Foreign Intervention, Part 1

by Neville Jayaweera; The Sunday Island, Colombo, February 15, 2004


The following 2 articles were printed in the February 15, 2004 and February 22, 2004 editions of The Sunday Island under the pseudonym ‘Nostradamus’ and are reprinted here at the request of some of our readers.

Foreign intervention and Sri Lanka’s changing fortunes
Part 1

Geo-politics of the Indian Ocean

With a growing insistence political commentators are asking why the USA and India have begun to take an extraordinary interest in Sri Lanka. In the case of India, this interest is partly understandable, even though after burning its fingers through its ill fated involvement in Sri Lanka during Rajiv Gandhi’s regime, it had distanced itself from the imbroglio. In the case of the US however, this eruption of interest is inexplicable.

For the past fifty years, while the ethnic conflict between the Sinhala and Tamil people raged at varying levels of intensity, not once had the USA evinced an interest in it, except to say that it was within India’s sphere of influence and that India should help sort it out. So then, why this sudden interest?

Measure of USA’s interest

The overriding factor shaping the foreign policies of all countries is their respective national interests, as perceived by them, rather than any disinterested desire on their part to benefit any other country. The US’s interest in Sri Lanka clearly illustrates this general rule.

After five decades of a total lack on interest in Sri Lanka, in 2003 the USA took the extraordinary and unprecedented step of convening in Washington a conference of some of the biggest international donors and persuaded them to pledge a huge sum as aid for the reconstruction of Sri Lanka. It then went on to co-sponsor another donor conference in Tokyo to get the donor countries to confirm their pledges. These pledges totalled a staggering $4.5 billion, slightly more than the total sum pledged for the reconstruction of Afghanistan. Not only that.

They took this exceptional initiative in contravention of a policy long established by the World Bank and all donor agencies, which is to relate the volume of aid to the capacity of the recipient country to utilise it. Over the past decade Sri Lanka’s aid utilisation is only 12% percent which by any criteria is abysmal and more than $ 2 billions in aid remain in the kitty unutilised. Which makes the intiative taken by the US to raise another $4.5 billion in aid totally perplexing if not quite irrational. What then is the hidden agenda?

Furthermore, contrary to long established conventions on protocol, and ignoring the strict requirement that a foreign envoy must at all times refrain from interfering in the internal affairs of the host country, US Ambassadors in Colombo have also issued dire warnings to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), one of the main parties involved in the ongoing conflict. Also, several high level officials from the State Department in Washington, a Deputy Secretary of Statae and an Asst Secretary of State have visited Colombo and entered into close consultations with the government. Not least, US navy and air force personnel have also been visiting Sri Lanka and have been looking closely at its naval and airfields infrastructures while the US army is also providing the Sri Lankan army with a whole range of training opportunities. International analysts are therefore bound to ask, what is it that instigates this sudden escalation of US interest in Sri Lanka? This article seeks to supply an answer.


This article postulates that three factors explain the US’s and India’s new interest in the Sri Lankan imbroglio. The first is the Bush doctrine of pre-emptive intervention, which is basically America’s assumed right to intervene in areas perceived by them to be likely springboards for attacking American interests. The second is the concrete need to protect the USA’s oil supply routes from the Middle East and third the unique strategic opportunities afforded by Sri Lanka for achieving both these goals in the Indian Ocean region.

Both for the US as well as for India, pre-emptive intervention in this instance means coping with Jihadism. Though no longer vulnerable to ICBMs and conventional military assaults from a visible enemy the USA remains exposed to onslaughts, no less devastating, from an invisible enemy who could lurk anywhere, could strike anytime, and yet remain untouched and invulnerable to the US’s military might. That enemy is Jihadism, of which the Al Qaeda is only one manifestation, though currently the most potent. The particular strength of this enemy is precisely that he is invisible and cannot be easily located.

