Tackling the Tigers
ASHOK K. MEHTA
NEARLY a decade back, the last batch of the IPKF was ceremoniously forced out of Sri Lanka’s Trincomalee harbour. A Sri Lankan military band played the Indian national anthem followed by Auld Lang Syne. Minutes later, the Indian naval troopship, ins Magar, shoved off. This was the cue for Sri Lanka’s Defence Minister, Ranjan Wijeratne and Supreme Commander, R. Premadasa, that all foreign troops had left Sri Lankan soil. The historic date was 20 March 1990.
In Madras the soldiers were given a lukewarm reception. And instead of Prime Minister V.P. Singh welcoming them when they touched Indian soil, the troops were flown to Delhi (and back) from Madras for this ceremony. It was a strange and contrived homecoming for the IPKF.
On 9 February 1999, the first memorial service dedicated to the 1248 officers and soldiers who fell in Sri Lanka was held in Bhopal under the aegis of the 21 Corps, born out of the Sri Lankan expedition. Ironically, on the same day, Indian Army’s eminent thinker and the army chief who launched the IPKF in Sri Lanka, General K. Sundarji, died. In a sense, IPKF was Sundarji’s brain child which he later lived to silently regret.
There is no doubt that the IPKF received a raw deal (pun intended) even before it reached Sri Lanka. There are many interpretations as to the compulsions for Indian intervention in Sri Lanka. Technically, it was not intervention as the IPKF had been invited by the President of Sri Lanka who was to become its supreme commander under the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord (ISLA). These range from the Indian grand design of establishing a permanent peacekeeping outpost in the Indian Ocean area, to creating a pan Tamil geographical entity in Sri Lanka, including the plantation Tamils, to enhancing its prestige through power projection in its sphere of influence. But the immediate concerns were more mundane: warding off threats to internal and external security (of both Sri Lanka and India), possessing Trincomalee and pre-empting the arrival of forces inimical to regional security.
The flip side is that the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka posed no threat to Indian security and that internal political rather than geostrategic factors forced the intervention. On balance, and with the benefit of hindsight, it can be said that India’s as well as Sri Lanka’s politico-military security concerns were correctly articulated in the ISLA, albeit on a flawed premise which led to its becoming, in Admiral V. Bhagwat’s memorable legalese, ‘unimplementable’.
The projection of power was to be across a mere 30 km stretch of water. That diplomacy did not work despite being backed up by force, reflected the absence of both politico-military synchronisation and popular national support in both countries. Further, the change of the President in Sri Lanka and the government in India sealed the fate of ISLA.
India had no past experience in military diplomacy or projection of military power. Its record in out-of-area operations was restricted to UN peacekeeping and peace enforcement missions, most notably in 1961-62 in the then Belgian Congo (Zaire). It was in the Congolese province of Katanga that the Indian Army fought its first overseas low intensity conflict. The Katangese gendarmerie had engaged an Indian brigade group in bush warfare, mainly guerrilla tactics.
The counter-insurgency campaign in Zaire was won by the Indian Army. It prevented Katanga from seceding from Congo. The Indian brigade in Congo, which included artillery and air force, was the largest military force to be sent overseas since World War II.
At home, the army’s performance in counter-insurgency has been impressive in the North East – varying in concept and conduct from Nagaland to Mizoram. The latter is our big success story, comparable with the British success in quelling the Chinese insurgency in Malaya. Much of the British Indian Army had fought in the jungles of Burma during World War II and it was the grit of Indian soldiers which finally defeated the Japanese at Kohima. Where no other army had succeeded, the Indian soldiers finally halted the Japanese juggernaut and turned the tide of the Burma campaign.
The warning order for Op Pawan in Sri Lanka was given in April 1987, three months before the actual induction of the IPKF. It was obvious from the initial size and composition of the force that LTTE intentions and capabilities had been completely misread, in both India’s capacity to influence and manipulate the Tamil Tigers.
The organisation and command and control structure that was set up and evolved was ad hoc to the core. (The 21 Corps in Bhopal is its present incarnation.) It was so acutely overloaded and cross-wired that the operational chain of command was blanketed by competing centres of power. There were other non-military encroachments too. Because the politico military goals and objectives were not fine-tuned, there was no clarity in mission and a mismatch of resources.
What the soldier requires most is a set of well-defined tasks and the wherewithal with which to carry them out. This was missing. Also missing and unknown to field commanders was the ‘higher intention’ and the bigger picture. That despite these macrosized shortcomings the IPKF helped implement a substantial portion of the ISLA, including weakening the LTTE, was no small achievement. But this has gone unnoticed and uncredited.
Once it became clear the LTTE was not going to abide by the ISLA, military operations had to be launched, but in a knee-jerk reaction. These were conducted in two phases. First, the IPKF had to wrest control of the Jaffna peninsula, including Jaffna town, the heart and symbol of Tamil Eelam. The fight for Jaffna was a high intensity – a no-holds-barred multi-directional advance to capture LTTE and destroy and limit its capability to prolong the conflict.
