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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2673

Pakistan replicating its Baluch experiment in Northern Sri Lanka

By Dr. Sunny Thomas - Syndicate Features

Pakistan is all set to help Sri Lanka raise an Armoured Brigade, despite opposition from the 'professional Generals' of the island nation’s army. The deal was finalised during the visit of Pakistan defence secretary to Colombo early February. Elementary knowledge of North and Eastern parts of Sri Lanka will tell that armoured vehicles cannot be used in places like Mullaitivu, Vavuniya, Killinochchi, which are the strong hold of the Tamil Tigers. So the unavoidable surmise is that kickbacks really played a role in cementing the tie-up. Second hand Al Zarar Tanks and Armoured Personnel Carriers (APCs) could cost about $100 million to the Sri Lankan exchequer. Country's interests have become hostage to private gains through kickbacks; it is being openly said in Lankan military circles.

Al Zarar is Pakistan mask for Chinese T59 tank, which in turn is a true copy of the ubiquitous Soviet T-54A medium Tank. Interestingly T54 entered service in 1947. While the Chinese copy (T59) was inducted into Chinese army, PLA, in 1959. So the Al Zarar on offer to Sri Lanka is essentially a second hand junk with dated design and technology - more than half a century old. Neither Pakistan nor any East European or Central Asian nation (the erstwhile client states of Russia) depends on this vintage piece of armoury; they have rightly pushed it to museum for display. So, the question is: are the Lankan generals and their political masters really dumb witted?

This question demands attention because the fifth anniversary of the Ceasefire Agreement (signed in February 2002) has marked the quite burial of the Norway brokered accord; the Rajapakse government is clearly going to pursue the military option. The Tigers are itching to meet the challenge if one goes by what is said on the web sites like TamilNet which are known to pro-LTTE. It is possible that Colombo will like to use to tanks and APCs in combination with Air attacks to stymie the Tamil rebels. How far victory will come Rajapaksa way in the civil war is unclear. Like any unrest amongst minority groups elsewhere in the world, the Tamil ethnic issue is primarily a political issue. It has to be dwelt at the political level through dialogue and through give and take. Hard posturing doesn’t lead anyone any where as the Indian experience in its troubled northeast shows.

Fighting own citizens with tanks, artillery and air attacks for a problem which needs political solution doesn’t lead Lanka leadership anywhere. This is the message that comes loud and clear for Pakistan President Gen Musharraf from the Balochistan battleground. Neither air raids nor heavy artillery attacks have brought peace to the resource rich backward province. If President Rajapaksa is heeding Islamabad’s advice, it means literally Pakistan replicating its own Balochistan experiment. The question is: Is Pakistan motivated by profits from military sales and Colombo enamoured of the kickbacks.

Lanka army is top heavy. It has about 25 Major Generals for an army with a strength of just about 1.25 lakh personnel. The 'Professional Generals' (most of whom have been sidelined from the decision making process) are cribbing that even retired Pak army officials (posted in the High Commission in Colombo) are more powerful than the serving generals of Sri Lanka.

After discontent about defective and junk Pak supplies surfaced in Colombo, Islamabad reluctantly offered six Al Khalids, but at an astronomical price. Pakistan had only about twenty Al-Khalid tanks in service as of early 2002. It had received its first consignment of 15 Al-Khalid MBTs in July 2001. Heavy Industries Taxila started production of Al-Khalid in November 2000. The number of Al Khalids in Pak army has gone up since than but their number is not substantial as Pak generals want their clients to believe. In fact, they propagated the myth that Al Khalid would be exported in large numbers.

“Saudi Arabia could buy up to 150 Al Khalids in a deal worth up to$ 600 million. It would be the largest single export contract of its kind for Pakistan's emerging defence industry”, a Pak official was quoted as saying in the Janes Defence Weekly (March 15, 2006). The Saudi armed forces were due to carry out a re-trial in April (2006) of MBT 2000 Al Khalid main battle tank (MBT), manufactured by Pakistan's Heavy Industries Taxila, the official stated. Expecting to export 150 tanks to Saudi Arabia even as the tank was being put to re-trial after a gap of two years was nothing but ‘height of misplaced optimism'. Incidentally the Pak defence expo is known as IDEA.

