Sri Lanka’s Path to Victory: A Story of Leadership, Tactic and Sacrifice
By Sanjeewa Karunaratne
No one would have believed in their wildest dreams that the Sri Lankan military had the capability of defeating the number one terrorist organization in the world, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). A well-organized, heavily-funded and deadly terrorist outfit that ran a mini state in the northern parts of Sri Lanka has lost its last stronghold: Mullaitivu. The only terrorist organization to have an infantry, a naval force and an air wing was responsible for the largest number of suicide attacks in the world, has used state-of-the-art weaponry, including surface to air (SAM) missiles. Nevertheless, President Rajapaksha and his government have taken its "war against terrorism" to the very end as the LTTE is fighting an existential battle.
Strong military and political leadership and focus underlined this accomplishment, something, Sri Lanka lacked for many years. Not in a slightest moment did the political or military leadership shy away from its objective of defeating the LTTE, which boosted the morale of the forces to the highest level in 25 years. The creation of an independent office of the Defense Secretary, headed by a retired army colonel, Gotabaya Rajapaksha, a U.S. citizen, was a key factor in the concerted war efforts. An army officer, who almost captured LTTE’s supremo twenty years ago, took a hard-line stand against the terrorists, and together with his one-time classmate, Army Commander Sarath Fonseka, provided a stanch leadership for this humanitarian mission. (They also shared rare fortunes of surviving suicide attacks.)
This focus and momentum propelled recruitment in the Armed Forces—3000 or more in every month since 2006 (The Army recruited 4,000 in December 2008 alone). Consequently, the Army increased its roaster from 115,000 to 180,000. Over 50% hike in troop numbers gave Army Commander a free hand to dispatch its military. He directed attacks in multiple, wider fronts as the LTTE showed a considerable lack of fighting power in the absence of its former commander, Colonel Karuna Amman, and his eastern cadres.
The defection of the LTTE’s, then, second-in-command, Karuna Amman, who is a member of the parliament now, was not an isolated event or a coincidence, but the result of years of intelligence work involving Sri Lankan military and regional intelligence agencies. It was a turning point in the quarter-century war. This defection weakened the LTTE, enabling forces to quickly recapture the eastern province and march toward their de facto capital, Killinochchi.
The contribution of the intelligence community, highlighted by the breakaway of "Karuna faction," was a key feature in this counter-insurgency measure. Sri Lanka Police spearheaded the spying efforts by thoroughly investigating leads and previous attacks to uncover terror cells. Explosive laden trucks, cashes of C-4 plastic explosives that are used in suicide vests were discovered. Revitalized Civilian Protection Force—government more than doubled its numbers from 19,000 to 42,000—with the help of vigilant civilians apprehended key LTTE operatives and spotted time-bombs, some within minutes of its trigger.
Military tactics have changed too. Small commando units were established to engage in rapid raids behind enemy lines to support the advancing troops. However, the real shock came from the Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol (LRRP) units viz., the "Deep Penetration Unit" and "Mahasohon Brigade," which were deployed to conduct covert operations inside the enemy territory. These highly trained and well-equipped detachments proceed deep into the terrorists’ held area and attack. They were responsible for eliminating top-brass LTTEers such as Charles (head of military intelligence), Shankar (head of the air tigers) and Amaran (deputy head of sea tigers), and targeting, though unsuccessfully, Soosai (head of sea tigers). These units have taken the war to the terrorists’ backyard delivering chaos within the insurgency.
The coordination between Army, Air Force and Navy were impeccable.
The Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) supported the ground troops while maintaining the "Zero Civilian Casualty Policy" by skillful maneuvering and using advanced equipment. Shouldering a mammoth task of targeting terrorists like a needle in a haystack, who used civilians as a shield, Air Force provided an example to the world and bolstered the confidence of the internally displaced persons (IDP) in the government for their protection.
The efforts of the Sri Lanka Navy (SLN) were phenomenon in restricting LTTE’s weapon supplies pouring through the 30-mile Polk Strait, which separates Sri Lanka from India. To block this vital supply route and spot LTTE’s "floating armories," unmanned surveillance drones were deployed and powerful radar stations were installed. By this time, Navy had broaden its capabilities to go after these vessels as farther as 1800 nautical miles into the deep sea —one by one Navy destroyed all ten cargo vessels operated by the LTTE to smuggle weapons into the country.
Navy had to overcome another hurdle—LTTE had been inflicting heavy damages on naval ships and transport vessels by using suicide boats. To counter this threat, Navy locally developed smaller fast attack crafts (FAC) to intercept LTTE suicide boats and shield larger vessels. A fleet of FACs cordons the ship making it impossible for suicide boats to penetrate. This strategy proved to be very effective: since the new phase of the war started in 2006, LTTE could not sink a single naval ship using suicide boats.
Realization of this unprecedented success is mainly attributable to the sacrifices made by the Armed Forces. Marching many miles in unfamiliar thick jungles infested with snakes and disease carrying mosquitoes; withstanding stiff resistance and booby traps from the enemy; bearing heavy monsoon rain that filled boots with water and created knee high puddles, government forces showed a remarkable dedication and commitment. And many of them paid the ultimate sacrifice—since the new offensive began, forces lost over 3700 of its valiant soldiers.
At present, eyes of the world are glued to Sri Lanka to witness the unfolding of a historic victory of humanity over insanity. A country, plagued by decades of war had found a cure in the form of a military campaign after a number of attempts for a negotiated settlement failed. LTTE’s imminent defeat opens up the most fertile land with the largest limestone and mineral sand deposits and the best beaches in the country. The government has already started to rebuild Sri Lanka’s only cement factory, chemical, paper factories and infrastructure that had been destroyed by the terrorists. Government’s efforts have been noticed: when security exchanges around the globe are declining, Colombo Stock Exchange is recording considerable gains. Future looks bright for Sri Lanka as it prepares for a journey of unity, understanding and nation building.
- Asian Tribune -