by VK Sashikumar, Indian Defence Review – July – Sept 2009 – Vol 24(3)
Lessons from Sri Lanka’s War – Indian Defence Review 2014 version, PDF
“The news about the killing of Prabhakaran sparked mass celebrations around the country, and people poured into the streets of Colombo, dancing and singing. Looking back at the war General Fonseka made two insightful observations that must surely resonate in the minds of military strategists dealing with terrorism and insurgency in other parts of the world. The first is on the commitment of the political leadership to eliminate terror.
Eelam IV war began as a poll-promise. President Mahinda Rajapaksa rode to power four years ago vowing to annihilate the LTTE. In the early hours of Tuesday the fight for Eelam, a separate homeland for the Tamils in Sri Lanka, begun in 1983 ended in a lagoon, the Nanthi Kadal. Velupillai Prabhakaran’s dead body, eyes wide open, top portion of the head blown off, the thick bushy moustache in place, was found in the lagoon by the Sri Lankan forces looking for remnant LTTE stragglers.
In the President’s Office in Colombo officials talk about the ‘Rajapaksa Model’ (of fighting terror). “Broadly, win back the LTTE held areas, eliminate the top LTTE leadership and give the Tamils a political solution.” Sunimal Fernando, one of Rajapaksa’s advisors, says that the President demonstrated a basic resolve: “given the political will, the military can crush terrorism.” This is not as simple as it sounds. Like most poll promises he did not have plans to fulfill his promise to militarily defeat the LTTE. Eelam I to III were miserable failures. So the ‘Rajapaksa Model’ evolved, it was not pre-planned.
FIRST FUNDAMENTAL: POLITICAL WILL
The first fundamental of this approach was unwavering political will. Rajapaksa clearly conveyed to General Sarath Fonseka: “eliminate the LTTE.” To the outside world he conveyed the same message differently: “either the LTTE surrenders or face, their end.” Rajapaksa instructed the Sri Lankan Army that their job was to fight and win the war. At whatever cost, however bloody it might be. He would take care of political pressures, domestic and international.
General Fonseka commented: “It is the political leadership with the commitment of the military that led the battle to success. We have the best political leadership to destroy terrorism in this country. It was never there before to this extent. The military achieved these war victories after President Mahinda Rajapaksa came into power. He, who believed that terrorism should and could be eliminated, gave priority do go ahead with our military strategies. And no Defence Secretary was there like the present Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa who had the same commitment and knowledge on how to crush the LTTE. Finally, they gave me the chance of going ahead with the military plan.”
SECOND FUNDAMENTAL: GO TO HELL
Following from the first, the second principle of Rajapaksa’s ‘how to fight a war and win it’ is telling the international community to “go to hell.” As the British and French foreign ministers, David Miliband and Bernard Kouchner, found out during their visit. They were cold shouldered for suggesting that Sri Lanka should halt the war and negotiate with the LTTE. As Rajapaksa said during the post-interview chatter “we will finish off the LTTE, we will finish terrorism and not allow it to regroup in this country ever; every ceasefire has been used by the LTTE to consolidate, regroup and re-launch attacks, so no negotiations.” Eliminate and Annihilate – two key operational words that went with the “go to hell” principle of the ‘Rajapaksa Model’. After Colombo declared victory the Sri Lankan Army Commander Lt Gen Sarath Fonseka used words used by Rajapaksa. That the SLA will not allow the LTTE to “regroup”.
THIRD FUNDAMENTAL: NO NEGOTIATIONS
Naturally, the third fundamental was no negotiations with the LTTE. “The firm decision of the political hierarchy not to go for talks with the LTTE terrorists until they lay down arms had contributed significantly to all these war victories,” affirms Fonseka. But this meant withstanding international pressure to halt the war, the humanitarian crisis spawned by the war and the rising civilian casualties. Rajapaksa did all of this by simply ensuring ‘silence’ and information blackout under which the war was conducted. Rajapaksa’s biggest gamble was to give the military a free hand, shut the world out of the war zone.
When the United Nations, US and European countries raised concerns of high civilian casualties, Rajapaksa, said that the international community was “getting in the way” of Sri Lanka’s victory against terrorism. “We knew that the moment the military is close to operational successes, there will be loud screams for the resumption of the political process of peace negotiations. But there will be no negotiations.” That was the rock solid stand taken and communicated by Sri Lanka’s Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa to all visiting dignitaries and diplomats.
FOURTH FUNDAMENTAL: REGULATE MEDIA
With just one version of the war available for the media to report, the Sri Lankan government ensured an unidirectional flow of conflict information. The information put out by the LTTE’s official website, TamilNet, could not be independently verified on the ground because access to the war zone was regulated and controlled. This was a vital fourth principle in the strategic matrix of the Rajapaksa model.
