Feature Article

Sustaining strategic parity and beyond

[TamilNet, Wednesday, 30 April 2003, 00:15 GMT]
When the Liberation Tigers routed the Sri Lanka army’s Agni Khiela (Rod of Fire) offensive in April 2001, a year after the fall of the strategic Elephant Pass garrison, the general description of the state of Sri Lanka’s conflict as a military stalemate was no longer tenable. Celebrations by the LTTE on Monday to mark the Elephant Pass victory and the defeat of Agni Khiela underscored Tamils’ perception that their ability to negotiate political rights is essentially predicated on the LTTE’s military power.

commander of the Sea Tigers addressing the celebration Monday night
The two victories brought the Tigers to the threshold of tilting the strategic balance in their favour.

The Agni Khiela Operation was unique in that it essentially embodied the principle of combining awesome indirect fire and heavy concentration and speedy convergence of ground forces and armour on a well defined target. The principle is essentially predicated on possessing superior weapons systems such as Colombo’s air power.

This was in sharp contrast to cumbersome manoeuvre and phased deployment of forces which characterised the SLA’s two year long Jeya Sikurui Operation to capture the Vanni.

The SLA, which had meticulously prepared for the offensive during four months of a ceasefire declared unilaterally by the Tigers, suffered ignominious defeat in less than 48 hours of heavy fighting on the palm and shrub covered sands of Pallai.

The Sri Lankan military began the offensive after several days of intense barrage of artillery, rocket and naval fire and air force bombing, unprecedented in its 20 year war with the Liberation Tigers. The barrage and bombing were concentrated on a small area less than 10 square kilometres between Pallai and Eluthumadduval – this was based on the same principle that underpinned the US blitz of Baghdad.

The idea was to stun the defenders out of their wits, pulverise their positions, and deplete and disperse tactical concentrations of enemy troops and armour.

The US and British militaries had been urging the SLA since the mid nineties to go for well trained, high tech, compact and highly mobile fighting units that could swiftly move and consolidate enemy territory in the wake of devastating indirect fire and aerial bombardment.

The Air Mobile and Mechanised Infantry units of the SLA’s elite 53 Division, trained by US Special Forces, were raised consequently to wage such warfare.

Concomitantly the role of air power was stepped up with emphasise on strategic bombing aimed at breaking the morale of the population in the Vanni, debilitating the region’s economy and destroying the LTTE’s military infrastructure.

Also, after the fall of Elephant Pass and the LTTE’s push to the gates of Jaffna town, the SLA increased its indirect firepower immensely by acquiring a large number of Multi Barrel Rocket Launchers.

a 152 mm heavy artillery gun captured from the SLA at Elephant Pass

In preparing for the offensive, SLA was, wittingly or unwittingly, provided a singular window of opportunity by Norway for achieving a concentration of forces in Jaffna.

The ceasefire, declared unilaterally as a goodwill gesture by the LTTE on the eve of Christmas in December 2000 consequent to discussions with Norwegian facilitators and extended until April 2001, helped the SLA gather together three of its war battered divisions (52, 53 and 55) and train for four months in Jaffna, unhampered by distracting force deployments that may have otherwise been necessitated by offensives and attacks by the Liberation Tigers in the northeast.

The SLA may not have been able to achieve the necessary concentration of force to launch Op. Agni Khiela if not for this window of opportunity which was opened by the LTTE’s ceasefire.

Norway, Britain and the US were, however, not unaware of the preparations for the offensive by the SLA.

TNA MPs Mavai Senathirajah and M. K Sivajilingam among the invitees (second row)

LTTE officials often state that if the Agni Khiela offensive had succeeded then Colombo would have pressed on towards Elephant Pass and hence relegated the question of opening peace talks to the backburner.

The Sri Lankan armed forces commanders insisted at the time that the southern parts of Jaffna had to be recaptured from the Tigers to ensure Colombo’s hold on the peninsula. They particularly wanted to deny the LTTE the only all weather over land supply route to the peninsula at Elephant Pass (EPS).

Undisputed control over the EPS causeway, the coast between Chundikulam and Nagar Kovil and the terrain in Pallai for concentration of forces had, in their eyes, tilted the overall strategic balance of the Eelam War, at least geographically, in the LTTE’s favour.

Historically, the southern parts of Jaffna have been its Achilles Heel. In the past, military forces from the mainland intent on capturing Jaffna entrenched themselves in the Pachchilaipalli Division, encompassing Pallai and Iyakkachchi, before launching their main thrust into the peninsula.

On 16 September 1628 when a large force from the mainland entered Pachchilaipalli and dug in there against the Portuguese rulers of Jaffna, the greater part of the Tamils in Jaffna are said to have joined the invaders who were hence able to swiftly advance on the Fort and lay siege to it for 13 days. The Portuguese were threatened similarly the next year too. They were able to hold the peninsula only because they defeated the encamped mainland forces in Pachchilaipalli itself.

a naval gun and ammo on display

Agni Khiela therefore was not merely intended to boost the morale and rehabilitate the self image of the Sri Lanka army but was chiefly concerned with denying the LTTE the military advantage it had gained in the overall strategic balance in the theatre of war.

In defeating the forces of Agni Khiela, the Liberation Tigers learnt to deal with strategic air power, theatre specific and other, though on a much smaller scale than in limited wars fought elsewhere in the world. In the months that followed the rout of Agni Khiela the LTTE demonstrated it could neutralise Colombo’s airpower by unconventional means. In the theatre itself it dealt with the problem by offering no tangible targets to bombing and concentrated indirect fire.

US multi spectrum satellite images would have shown little or no structures identifiable as defences in the area between Muhamalai and Palli which Agni Khiela intended to re-capture. Yet the Battle was joined at the right moment.

a twin barreled naval gun seized from the Sri Lanka Navy

Contrary to the general perception that a military stalemate obtains in the Sri Lankan conflict, the fact remains that the LTTE neutralised the overall and intrinsic offensive capability of the Sri Lankan armed forces when it routed Agni Khiela and when Colombo’s airpower was negated deep in the rear.

Therefore, the strategic parity which currently sustains the island’s peace process is largely predicated on the LTTE’s will to peace and not, as many would have it, on the balance of armed forces and their capabilities.

Col. Soosai presenting an award


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