Jihadism is a religious idea, and like all such ideas, has the capacity to mobilise and deploy volatile emotions on a massive scale. Currently, it is more potent than any religious idea that has hitherto animated the human mind, except for the diverse manifestations of Christian evangelism over the past 2000 years. Not merely the Arabic countries, but a whole swathe of countries, including Central Asia, Mongolia, China, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines as well, are festooned with Jihadist cells, ticking away like time bombs, their specific target being the destruction of the US and its allies. Jihadist weapons are varied, numerous, mostly impossible to detect and for that reason no less potent than the arsenal of nuclear weapons assembled by the former Soviet Union. They can be dealt with not by massive strikes but only through stealth and infiltration, which require a suitable platform or infrastructure close by.

A particular focus of Jihadism is the Indian Ocean, which is bounded on the East by what is virtually a Moslem rampart, made up of Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia and the southern Philippines and, on the west, by an equally formidable Moslem formation, comprised of Mozambique, Zanzibar, Somalia, Sudan, Egypt, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and all the other countries washed by the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea, including Pakistan, and not forgetting India which has over 250 million Moslems. In some of these countries, particularly in Saudi Arabia and within some of the Persian Gulf territories, and in Pakistan, the US is already under enormous pressure and their embassies and personnel live in constant fear of life and limb. In the other Indian Ocean Moslem states as well, powerful Jihadist cells are multiplying rapidly, fostered and trained mostly by Al Qaeda and the US knows that its presence in these countries will come increasingly under threat.

Three choke points

The threat is not only to US personnel but, more importantly, to its oil supply routes. There are three points along this Indian Ocean Moslem rampart from where oil supplies to the rest of the world can be choked off and their potential in this respect cannot be lost on the Jihadist planners. First, there is the Suez Canal, second the Straits of Hormuz and third the Malaccan Straits. More than 60% of oil supplies to the rest of the world must flow through these three outlets and if any power wants to bring the global economy to its knees the easiest way to do so is to strangle them. The hinterland on both sides of these three bottlenecks is Moslem and therefore springboards for the Jihadists.

It is not only the oil supplies from the traditional Middle East countries that are at stake here. One of the primary reasons for the USA’s intervention in Afghanistan was to secure a safe outlet for the pipeline it is constructing through that country for exploiting the enormous oil reserves around the southern Caspian Sea and that investment also requires that both the Straits of Hormuz and Suez be protected at whatever cost.

One of the primary targets of Jihadism must be the Suez Canal. Although the canal is under Egyptian control, given that within Egypt itself Jihadists are very active it is only a matter of time before they target the canal. The Suez is the artery though which the oil that the western world needs to sustain itself flows, but all it takes to choke it off for years, is a simple nuclear device, a ‘dirty bomb,’ in the hold of one of the hundreds of ships that ply it daily, detonated either by a time device or remotely. When, (not if) that happens the oil lifeline to the West will be severed, the entire global economy will go into a steep recession, and its effects will far exceed those wrought by the destruction of the Twin Towers. Likewise, if a couple of mammoth oil tankers are sunk at the entrance to the Straits of Hormuz the oil from the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea will also be choked of. Similarly, though not so effectively, the oil traffic through the Malaccan Straits to Japan can also be constricted.

A neutral base

For these reasons it is extremely important not only for the US and the West, but equally for Japan, to keep the Indian Ocean outlets secure and open. Therefore there is an urgent need to develop a neutral base within the Indian Ocean region, which is not vulnerable to Jihadism, and from where US interests in particular and the interests of the western world as a whole and of Japan as well, may be monitored and protected.

To make the looming threat even more frightful, it is also not unlikely that an extreme fundamentalist Moslem group ousts Musharraf and takes over the government of Pakistan. When that happens the Jihadists will for the first time have access to a considerable arsenal of nuclear weapons also. That will completely upset the strategic balance in the region, primarily for India, but for the West as well.

Furthermore, India has already had serious problems with Jihadism within its own territory, and shares the US’s concerns about its potential for regional and global instability. Therefore, in a complete volte face from its earlier attitude towards the US presence in the region, India would now like the US to show its presence within the region and provide it with a strong umbrella in the form of a rapid-response capability.

