SOUTH ASIA INTELLIGENCE REVIEW
in the North
With the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam’s (LTTE) eviction from Batticaloa after a succession of reverses , and their eventual collapse at Thoppigala on July 11, 2007, the expulsion of the rebels from their strongholds in the Eastern Province was complete. Well before these successes, outlining the Sri Lanka Army’s (SLA) strategy, on January 4, 2007, the Army Commander, Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka, had declared, "After eradicating the Tigers from the East, full strength would be used to rescue the North."
This broad perspective has been powerfully underlined by the political executive and, on July 9, 2007, President Mahinda Rajapakse vowed to ‘wipe out’ the LTTE from the Northern Province, declaring that blunting the rebels’ military prowess was the only way to achieve permanent peace in the country. The President’s assertions have found strong support among his political allies and constituencies, located principally within the Sinhala Right.
With a tremendous surge in confidence in the Sri Lanka Army (SLA), and a continuous escalation of political rhetoric at the highest level, a Northern offensive appears increasingly likely. Indeed, firefights along the currently held Forward Defence Line (FDL), both in the Jaffna Peninsula, north of the Elephant Pass, and along the mainland, north of Vavuniya, are now daily occurrences, and SLA sources indicate that ‘long range operations’ deep into LTTE territory have also been initiated in a campaign of attrition intended to weaken the rebels in their final bastion. These operations have created some difficulties for rebel movement along roads in LTTE controlled areas.
Nevertheless, a high measure of caution – contrasting significantly with the character of the public postures and rhetoric – characterises the present military perspectives on the issue. While it has long been believed that the LTTE’s prowess has been exaggerated, and has suffered substantial diminution over the past years as a result, first, of the ‘Colonel’ Karuna rebellion in the East, and thereafter under the ravages of the Tsunami, there is general agreement that the group’s residual capacities are not insignificant. The area remaining under LTTE control is roughly 7,500 square kilometres, and the topography and terrain of the North, with dense tropical jungles across vast stretches, favours guerrilla forces. Further, some of the principal LTTE citadels are located in densely populated civilian areas – including the ‘political headquarters’ at Killinochchi, and a frontal assault would be exceptionally bloody. Historically, the LTTE has tended to position its defences, including its artillery, in civilian concentrations, to raise the risk of collateral damage in the event of an attack. Indeed, Killinochchi has never been subjected to any kind of military pressure – including the possibility of aerial attack – because of the concentration of political offices, hospitals and civilian areas in the city, and deliberate policy of locating military assets in close proximity of civilian concentration. Further, the Northern Province has undergone repeated processes of ethnic cleansing, and is now exclusively Tamil – and principally ‘Sri Lanka Tamil’, the primary ethnic support base of the LTTE, with only small numbers of ‘plantation Tamils’ (later immigrants from India, principally indentured labour brought in by the Colonialists), who are generally looked down upon by the LTTE leadership. This creates limited avenues for intelligence flows to the SLA and will act as a significant constraint to operational effectiveness of the Government Forces.
The SLA also remains aware of the risks of a rearguard campaign of terrorism, hit and run attacks, and frustrating harassment in the East. While most surviving LTTE cadres have filtered out of the province, seeping gradually towards the North, with the Tigers making desperate efforts to extract isolated fragments of their Forces stranded in the region, the potential for a rash of guerrilla and terrorist attacks remains. The LTTE leadership has, in fact, explicitly warned of guerrilla action in the East, and consolidating Government presence in the province will remain a significant challenge over the foreseeable future, increasing demands for military manpower, and diminishing the probabilities of a major Northern offensive. The Government has, in fact, announced a 180-day ‘Accelerated Eastern Development Programme’ named ‘Reawakening of the East", which is intended to consolidate its position in the province, and to facilitate the progressive stabilization of the area and its handing over to the Police and Civil administration, thereafter freeing the bulk of its military Forces for operations in the North.