“Presidents Premadasa and Chandrika Bandaranaike gave orders to the military to take on the LTTE. But when success was near, they reversed the orders and instructed the military to pull back, to withdraw from operations because of international concerns about the humanitarian crisis and civilian casualties. So we had to ensure that we regulated the media. We didn’t want the international community to force peace negotiations on us,” says a senior official in the President’s office who wishes to remain anonymous.
FIFTH FUNDAMENTAL: NO CEASE-FIRE
Rajapaksa’s brother, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who consistently maintained that military operations would continue unhindered. “There will be no ceasefire,” was Gotabaya uncompromising message. The clear, unambiguous stand enabled other prominent personalities in the Rajapaksa cabinet to speak in a uniform voice. “Human rights violations during war operations and the humanitarian crisis that engulfs civilians caught in the cross fire have always been the trigger points to order a military pull-back,” asserted Mahinda Samarasinghe, Minister for Human Rights and Disaster Management. “The LTTE would always play this card in the past. They would use the ceasefire to regroup and resume the war.”
President Rajapaksa was clear that he did not want to go down that route. That was the traditional way of fighting the LTTE – two steps forward, four steps back. The Rajapaksa brothers’ commitment to a military solution was cast in stone. And it was anchored in a deft political arrangement. But first it is important to reveal the idea behind the political arrangement. “It was to ensure that there would be no political intervention to pull away the military from its task of comprehensively and completely eliminating the LTTE,” says a senior official in the President’s Office. “Prabhakaran was aware of the political contradictions in Sri Lanka and so was confident that the SLA will not indulge in an adventurous, all guns blazing, a full onslaught against the LTTE.”
SIXTH FUNDAMENTAL: COMPLETE OPERATIONAL FREEDOM
Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s appointment to the post of Defence Secretary was made precisely to break this political logjam. Gotabaya had a military past. He had taken voluntary retirement from the SLA. He had retained his long standing friendship with Lt General Sarath Fonseka. Gotabaya met Fonseka and asked him, “can you go for a win”? The battle-hardened veteran said “yes, but you will have to permit me to pick my own team.” Gotabaya and Mahinda agreed. “We will let the military do its job, while we hold the fort, politically,” they told Fonseka. This deft political arrangement worked because both, Gotabaya and Fonseka, were recruited and commissioned into the army at the same time.
This is the team Fonseka handpicked by August 2006 – Major General Jagath Dias, commander of the 57 Division, Brigadier Shavendra Silva, commander of Task force One also the 58 Division (the SLA formation that has recorded the maximum victories against the LTTE), Major General Nandana Udawatta, commander of the 59 Division and Major General Kamal Gunarathne and Brigadier Prasanna Silva, commanders of the 53 and 55 Divisions respectively. Their task was to recapture 15,000 square kilometers of area controlled by the LTTE. The defection of LTTE’s Eastern chief, Karuna, helped the Army take over Batticaloa, Tamil Tigers’ eastern stronghold on July 11, 2007.
By the time of LTTE’s defeat in the East, the 57 Division under the command of Major General Jagath Dias started military operations north of Vavuniya. Eighteen months later, in January 2009, the 57 Division marched into Kilinochchi, the head quarters of the Tamil Tigers. Parallel to this the Task Force One (58 Division) under Brigadier Shavendra Silva achieved stunning success moving from Silavathura area in Mannar in the west coast, capturing Pooneryn and Paranthan. These troops then swiftly recaptured Elephant Pass, linked up with the 57 Division and further moved to Sundarapuram, Pudukudiyiruppu and finally the eastern coast of the country. Meanwhile, the 59th division of the Army, commanded by Major General Nandana Udawatta opened a new front in Welioya area in January 2008 and within a year marched into the LTTE’s administrative hub, Mullaitivu. Finally, troops from 53rd, 55th, 58th and 59th bottled up the LTTE in along a small patch of eastern coastal land in Mullaitivu and killed the top leadership, including Prabhakaran.
The decision to bring Fonseka out of retirement paid off because he was a hardcore advocate of military operations to crush the LTTE. With rock solid political backing Fonseka was able to motivate his troops and officers to go all out without fearing any adverse consequences. It’s not surprising why Eelam IV turned out to be a bloody and a brutal war. “That there will be civilian casualties was a given and Rajapaksa was ready to take the blame. This gave the Army tremendous confidence. It was the best morale booster the forces could have got,” says a Sri Lankan minister who wishes to let this quote remain unattributed.
