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The Slow Crawl to Kilinochchi

Why is Lt Gen Fonseka making such controversial remarks repeatedly? Does he nurture political ambitions after he completes his extended tenure next year?

(December 10, Chennai, Sri Lanka Guardain) On Sunday December 7, the security forces were within "kissing distance" of the outer defence lines Kilinochchi, announced the defence spokesman. On Monday, December 8, it became "Troops in Kilinochchi are targeting the town and they are in the vicinity of the town." However, by December 9 it seems the security forces' strategic focus had shifted from Kilinochchi to Mullaitivu according to the defence ministry. This contradicts what the army commander Lt Gen Sarath Fonseka said in his Sunday Observer interview on the same day; he said "after capturing Kilinochchi the security forces will definitely capture Mullaithivu..."

In military parlance, this kind of shift in 24 hours takes place only in tactical rather than strategic focus. Somebody is not getting the terminology right or the army is facing major problems in turning the "kiss" into reality in Kilinochchi. Its two pronged offensive on Kilinochchi by Task Force-I from the west and by 57 Division from the southwest was reported facing very heavy LTTE resistance. Could this have compelled them a change in the security forces' strategy? The defence spokesman had acknowledged this at least on the Task Force-I front. In the Muhamalai sector also there appear to be no substantial progress in spite of 53 Division's claims of having captured 800 m long and 8 km wide line of defences there. All these bits put together would indicate stalling of offensive.

A second possibility is that 59 Division was making better progress having captured Alampil on December 8. With Task Force-III making good progress on A34 Mankulam-Mullaitivu road branching off eastwards from A9 road 59 Division's offensive to Mullaitivu would be benefited. So a tactical shift of immediate focus from Kilinochchi to Mullaitivu is understandable.

But such a shift in axis would still be a tactical shift. Ultimately the security forces have to either capture Kilinochchi or force the LTTE to vacate it after they pay a heavy price. Then only the A9 Kandy-Jaffna road can be opened to restore some form of normal life for most of the population of Northern Province. Regaining A9 road from the LTTE control by evicting them from Kilinochchi –Elephant Pass would always remain the strategic objective of the entire operation.

But these are all military semantics; in the absence of independent sources to verify operational information, semantics of both the defence spokesman and the LTTE become important; they indicate the issues hidden behind the words.

After the capture of Pooneryn on November 15, crossing Akkarayankulam bund on October 31, and capture of Mankulam on November 17, it is a month. Evidently since then, momentum of advance has been stalled due to adverse weather on a few days, and stiff LTTE resistance that had been progressively increasing. This would contradict repeated Sri Lankan assertion that the LTTE was on the run. If this is not so, what is holding up the troops?

Loss of momentum in an offensive means more time for the opponent to recoup, rest, repair and readjust defences, reinforce positions, launch counter offensives and inflict more casualties. And cost of war in terms of men, material and money goes up as the clock ticks in days and days become months. The more it is prolonged the better it is for the forces on the defence.

Fortunately, the army commander has cleverly put himself in an advantageous position with multiple options of axes to pick and choose. He also has adequate troops for achieving the strategic objective. Even granting the monsoon rains that affected both sides comes in fits and starts the progress is becoming slow and taking too long. This raises a few operational questions:

Why the offensive to Kilinochchi ending up as a slow crawl?

Has the LTTE built up its strength beyond the ken of four divisions?

Is the army commander facing a major operational dilemma or political rider interfering with his operations for reasons not known to the public?

In this context, Lt Gen Sarath Fonseka's comments on India's role in Sri Lanka in an interview to the Sunday Observer is interesting for more reasons, than his derogatory description of Nedumaran and Vaiko,(Tamil Nadu politicians who head the pro-LTTE political lobby in Tamil Nadu) as jokers who receive money from the LTTE. Regarding the operations he sounded quite confident of capturing both Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu. He was not unduly worried about the slow progress or any casualties. There was apparently no operational stress. Does it mean operations are going on smoothly at an accepted pace? In the absence of access to information our questions still linger, unanswered.

The interview had a political content not usually found in interviews of army chiefs. His sarcastic comment was clearly provocative. As anticipated it drew widespread condemnation from political parties in Tamil Nadu and Government of India protested to Sri Lanka on the issue. There was quick apology from the Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse the General's remarks. And in the corrective action that followed, Colombo axed the editor of Sunday Observer while the errant General went scot-free. One cannot imagine the army commander casually tackling a political issue involving a sensitive neighbour without some tacit official acceptance of his perceptions. The freedom of operation given by the President to Lt Gen Fonseka appears to go well beyond the military kind.

And this is not the first time Gen Fonseka has made a politically controversial remark His interview inn October 2008 to the National Post, a Canadian daily, created enough concerns among Tamils when he said: "I strongly believe that this country belongs to the Sinhalese but there are minority communities and we treat them like our people…We being the majority of the country, 75%, we will never give in and we have the right to protect this country…We are also a strong nation … They can live in this country with us. But they must not try to, under the pretext of being a minority, demand undue things."

While that remark did not endear him to Tamils and caused more concerns in the ethnically polarised nation, Sinhala right wing lobbies applauded him.

Why is Lt Gen Fonseka making such controversial remarks repeatedly? Does he nurture political ambitions after he completes his extended tenure next year? His latest remark on Tamilnadu politicians in the Sunday Observer interview definitely raises this question.

But whatever be the reason, such provocative remarks of the army commander only strengthen the Tamil suspicions of the ulterior objective of Sri Lanka government's war against the LTTE.

(Col. R Hariharan, a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia, served as the head of intelligence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka 1987-90.He is associated with the South Asia Analysis Group and the Chennai Centre for China Studies. E-mail: colhari@yahoo.com)
- Sri Lanka Guardian

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