mullaitivu district, 59 Division captured Mulliyavalai village, 10 km from Mullaitivu, the key coastal town of the area.
These developments in three different axes substantively increase the strategic options available to the security forces. All of them will also add to the pressure on the LTTE already beleaguered in its last footholds in Kilinochchi-Elephant Pass on the arterial road of A9. Once, A9 road is opened up under the security forces control, the hold of the LTTE on the jugular of Jaffna’s normal life will be lost. As a corollary it will also lose its relevance to the peninsular population.
The opening of the A32 Mannar-Pooneryn route will substantively reduce the logistic burden on the security forces, easing pressure on their limited airlift capability. Task Force-I can provide flank support to 57 Divison’s thrust on Kilinochchi from the southwest. Its artillery and possibly machine guns can also interdict the escape routes of LTTE cadres through the lagoon waters when 53 Division strikes along the northern axis of Muhamalai-Elephant Pass.
The capture Mankulam provides two options for the Task Force-III to progress operations along A9 axis in support of 53 Division offensive from the north, and or support from Mankulam side the 57 Division offensive on Kilionchchi-Elephant Pass from southwest. But the more likely course of the Task Force-III will be to develop a threat to the heartland of the LTTE from Mankulam to the east along road Mankulam-Oddusuddan-Mullaitivu. This would prevent any LTTE counter stroke developing on the Kilinochchi offensive, and also tie down the LTTE when 59 Division launches offensive from area Mulliyavalai where a number of roads converge increasing offensive options.
Thus with some quick successes the security forces have built up a five division strong threat against the LTTE with adequate reserves to hold the ground freed from the control of the insurgents.
In my analysis on the failure of the security forces’ half-hearted divisional offensive along axis Muhamalai-Elephant Pass in April 2008 , I had said
“The strong defences of LTTE in Muhamalai axis to Kilinochchi show that it is not going to allow easy passage through. Strategically, the security forces will have to probably consider coordinating the Jaffna offensive along A9 with offensive along A32-Pooneryn to enhance the threat to Kilinochichi and weaken the LTTE defences. Whether the security forces have the wherewithal to carry out such a complex operation is the question only the Army commander can answer best.”
The security forces appear to have done just that after seven months, during which three divisions have been inducted into battle to increase the force level and thrust lines. And now the security forces goal would be not merely to capture Paranthan and Kilinochchi on A9 highway but to launch multiple offensives on the Muhamalai-Elephant Pass-Kilinochchi complex to restore normal life in Northern Province. And when that materializes, President Rajapaksa may give form to media speculations of a general election.
LTTE’s limited options
As the LTTE had been fighting mainly delaying actions the security forces casualties in the operation would be maximized if only the LTTE decides on a do-or-die stand at Kilinochchi. In the past, the LTTE tactics had always been to pull back after fighting delaying actions and build up a strong counterstroke. This had kindled widespread expectations of such a LTTE strike which is yet to come.
While this had succeeded in the earlier war, this time around the security forces appear to be ready to prevent a replay of the same script. There are three reasons for this: the security forces are not carrying through the offensive with the same troops holding static positions; they have multiple axes as well as substantive strength to deflate a counter stroke and lastly, the offensive capability of the Sea Tigers who provided vital support has been substantively eliminated on both the western and eastern coasts. (In fact, the security forces have neutralized repeated efforts of the Sea Tigers to take any initiative in the sea along the eastern coast north of Mullaitivu from Champianpattu to Nayaru where the LTTE still has some freedom to operate.)
With A32 road in the hands of security forces and with 59 Division along the east coast (and probably 55 Division too from Nagarkovil southwards) and the navy denying the LTTE access to sea routes of overseas supply to sustain the war, the LTTE’s options appear very limited. Strategically the LTTE would probably be better off to consolidate its armed strength after fighting a delaying action than defend Kilinochchi strongly and further deplete its dwindling strength. But that would be a decision based on military logic and reasoning rather than on the convoluted logic of an insurgent force operating on a different plane. So strictly speaking it is difficult to read Prabhakaran’s mind. It would be overambitious to expect him to again pull a rabbit out of the hat with a masterful counter stroke at this belated stage as some of his overseas supporters expect him to do.
Political implications of military success
Undoubtedly, military successes one after the other have strengthened the hands of President Rajapaksa and the hawks in Sri Lanka politics. Thus even the consideration of any peace move would be shelved till military success is taken to its logical conclusion of making the LTTE irrelevant. This has been amply made clear by the President in his statements on a number of occasions. The military successes have also strengthened President’s resolve to pursue the war. They have also exposed the limitations of India’s ability to influence the course of events.
The delicate pulls and pressures of coalition politics on the central government and the Tamil Nadu government so close to the parliamentary elections have prevented the emergence of any substantive Indian political initiative on Sri Lanka. In Tamil Nadu there is widespread dismay at the plight of lakhs of Tamils deprived of their homes, livelihood, and shelter caught in the wilderness of battle zones. It is easy to dismiss the snowballing public protests and hunger strikes organized in Tamil Nadu asking for a ceasefire in Sri Lanka as part of Prabhakaran’s strategy or as political gimmick of local parties. However that would be ignoring the mindset of large sections of people in the state who abhor his style of mindless killings while feeling genuinely distressed over the plight of internally displaced Tamils in Sri Lanka.
The Tamil and Sinhala polity in Sri Lanka have not been able to work out a political strategy for evolving a win-win formula either among themselves or collectively to foster a feeling of security and trust among Tamil population. Some sections of them, particularly Tamil leaders, expect India and everyone other than themselves to undertake this delicate task. No external force including India on their own can generate security and trust among the population.
Ultimately Sri Lanka has to come to terms with the issues and evolve a process by which a suitable environment for lasting peace is created and this will not be helped by military victories alone. Till then the military options avidly pursued by both sides for achieving short term ends will dominate the national scene And even if the Fourth Eelam War is won by the Sri Lankan government, ultimately the loser would be the nation as a section of the people would not to trust their rulers or feel secure under them. And that might sow the seeds of the next round of war.
(Hariharan’s Intelligence blog)