Assessing the military outlook

Published : May 27, 2000 00:00 IST

Lt.Gen. A.S. Kalkat of the Indian Army led the Indian Peace Keeping Force from 1987 to 1990 as it confronted the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in northern and eastern Sri Lanka in the wake of the signing of the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement i n 1987. It was during this period, in 1988, that elections to the North-Eastern Provincial Council were held in Sri Lanka. Lt. Gen. Kalkat has intimate knowledge and understanding of the terrain of the current war, the LTTE's strategy and tactics, the st rengths and weaknesses of the Sri Lanka Army and the nuances of the political situation in the island-nation. In this interview he gave T.S. Subramanian in New Delhi on May 17, Lt.Gen. Kalkat, who retired as Army Commander, Southern Command, in De cember 1993, gives his assessment of the military situation and the prospects and possible scenarios in the Jaffna peninsula. He says that the assumption that the Sri LankaArmy is "trapped" in the Jaffna peninsula is incorrect because it has almost 40,00 0 soldiers as against a maximum possible number of 7,000 LTTE cadres. He adds: "In fact, if the Sri Lanka Army decides to stand and fight... the LTTE is trapped. However, considering the performance of the Sri Lanka Army at Elephant Pass, and the signals emanating from the battlefield until censorship was imposed, it appears that the Army is not able to perform as well as expected." Excerpts from the interview:

How do you assess the military situation in the Jaffna Peninsula? Reports say that the Sri Lanka Army is trapped there and that the LTTE is knocking on the doors of Jaffna town.

As of this morning (May 17), the news that we have is that the LTTE is close to the city of Jaffna and that fighting is on in the suburbs of Jaffna. Owing to the censorship imposed, there is really no authoritative or authentic information on the actual situation in Jaffna. What I can therefore give is my assessment and visualisation of the possible situation prevailing there.

I think the LTTE is closing in and trying to isolate Jaffna.

Jaffna town is best captured from within because, if it is defended by the Sri Lanka Army, the attackers will suffer heavy casualties as they will have to approach a built-up area with no cover or jungle from the approaches. And with the limited number o f LTTE cadres and the advantage the Sri Lanka Army has in terms of numbers vis-a-vis the LTTE, the LTTE will try to preserve its strength.

A possible scenario is that the LTTE will infiltrate groups into the town, merge with the civilian population and also get help from that segment of the population that may be sympathetic to it. The LTTE will thereafter go for vulnerable, soft nerve-cent res such as the telephone exchange, water supply, the power house, the Kutcheri (the secretariat), the Town Hall, and the densely populated centres of the town. This will also give the LTTE some mileage.

The Sri Lanka Army is not trapped because it has a more than adequate strength of almost 40,000 soldiers as against what cannot be more than 7,000 LTTE cadres. In fact, if the Sri Lanka Army decides to stand and fight, it will really mean that the LTTE i s trapped. However, considering the past performance of the Sri Lanka Army at Elephant Pass, and the signals emanating from the battlefield until censorship was imposed, it appears that the Army is not able to perform as well as expected.

The LTTE is trapped?

The LTTE is trapped in the sense that its forces are now all concentrated around Jaffna. The Sri LankaArmy has more than sufficient strength not only to hold them. It has the numbers to put in a large enough force behind the LTTE. These are not the Wanni jungles where the LTTE can suddenly merge into the thick undergrowth. Jaffna Peninsula is fairly open, and enables the full employment of air power and artillery.

Do you think the Sri Lankan government ought to have accepted the recent ceasefire offer made by the LTTE?

The Sri Lankan Government was quite correct in rejecting the LTTE offer. Apart from the humiliation involved, it would also have sent the wrong message to the Sri Lankan forces operating there that there is an easier way out than fighting!

How serious will the loss of Jaffna Peninsula be to the Sri Lankan government, militarily and politically?

Jaffna town accounts for only a very small part of the Jaffna Peninsula. Although among the reported 5,00,000 population, I think almost 3,50,000 will be in the town and the remaining 1,50,000 will be in the rest of the Peninsula, the loss of Jaffna town will be more significant politically than strategically. After all, it has changed hands four times during the long ongoing conflict. For the same reason, when Jaffna was captured by the Sri Lanka Army four years ago, in my interview to Frontline (issue of December 29, 1995) I had mentioned that the initial capture of Jaffna in the offensive may make good political sense but it was certainly not good military strategy unless the Sri Lanka Army was absolutely certain of being able to secure the C olombo-Jaffna road and link up with Jaffna by the land route.

What will be the consequences if the LTTE captures Jaffna town?

In case the LTTE captures the town, the Sri Lankan forces are likely to pull in some of the (Army) elements into the Jaffna Fort which is at the southernmost end of the town alongside the Jaffna lagoon. However, this Fort can only take in 2,000 to 3,000 persons/troops. The Fort has its own water supply system from the deep borewell there, its power generation, and is reported to be adequately stocked for 45 days. The forces can remain holed up for a long period. The Fort also has a large enough area for helicopters to land inside for re-supply and logistics movement. The rest of the Sri Lankan forces will then withdraw northwards, and take up defences protecting the Palaly airfield and the Kankesanthurai harbour.