The surviving capacities of the LTTE, now progressively concentrated in the North, remain substantial and are being urgently renewed, both in terms of manpower and weaponry. While hard estimates of capacities are nigh impossible to secure when dealing with a secretive rebel group, crude indicators do help draw up a tentative profile of capacities. According to Government sources, some 3,087 LTTE cadres have been killed in action since December 2005 (when hostilities resumed, and till August 2, 2007), with another 1,589 wounded in action. Despite these losses, LTTE is currently thought to have roughly seven thousand soldiers, including a significant proportion of child recruits. Moreover, there are roughly 600,000 civilians in the LTTE controlled areas, and the LTTE enforces a norm of one person per family to be recruited into its army. Further, all civilians of ‘fighting age’ (including a significant proportion of children, principally in the 14-16 years age group, but sometimes younger) are required to undergo two hours of military training every day. While much of this mobilisation is coercive, the LTTE would clearly be able to muster a very substantial force in any eventual frontal conflict with the SLA.
Weapons used by the LTTE in recent battles, as well as numerous seizures by the Government also suggest a considerable and varied arsenal, including artillery weapons, a limited supply of Surface to Air Missiles (SAMs) mortars, RPGs, machine guns, mines, very large quantities of explosives (more than 5,375 kilograms have been seized by the Government between December 1, 2005 and August 2, 2007), and huge reserves of small arms. A significant proportion of assets have, of course, been exhausted in the Eastern battles, and numerous caches have had to be abandoned in the province. These will be difficult to relocate to the North, under prevailing circumstances.
Replenishment of weaponry is, however, continuous (and necessarily so, as long-term maintenance of stockpiles is difficult, given weather conditions in the Island). The ‘Sea Tigers’ are charged with the task of transport of weapons, according to Sri Lanka Navy (SLN) sources, from Cambodia and Indonesia. The Sea Tigers have an estimated 450 senior cadres (in operation before the Cease Fire Agreement), and another 250 to 300 cadres recruited thereafter. The current fleet comprises no less than 60 improvised high speed fighting craft (each fitted with four 225 HP outboard motors brought in from Australia), capable of attaining speeds of up to 38-40 knots and at least another 15 ‘logistics boats’ for transport. Despite a number of devastating ‘wolf-pack attacks’ with up to 20 speed boats – including three to four suicide boats packed with explosives – attacking SLN vessels in the past, the SLN has been successful in interdicting Sea Tiger movements along the Eastern Coast. Weapon consignments are now transferred to civilian vessels – including commandeered Indian boats – outside Sri Lankan waters, to the South of the country, and are then transported all along the West to the North, entering Sri Lankan waters from the Indian side at Rameshwaram, under the cover of an estimated 300-400 Indian fishing boats that cross over into Sri Lankan waters every day. Interdiction in this case has been difficult, and has also resulted in some friction between Sri Lanka and India, as Indian fishing boats have been targeted.
Militarily, of course, Sea Tiger capabilities are insignificant. They are, of course, capable of inflicting a huge disruption of civil and military (including food) supplies to Government held Jaffna, which relies entirely on sea and air transports from Trincomalee, Muhamallai and India for all its needs, and are necessary to secure military supplies and the limited movement of cadres and resources for the LTTE. However, as one senior SLN officer expressed it, "Boat to boat, they have nothing compared to what we have. If push comes to shove, the Navy will take over. In an all out situation, we will win."
The ‘all out situation’ is what the LTTE is now desperate to prevent. This is the first time in nearly two decades that the initiative appears to have slipped entirely out of its hands, and where it has been forced into an entirely defensive position. The LTTE has, consequently, launched a strident campaign emphasising alleged ‘human rights violations’ by Government Forces, as well as a campaign for the creation of political conditions for the resumption of negotiations – including the ouster of the present hardline regime, and the restoration of a Government led by Ranil Wickremasinghe, whose commitment to the peace process and a negotiated settlement is known to be complete. There have been concentrated efforts by a range of front organisations abroad to mobilise the international community to these ends, and at least some international organisations have become willing dupes to this effort, with at least one issuing an ill-conceived and altogether insupportable call for international intervention on ‘Right to Protect’ (R2P) grounds which apply essentially to victim populations in genocidal situations in failed or failing states – circumstances that manifestly do not prevail in Sri Lanka.