Is it any surprise, therefore, that LTTE wanted to assassinate Gotabaya in 2006? Prabhakaran knew that if he could assassinate Gotabaya then the carefully constructed political-military architecture pushing the war operations forward would have been gravely undermined. Gotabaya escaped the assassination bid and the rest as the cliché goes, is history.
So even though Gotabaya came into the political set up virtually out of nowhere, he quickly became the bridge-head between President Rajapaksa’s government and the military. The Rajapaksa brothers fused political commitment to a pre-set military goal. “He (Gotabaya) was embraced and accepted by the military and his was a legitimate voice in the Army,” said a senior official in the President Office. Gotabaya communicated the military requirements to the government – men, material and weapons.
His brother and head of the government, President Rajapaksa, ensured the military got what it wanted. He in turn instructed Gotabaya to tell the Army to go all out and get on with the task. The sixth fundamental of the Rajapaksa Model also had a clause – Basil, the youngest of the Rajapaksa brothers. “Neither Mahinda nor Basil saw their brother Gotabaya as a political threat to their political aspirations. So they gave him a free hand.” More importantly, Basil was used by President Rajapaksa for political liaison, especially with India.
SEVENTH FUNDAMENTAL: ACCENT ON YOUNG COMMANDERS
The other critical element was empowering young officers as GOCs to lead the battle. “I did not select these officers because they are young. But they were appointed as I thought they were the best to command the battle. I went to the lines and picked up the capable people. I had to drop those who had less capacity to lead the battle. Some of them are good for other work like administration activities. Therefore, the good commanders were chosen to command this battle.
“I thought seniority was immaterial if they could not command the soldiers properly. I restructured the Army and changed almost all the aspects of the organization. I made the Sri Lanka Army a more professional Army. Everybody had to work with a sense of professionalism.”
Eighth Fundamental: Keep Your Neighbors in Loop
The seventh fundamental was India and an unsigned strategic partnership agreed by New Delhi and Colombo. India played a crucial part in the Sri Lanka military operations by providing intelligence and other kinds of tactical support. “The moral support, whatever support India gave us, is what they should have given to us. It is their duty to help us in this stage,” is President Rajapaksa’s rather candid admission of the Indian involvement. “I can’t demand, I shouldn’t demand anything from a neighboring country. I request.” The first significant request from Colombo was naval intelligence and intelligence on the movement of LTTE owned merchant navy vessels.
The 15,000 sq km area controlled by the LTTE in northern Sri Lanka known as Vanni was cut off from all land access. The A9 Colombo-Jaffna road ran through it. But in the Southern end was the Vavuniya frontline at Omanthai and in the North beyond the Elephant Pass was the northern frontline. The only way for the LTTE to get its supplies, weapons and other essentials was through the sea route. It had eight ‘warehouse’ ships, vessels that transported “artillery, mortar shells, artillery shells, torpedoes, aircraft, missiles, underwater vehicles, diving equipment, radar, electro-optical devices and night vision equipment.” These ships would travel close to the Sri Lankan coast but beyond the reach of Sri Lanka’s coastal Navy. War material from these ‘warehouse’ ships would be transported into smaller boats protected by Sea Tiger units, which would then make its way to the Sea Tiger bases. This is how the LTTE sustained itself for decades and continually upgraded its conventional military capability through funding provided by the Tamil Diaspora.
India played a crucial role in choking this well established supply line of the LTTE. This enabled the Sri Lankan armed forces on the ground to make rapid advances. The Sri Lankan Navy led by Vice Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda, executed a maritime strategy based on intelligence on LTTE ship movements provided by India. In 2006 the SL Navy had tremendous success when, based on Indian intelligence, it launched operations to destroy six LTTE warehouse vessels. Subsequently, by 2007, two more were destroyed, which completely disrupted the LTTE’s supply line. Some LTTE warehouse ships were located at about 1700 nautical miles, south east of Sri Lanka close to Australia’s exclusive economic zone. SL Navy clearly does not have this capability and this shows how deep and extensive intelligence sharing between India and Colombo have been ever since 2006.
In a recent interview to the Jane’s Defence Weekly, Admiral Karannagoda said, “It was one of the major turning points in the last 30 years of the conflict. That was the main reason why the LTTE are losing the battle, we did not allow a single supply of replenishment ship to come into (Sri Lankan) waters over the last two and a half years since 2006.”
In the final analysis the Rajapaksa model is based on a military precept and not a political one. Terrorism has to be wiped out militarily and cannot be tackled politically. That’s the basic premise of the Rajapaksa Model.
(Courtesy: Indian Defence Review – July – Sept 2009 – Vol 24(3))