The LTTE does not have the strength to take over the entire Jaffna Peninsula unless the Sri Lanka Army decides to withdraw from the Peninsula. Whatever happens, it does not mean that the Sri Lanka Army will go under. The conflict will continue.

Why does the Army not fight back?

I think there are two or three reasons. For the performance of the Army in the battlefield depends upon the quality of its leaders, the morale, motivation and the quality of inputs. I think the leadership (of the Sri Lanka Army) up to the fall of Elephan t Pass has been poor. Morale and motivation seem to be non-existent. Nothing else can explain the over-running of two divisions (15,000 troops in prepared positions) by 5,000 to 6,000 LTTE fighters. It is possible that the continuous involvement of the S ri Lanka Army in the fighting in the last ten years must have taken its toll, resulting in battle-field fatigue.

What will be the LTTE strategy to capture the Jaffna Peninsula? What will be the military consequences if it captures the Peninsula?

While isolating Jaffna, the LTTE will aim to interdict the road from Jaffna to the Palaly airfield and (the Kankesanthurai) harbour so that if Jaffna falls, all the troops defending Jaffna town other than those moving into the Jaffna Fort, are not able t o extricate themselves towards the Palaly air base. If the LTTE succeeds in this, it will end up having a large haul of POWs (prisoners of war).

How do you assess the chances of the Sri Lanka Army in the coming round of fighting in the Peninsula?

If the Sri Lanka Army decides to stand and fight in the area they are holding, they can do so for an indefinite period. They have the requisite strength, and a proper supply line from Colombo to (the Kankesanthurai) harbour by sea and also by air.

What if the LTTE damages the runway at the Palaly air base by shelling from its heavy artillery, the Army is trapped at the air base, and the LTTE takes over the Peninsula?

If the runway at Palaly is damaged and rendered unusable, it will only be a minor setback because the main weight of the traffic and supply in any case has always been through ships (berthing at Kankesanthurai), and not by aircraft. As far as air support is concerned, these aircraft can take off from the Vavuniya airfield or any other airfield in Sri Lanka.

The planes need not be based at Palaly. For emergency supply and evacuation of casualties, Sri Lankan helicopters can operate from the Kankesanthurai harbour area.

Do you think this is the time to offer a political package? The LTTE may not buy it because it is in a strong position now.

Yes, I feel this is the time to push through the political package, that is, the long-promised devolution of power. We must remember that the political package is for the entire 3 million Tamil minority and not for the LTTE. It is for the entire Tamils. In fact, this will go a long way in assisting the isolation of the LTTE from the Tamil population, and it will also develop momentum among the population to force the LTTE to come to the negotiating table since the ethnic issue will not exist.

What stand should India take? Between 1990 and now - for 10 years - India has adopted a hands-off policy and it has certainly not been pro-active. Should the Government of India provide military assistance to Colombo?

I think India's current stand has been right. To take it forward further, India must push for speedy devolution of power (to the Tamil areas in Sri Lanka).

Should India give direct military assistance?

Direct military assistance means going again. If the Sri Lankan government wanted that, then they already have the instrument.

The Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement of 1987?

Yes, the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement of 1987 under which they had asked for military assistance in the form of the IPKF. It is difficult to understand, in any case, that they wanted military assistance. But they have the instrument of the Indo-Sri Lanka Agr eement under which the IPKF was requested earlier, and they could have repeated the request now. It seems they have not done so. The fact that they have not done so implies that they are not seeking direct military involvement from India.

What does India mean when it says that it will consider giving "humanitarian assistance" to Colombo? Does it mean sending the Navy's troop carriers to evacuate beleaguered soldiers from the Jaffna Peninsula?

First, if you are giving transportation to the Sri Lankan troops, it amounts to operational logistical support. If we help in the evacuation of Sri Lankan forces. Humanitarian aid should be in the form of food, shelter and clothing to the affected civili an sector of society. If there is a ceasefire, soldiers can be evacuated away from the battlefield area in an effort to de-militarise the situation. This should be done only if it will contribute to a more enduring ceasefire and the defusing of the volat ile situation. The other point is that if there is direct military involvement from our side we become a party to the conflict. This will compromise our role as a mediator between the warring parties.

There have been press reports that India has approved Israel supplying arms and aircraft to Colombo. Does this signal an escalation of the conflict?

The Sri Lankan government does not need our approval to bring arms and armaments from other countries. In any case, they have been doing it all along. Their rifles, most of the coastal craft, namely, naval boats, artillery and mortars, are of Chinese ori gin. The aircraft are of Israeli origin. Their attack helicopters are of U.S. origin. Their tanks and armoured personnel carriers are of Russian origin. Their armoured cars are of U.K. origin. So there is nothing new about this.

Will the United National Party back the devolution package?

I think that the recent unanimous demand made by all the political parties in Sri Lanka asking for Indian mediation indicates that if the devolution package were to be pressed by President Chandrika Kumaratunga and the Indian demand for speedy devolution is impressed upon these political parties, they will find it hard to oppose it. There is a good chance of getting it through Parliament. All the political parties now say, "Get India". If Chandrika Kumaratunga tells them how India is insisting on the de volution package to the Tamil minority, they will have to vote in Parliament for it. This is the time. This is the window of opportunity for India to contribute to the final resolution of the ethnic issue and the Indian government must seize it.

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