In Colombo, however, opinion is progressively hardening in favour of continued military operations, even among advocates of a negotiate solution, who feel that pressure must be exerted on the LTTE if it is to be brought to the negotiating table in a measure of greater good faith than was the case in the past. The Rajapakse regime, on the other hand, believes that military pressure, combined with the evolution of ideas that could help arrive at a manifestly equitable political solution, are the necessary prongs of present strategy. The ‘Accelerated Eastern Development Programme’ is one step in this direction, and its successes are expected to impact on populations in the North as well, opening up spaces between the LTTE and the Tamil population. At the same time, the 215,000-strong Sri Lanka Armed Forces are expected to ‘open up’ military spaces in the North, as LTTE capacities are systematically targeted and eroded. [This perspective is, however, diluted by rising concerns about the capacity of the economy to bear the costs of the war over an extended period of time]. With the unequal military balance between the conflicting forces, and LTTE’s limited capacities for positional warfare, the LTTE can be expected to escalate terrorist attacks across the country as pressure mounts in the North.
Clearly, no tidy ‘surgical’ solution – negotiated or military – is possible in Sri Lanka within the present framework. A process of stabilization in the East, and of attrition in the North, has been initiated by Colombo. To the extent that its objectives are sufficiently met, a broader military offensive in the North will become inevitable.
On the surface, it is a familiar re-run of terror in Assam’s killing fields. In four separate, cold-blooded, massacres spanning five days beginning August 8, 2007, Kalashnikov-wielding militants clad in jungle fatigues shot and killed 28 Hindi-speaking settlers — 25 from Bihar and three from Rajasthan — in the south-eastern hill district of Karbi Anglong. Rebels of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) have killed scores of Hindi-speaking settlers before, including 70 in a string of attacks in eastern Assam in January 2007. The latest round of carnage should not, consequently, have come as a surprise. More so, because Independence Day was round the corner and it has become a custom for the separatists in the Northeast, particularly in Assam, to step up violence during the run-up to important days in the Indian national calendar. On August 7, 2007, three civilians, including a local Congress leader, were killed in a bomb explosion right in front of the main Police Station in the District town of Jorhat, an important tea and cultural hub in eastern Assam, indicating that the ULFA had upped the ante well ahead of Independence Day.
The latest killings in Karbi Anglong District are, however, different because there appears to be some method in the madness. First, the murderous raids were carried out jointly by the ULFA and its tribal ally, the Karbi Longri North Cachar Hills Liberation Front (KLNLF), indicating that the ULFA was well-entrenched in the District, which gives access to Nagaland and the adjoining North Cachar Hills District in Assam. Secondly, highly placed security sources have confirmed to this writer that rebels of the rag-tag KLNLF have regularly been visiting Bihari settlers in remote locations in Karbi Anglong and collecting ‘tax’ at the rate of INR 1,000 per household, besides taking away poultry and livestock from them. This constituted a kind of ‘protection money’ that the KLNLF was taking from these settlers. Why then did the KLNLF—which is a breakaway faction of the pro-talks United People’s Democratic Solidarity (UPDS) engaged in a peace dialogue with the Government since 2002, seeking maximum autonomy for the Karbis—decide to train their guns on these poor sugarcane cultivators and petty traders?
L.R. Bishnoi, the Assam Police Deputy Inspector General in charge of the Range, offers an assessment: "The KLNLF has been active in the area, but now they have been convinced by the ULFA to terrorise and throw the settlers out from Karbi Anglong." If this is so, the ULFA-KLNLF combine is now engaging in nothing less than the ethnic cleansing of the Karbi Anglong District, which has a total population of 900,000, an estimated 80,000 of which comprises Bihari settlers. These Hindi-speakers are poor people, whose forebears, in some cases, settled in the area as long as 150 years ago. Most of them are sugarcane cultivators who take a bigha (0.33 acres) of land on lease from Karbi landowners in return for five canisters of molasses. Others earn their livelihood by selling vegetables or trading in groceries.
On first sight, the present flare-up appears to be the result of the ULFA prodding the KLNLF to oust the Biharis, but things may not be quite as simple as this, if available intelligence inputs are taken into account.
