Sri Lanka’s military spent years in the 1980s and 1990s being trained by the world’s elite special forces in counterinsurgency tactics. Now it is being asked to return the favour after employing new, if brutal, strategies to defeat Tamil guerrillas in May.
“Sri Lanka has become a textbook case for defence academies and military colleges all over the world following the defeat of the rebels,” said Iqbal Athas, an award-winning defence columnist for Sri Lanka’s independent Sunday Times newspaper, in an interview. “They would like Sri Lanka to share its experience, knowledge and skills in defeating the rebels.”
The army’s commander, Lt General Jagath Jayasuriya, during a ceremony at the armoured corps regiment a week ago in Colombo, told journalists there is increasing interest from foreign countries for their forces to be trained by Sri Lankan officers, particularly on small-team operations, which were central to defeating the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). “We received a request from Pakistan to train their officers on our small-team operations, so we have decided to open several new training schools in Mullaitivu, Kilinochchi and Vavuniya [all in the north] to train local and foreign military officers,” the army chief was quoted as saying, in newspapers.
According to Gen Sarath Fonseka, who was the army commander during the past 34-month battle against the rebels, and is now the chief of defence staff, unconventional war strategies were the difference between this campaign’s success and the failures of the past.
Speaking at a conference at the University of Jayawadenepura in Colombo last week, Gen Fonseka said the army’s changing battlefield formations, command systems and new weapons caught the LTTE totally off guard.
“The army began fighting like guerrillas while the terrorists reacted like a conventional army with conventional weapons. The army’s strategy this time was to go for the kill instead of holding on to the land. The terrorists were put off balance.”
Describing the harsh battle conditions faced by troops – fighting 24 hours a day in bad weather, sometimes submerged up to their necks in water – Gen Fonseka said Eelam War Phase IV, the fourth military campaign against the rebels since 1983, saw 5,000 soldiers die and another 27,000 injured. At least 22,000 rebels were killed in the final battle, according to government figures.
“In terms of their experience, the special forces, commandos and the special infantry operations trained units [of the Sri Lankan military] that participated in the final phase [of the battle] are considered the best of the best,” said Dr Rohan Gunaratne, the head of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, and also a professor at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanayang Technological University in Singapore.
He said security and intelligence services worldwide regarded the LTTE as one of the most ruthless terrorist groups and the most effective insurgent movement in the world.
Before the war began in the early 1980s, the Sri Lankan military was largely a ceremonial force of a few thousand. Now it includes more than 200,000 soldiers. The security forces were slow to transform when terrorism first became a threat, and, according to Dr Gunaratne, the military learnt through trial and error in the first two decades. “After suffering huge and sustained losses, the Sri Lankan military gained invaluable experience and expertise. Almost every army general serving today had fought as a young officer.”
The defence columnist Mr Athas said “going for the kill” rather than land acquisition – the tactic used in the past against the rebels – was the key to the army’s victory. “Earlier, the problem was that the military was intent on reclaiming land and holding on to it, which was not a good policy. There was also no co-ordination between the military and the political establishment.
“This time the target was the LTTE, not land acquisition. The political and military establishment also acted in concert. Whatever the military wanted in strength [soldiers], they got, or if weapons were needed, they were given.”
Over the years, the battle between government forces and the rebels had focused on gaining land and territorial advantage – with success by both sides.
Dr Gunaratne said Sri Lanka has had access to the training provided by the best security and intelligence services, including the British, US and Israeli special forces. He said Zimbabwean pilots trained Sri Lankan pilots contour flying (low level flying), and the Pakistani Special Services Group trained the Sri Lankan troops in the 1980s.
Dr Gunaratne agreed with Mr Athas in that strong political will was crucial to the winning strategy. In the past, the Sri Lankan security forces had no co-ordinated national plan.
“With the appointment of Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, a highly determined and committed professional fighter as secretary defence, dismantling the LTTE became the top national security priority of Sri Lanka,” Dr Gunaratne said.
Mr Rajapaksa, a brother of Mahinda Rajapaksa, the president, co-ordinated the armed forces, the police, the civilian defence, the intelligence community and the other branches of government essential to dismantling the LTTE, Dr Gunaratne said.
While the military victory remains unquestioned, it remains to be seen whether Mr Rajapaksa’s government can win the peace.
Jehan Perera, a political columnist for the Island newspaper, an independent English-language daily, said that while the war has ended, the search for a solution to resolve the root cause of the conflict is a long way ahead. “The military win and the unwillingness of nationalist forces in the majority Sinhalese community to provide concessions to minority Tamils makes a long-term solution much harder.”
(The National Newspaper)