The US already has a military base at Diego Garcia in the southern Indian Ocean where some 900 US personnel are stationed to support the Fifth Fleet and a squadron of B52s which also use its airfield from time to time. Attacks on Afghanistan were carried out by planes and carriers based in Diego Garcia. However, the agreement that allows the US to use Diego Garcia runs out by 2017 and in any case the US would prefer to have a base closer to the likely areas of future action, which is the southern shores of the Asian sub-continent.

In any case the technology of Diego Garcia was adapted to deal with the realities of the cold War, the intrusion of Russia and China into the Indian Ocean and the domino effects of Communism on Indian Ocean countries. The technology used to bring down the Twin Towers proved that that the technologies of the Cold War are quite obsolete and that Diego Garcia is now a heap of useless iron mongery.

One would expect that several places along India’s long coastline would serve as a platform for the US ideally, but given that India has more than 250 million Moslems amongst whom there must be several Jihadist cells, that option also must be ruled out. Besides, a strong US military presence on Indian soil is bound to upset Pakistan. Therefore the US needs an internationally more neutral and a less vulnerable platform.

Some years ago the very thought of an American base in the Indian Ocean, too close to its own shores, would have set off alarm bells in New Delhi. In fact, when President J. R. Jayewardene tried to seduce the US to take over Trincomalee as an insurance against the rampaging LTTE, New Delhi made its displeasure known very explicitly. Times have changed since then. Now, India would earnestly seek an American presence close at hand to insure itself against the day that Pakistan is taken over by a Jihadist regime and to protect itself against Jihadism from within its own territory.

A Buddhist haven

Such a place, acceptable to both USA and India, is Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka’s usefulness to them is primarily that it is neutral territory, in fact a Buddhist haven, located in the middle of a Moslem lake, devoid of Jihadism and from where Moslem fundamentalism cannot endanger Western or Indian interests. Secondly, in Trincomalee, Sri Lanka boasts the world’s third largest natural harbour where the Fifth Fleet of the US navy can ride in safety. Additionally, and this is a secret hardly known except to British and American naval intelligence, within the harbour is a trench so deep that a nuclear sub may rest in safety there and, if it ever comes to that, place ICBMs simultaneously in Peking and in two dozen other cities within that radius. Trincomalee also has an enormous oil storage facility of over 100 tanks, constructed by the British for supplying oil to their East Indies Fleet and which can now be converted for supplying oil to the Fifth Fleet. It also has an airfield constructed by the British, which with some investments can be converted for use by B52s and F14s. All in all, Trincomalee can be an ideal substitute for Diego Garcia, and much closer to the choke points identified above and with the whole of the Sri Lankan hinterland as a suitable base for R&R.;

Sri Lanka has another strategic value for both the US and India. Within the next few decades, China will emerge as a formidable Asian superpower and will have to be contained. Its demand for oil has already exceeded its local supplies and for the first time, China has in recent years started importing oil from the Middle East. There is concern in Washington as well as in New Delhi that China may begin to covet the oil resources of Myanmar, as well as the resources of Indonesia, in much the same way as Japan sought them in the 1940s and fought a war to obtain them. China already has a considerable blue seas fleet which will expand in numbers and strength as the years pass and which it will use to push its interests in the region.

For these reasons, i.e. for pre-empting Jihadism along the Indian ocean rim, for keeping open the oil supply routes from the Middle East through Suez and Hormuz and for containing Chinese expansion into the Indian Ocean, both the US, Japan and India find that Sri Lanka is of paramount strategic value for them.

However, they have a major problem, for all is not well with Sri Lanka. Before it can be converted into a suitable platform, its internal ethnic conflict between the Sinhala and the Tamils must be tidied up. Therefore, the first interest of the US and India in Sri Lanka is somehow speedily to resolve or pacify this conflict.

Let us now look at how the US/Indian caucus is likely to tidy up Sri Lanka’s internal mess.

Part 2

Originally published April 18, 2004

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