It is common knowledge that the ULFA’s so-called ‘709th battalion’ operates out of two major bases in Karbi Anglong, with the KLNLF providing it with logistic support in return for weapons and ammunition. This fact has been confirmed by none other than Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, who also heads the Unified Headquarters of the Army, Police and the Paramilitary Forces in the State. But, could it be that the crack hit-squads of the ULFA’s most potent ‘28th battalion’, which has its headquarters in Myanmar and is usually active in the eastern Districts of Tinsukia and Dibrugarh, were actually involved in the latest killings in Karbi Anglong? Senior intelligence officials told this writer that rebels of the ULFA’s ‘28th battalion’ were directly involved in the latest string of massacres, assisted by their colleagues in the ‘709th battalion’ and the KLNLF. This exercise by the ULFA, they say, was aimed at easing the counter-insurgency pressure on them in their favoured playing fields in the eastern Tinsukia and Dibrugarh Districts, and in adjoining Arunachal Pradesh. These are areas close to the headquarters of the ULFA’s ‘28th battalion’ in Myanmar, and the Army’s 2nd Mountain Division, based near Dibrugarh and responsible for the area, including Arunachal Pradesh (across Assam’s Tinsukia District), has been going all out against the ULFA and had killed or captured several militants over the past six months, forcing the rebels to adopt concrete measures to get the soldiers off their backs, at least for some time.
This appears plausible and, if claims by intelligence officials are to be believed, there have been ULFA radio intercepts to this effect in recent weeks. It is said that the ULFA’s Bangladesh-based bosses have been unhappy with the ‘709th battalion’ for their inability to strike and make a mark in the area.
This puts a question mark on the efficacy of the counter-insurgency strategy in Assam. On July 1, there had been a change in command in the Army’s field operations in Karbi Anglong District. Until then, the 2nd Mountain Division, the bete noire of the ULFA’s ‘28th battalion’, was in charge of Army operations in the District. That charge was handed over to the 21st Mountain Division based in the central Kamrup District. This change, of course, did not affect troop deployment on the ground in Karbi Anglong and, when the killings shook the State last fortnight, there were four columns of the 5 Bihar Regiment in the area, comprising roughly about 400 soldiers. The only change was that a different set of commanders at various levels had taken charge of the troops. Besides the Army, moreover, there were more than 10 paramilitary companies deployed in the Karbi Anglong.
With the Police not really trained to tackle insurgency, a great deal of responsibility for success in counter-insurgency operations is pinned on the Army and the Paramilitary Forces. But, with Army and paramilitary contingents shuffled and shifted from place to place at regular intervals, it is not surprising that the militants continue to have that vital edge of a thorough knowledge of their area of operation. For instance, in the current round of violence, the Security Forces could manage to target the rampaging rebels only on August 13, 2007, a full five days after the killings began. That was when a Police patrol came face-to-face with a six-member KLNLF group near the town of Barpathar, resulting in a shootout in which two of the militants were killed. The rest fled.
If counter-insurgency strategies need to be revised and fine-tuned constantly in keeping with the change in tactics by the militants, the Government’s response mechanism, too, needs to be revamped and institutionalized. It took the State authorities four days to actually set up some camps and evacuate Hindi-speaking people located in remote and vulnerable locations to safety. This process could have been set in motion on August 8 itself, when eight people were massacred in village Aampahar. Secondly, signals coming out of the Government or those heading the counter-insurgency operations are extremely vital. In early August, a section of the media in Assam reported that Chief Minister Gogoi, who heads the Unified Headquarters, had virtually expressed helplessness in dealing with the Army. "The Army often oversteps its limits, has its own rules for operations and does not take policemen along during operations, which we always insist on," the Chief Minister was quoted by the media as telling a delegation protesting alleged excesses by the soldiers. What is necessary in Assam is a synergy among the various components of the security establishment with a coordinated rather than a competitive command. What is puzzling, in the final analysis, is the inability of the security apparatus to neutralize a band of 200 KLNLF armed cadres (according to intelligence estimates) who are on a killing spree in one single District, and an estimated 100 ULFA hit men. The moment the jigsaw fits in place, the battle could well be won in the Karbi Hills.
Weekly Fatalities: Major Conflicts in South Asia
August 13-19, 2007
Provisional data compiled from English language media sources.
Maoist violence on the increase in Jharkhand, Orissa and Bihar: Maoist violence has increased in the States of Jharkhand, Orissa and Bihar, while some improvement has been witnessed in Chhattisgarh, both in terms of incidents as well as fatalities till July 2007, as compared to the corresponding period in 2006. According to statistics presented in the Lok Sabha (Lower House of Parliament) on August 14, 2007, by the Government, 971 incidents involving Maoists were reported till July 2007 against 967 incidents in the corresponding period of 2006. Fatalities have been lower at 431 than the 491 recorded in 2006. Civilian killings by Maoists have fallen from 390 till July 2006 to 266 this year and security force personnel killed are higher at 165 this year as against 101 till July 2006.