The Lanka – Pakistan military collaboration is of recent vintage. Available data shows that these tie-ups picked up momentum over the past two years beginning with a modest order worth about $ 20 million. These contracts are poised to balloon to about $ 250 million plus. That means $ 50 million more than the projection of Pak defence exports made at the end of IDEA 2006. What started with supplying few general purpose bombs and replenishments now covers a wide array of high value items like tanks along with the associated military strategy.

Pakistan has been posting experienced military campaigners as their High Commissioners in Colombo in recent years. Col (retd) Bashir Wali was the (Pak envoy from Aug 2004 to July 2006. Air Vice-Marshal (retd) Shehzad Aslam Chaudhry has succeeded him as the Man-Friday. Certainly it is not empty boast of some Pak officials when they tell friendly scribes that Sri Lankans should be grateful for so many things that Islamabad has done for them. There are reports that Pak HC in Colombo has been actively assisting Lankan army/air force against the Tamil tigers

All this must be cause for concern to New Delhi. A worst case scenario for India is Pak begins looking at Sri Lanka for 'strategic depth' that was denied to them despite two decade long effort in Afghanistan.

Whether Colombo likes or not, Sri Lanka is India’s backyard. It is a part of its sphere of influence and there are common interests strategic and economic between the two countries. So much so Pakistan’s attempts for a foot fold in the island nation is a worrisome phenomenon. More so since India’s hands are tied because of domestic political compulsions which have made it to not to military hardware to Sri Lanka.

Consider these facts. Col Bashir Wali, who was headed Pak Intelligence Bureau at one time, had a stint in Colombo before he was sent as Pak High Commissioner. That posting coincided with Al Ummah, a terrorist organisation, spreading its wings across Tamil Nadu and Kerala. A protégé of Brig Imtiaz, who headed ISI’s political division during Zia-ul-Haq rule, he rose to become director of Pakistan Intelligence Bureau. He is given some credit for terrorism in Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir. In the 1990s, Wali worked in the High Commission in London and this stint saw Lashkar-e-Toiba (LET) set up secret cells in the UK to recruit Muslim volunteers for its jihadi terrorist operations. Wali, according to Pak watchers, is presently an active member of the Tablighi Jamaat.

Significantly, the present Pak envoy to Sri Lanka is an expert on the use of air power in counter-insurgency operations and as the Deputy Chief of Air Staff (Operations), he handled the PAF attacks against the Baloch rebels. His arrival in Colombo coincided with Lanka air force mounting air raids on Tigers’ bases prompting speculation that Air Vice-Marshal (retd) Shehzad Aslam Chaudhry is guiding the Sri Lankan Air Force (SLAF). The Chaudhry had handled negotiations with US officials for the acquisition of F-16 aircraft for the PAF. He also worked closely with the Chinese on PAF’s prestigious JF-17 Thunder aircraft project. These aircraft are to be manufactured in Pakistan and inducted into the PAF in 2007. His CV also says that he was associated with the clandestine acquisition of the M-9 and M-11 missiles from China and the Nodong series missiles from North Korea.

For the record Sri Lanka denies the presence of any Pak armed force personnel but this claim has few takers. This is because of strong indications about the presence of about at least 15 Pak military officials in Colombo to guide the local security apparatus. About 250 military officials of various ranks are presently undergoing training in Pakistan. LTTE has been claiming since late 90s that Pak officials and counter-insurgency experts are attached with the Sri Lankan military units in the ‘war theatre’. Though the claim has been routinely denied by Colombo and Islamabad, it gains credence in view of unfolding military cooperation between the two countries since India has been adopting a hands-off approach towards Sri Lanka for several years by now.

- Syndicate Features -

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