In Chhattisgarh, incidents have fallen from 453 till July 2006 to 399 in the corresponding period of 2007. Fatalities too have been lower at 259 from 306 last year. In Jharkhand, incidents have risen from 191 to 259 in 2007 and fatalities have declined marginally from 75 to 71. Orissa has recorded 47 incidents, up from 29 in 2006. Fatalities have doubled from 6 in 2006 to 12 in 2007. Bihar too has reported 87 violent incidents, up from 75 in 2006, and 39 deaths, up from 36 in 2006. In Andhra Pradesh, deaths are higher at 26 as compared to 24 till July 2006. Maharashtra has witnessed 63 Maoist-related incidents and West Bengal 12 incidents and 2 deaths. Karnataka has recorded six incidents and five deaths as compared to no fatalities in 2006. Kerala has witnessed four incidents till July 2007. Economic Times, August 17, 2007.
Maoist threat lesser than perceived, says Union Home Minister: On August 14, 2007, the Union Government said that the available statistics on Maoists do not reveal the true picture about their activities. Union Home Minister Shivraj Patil, while replying to a question in the Lok Sabha (Lower-house of Indian Parliament) said, "Naxal [Maoist] movement is little more than in the past. But statistics made available are creating wrong impression. If an incident occurs in some part of the state, it doesn't mean the entire state is affected." He rejected the impression that Maoist activities were affecting one-third of the country based on suggestions that ten States or 180 districts are hit by the extremists. "The fact is that out of about 8,000 police stations, only 400 are affected. In other words, only five per cent of area is affected by Naxal activities," he stated. Daily Pioneer, August 15, 2007.
Pakistan is world's most dangerous country, says US' Senate Committee on Foreign Relations chairman: Terming Pakistan as "the most dangerous country in the world," the US' Senate Committee on Foreign Relations criticized the George Bush administration for having a "Musharraf policy" instead of a policy for Pakistan. "The fact of the matter is, Pakistan is the most dangerous, potentially the most dangerous country in the world. A significant minority of jihadists with nuclear weapons. We have no Pakistan policy; we have a Musharraf policy," chairman of the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Senator Joseph R. Biden, said at a debate in Iowa. Times of India, August 20, 2007.
52 persons killed in Waziristan during August 17-19: At least 15 militants were killed during military operations that targeted militant hideouts near the Mir Ali town in North Waziristan on August 19, 2007. "We have credible information that the two compounds have been destroyed and 15 miscreants, including 10 Uzbeks, have been killed in the strike," said military spokesperson Major General Waheed Arshad. There were unconfirmed reports that an Iraqi national Abu Akasha, a suspected al Qaeda operative, may have been the target of the military operation. Further, two women, two children and a man were killed near Mir Ali on the same day when helicopter gunships strafed the Hormuz and Issori villages. The Mosaki, Hasokhel and Khushali villages were also attacked by the five helicopters. Earlier on August 17-18, at least 32 persons, including 19 militants and 12 soldiers, were killed in clashes between the two sides in the Chagmalai, Spla Toi, Tanga, Berwand, Maulvi Khan Sarai and Zawar areas of South Waziristan. The News; Dawn, August 17-20, 2007.
80 percent of Air Defence System completed, says Air Force: The Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) is ready to face any air threat from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) with more than 80 percent of the Air Defence System (ADS) completed with India’s support, said SLAF Commander Air Vice Marshal Roshan Goonetilleke. In an interview with Daily News, Goonetilleke said only a little more has to be done to establish comprehensive ADS. "Actually we have finished 80 per cent of the work. We have very little more to do. And that 80 per cent can definitely take charge of the kind of threat we saw in three [LTTE air] attacks," he added. He also said that apart from the establishment of the ADS, the SLAF also took measures to destroy air capabilities of the LTTE by bombing those places. "We have not just waited. We have also bombed their places and done a lot of damage to where we think they have their facilities," he disclosed. Daily News, August 20, 2007.