Combat was static in style – a positional war at which a conventional army is at its best and a guerrilla force at its worst. Both sides paid a heavy price, the LTTE especially, for engaging in conventional fighting when its forte was hit and run guerrilla warfare. (History repeated itself in 1995. Having learnt its lesson this time, the LTTE slipped out of Jaffna as soon as the Sri Lankan Army – sla – closed in on the town.)
The second phase of the IPKF-LTTE conflict was one of low intensity counter-insurgency, though at times it too turned high intensity. After consolidating in Jaffna, the IPKF was to spread out and hunt for the LTTE cadres who had escaped the dragnet as also those who were already deployed in the rest of the North Eastern Province (NEP).
Under the overall mandate of ISLA, the IPKF was required to establish operational control and dominance in the NEP, marginalise the LTTE and create conditions favourable to starting the political process. This would include the battle for the hearts and minds and isolating the LTTE from the people. The complexity of achieving this mission was highlighted by the incongruity of the IPKF fighting against the very Tamils whose interests they had been assigned to protect.
Another difficulty was the operational translation of terms like ‘create conditions for’, ‘marginalise’ and ‘break the back of insurgency’, as also other fancy words that strayed into IPKF lexicon. There was also this beguiling phrase, ‘loosening and tightening of the noose around the LTTE.’ This meant different things to different commanders, but never, perhaps the mischievous version, which suggested the IPKF had to let Prabhakaran get out of the bag. If operations were halted or suspended, they were for reasons other than letting Prabhakaran go.
The LTTE’s strategy was rooted in its firm demand and conviction in Eelam and the belief the IPKF would, sooner or later, have to leave Sri Lanka. It, therefore, sought to wear down the IPKF militarily and even more importantly, psychologically. Time was on its side. The Tigers demonstrably disputed and challenged IPKF control and tried to reassert themselves in so-called liberated areas. They followed the strategy of survival; by ensuring the buildup and replenishment of their military capacity by relying heavily on support from overseas Tamils.
While the LTTE varied its strategy from ‘confrontation’ to ‘avoidance of contact’, ‘hit and run’ remained the mainstay of its tactics. The IPKF on the other hand could not shed its psyche of a conventional force, though it effectively engaged in small-scale counter-insurgency operations. It was unable to engineer a change in mindset: fight a guerrilla like a guerrilla.
The IPKF carried out two major operations – Operation Checkmate (May 1988) and Operation Mahan Kartavya (October 1988) – as a curtain raiser to the elections and kick-starting the political process. The first operation was designed to flush the LTTE out from urban areas and confine them to their jungle hideouts. In the classical counter-guerrilla sense, this is akin to separating fish from water.
The bulk of the Tamil population lives on the eastern seaboard of Sri Lanka astride the coastal roads. Mahan Kartavya was to ensure that the LTTE was unable to interfere in the three elections – provincial council (November 1988), presidental (December 1988), and parliamentary (February 1989) – held after 11 years in the NEP. The violence-free elections (it was a mistake not holding provincial elections in the North) were testimony to the operational dominance of the IPKF. Equally of the considered strategy of the LTTE to let the elections be conducted and get the IPKF out of Sri Lanka.
After the completion of the political process which skirted the LTTE, the hidden agendas came alive. President Premadasa all but revoked the ISLA, cut a deal with the LTTE and began Operation Double Cross, which ironically claimed his life. Once Premadasa formally issued the ultimatum for the IPKF to leave Sri Lanka in June 1989, it became clear that his eviction strategy sponsored by the LTTE was irrevocable.
For the ltte it was now a matter of time before the field would be clear of the IPKF. Then only the SLA and other Tamil groups would be a hurdle to their achieving Eelam. The Tamil National Army (TNA) was created by RAW as an adhesive for the India-backed ERPLF-led North East Provincial Council. The TNA, not the IPKF, became the new target for the LTTE and also its source of Indian weaponry.
At the same time, the SLA and LTTE joined hands; it was then that the IPKF and not the LTTE which got isolated from the people. They saw the Indian decision to pull out the IPKF as a double-cross: first fighting the Tamils and then leaving them in the lurch, trapped in a new barrage of crossfire.
In early March 1990, in some respects Trincomalee resembled Hanoi at the time of the American pullout from Vietnam. The IPKF was deinducted from Sri Lanka, leaving friendly Tamil groups at the mercy of the LTTE.
Op Pawan was India’s largest and briefest 30-month long counter insurgency campaign involving four army divisions, tanks, artillery and helicopters. These military tools were used with restraint, but not in the manner popularly described: one hand or at times both hands tied behind the back.
The concern for civilian casualties was initially not as serious as it became later on, or as it is today due to human rights watches and the army’s own self-restraint commandments. Political considerations played an overarching role in the formulation of operational strategy as well as counter-insurgency doctrine and strategy. Thus, the periodic ceasefires were tantamount to switching operations on and off, impairing thereby both the motivation and momentum during their subsequent resumption.
Since there was no properly coordinated and integrated politico-military strategy, the conduct of battle too remained sectoral. Each division fought its battles in its designated geographical space without reference to what its neighbours were doing. The LTTE, on the other hand, waged a coordinated campaign, frequently shifting operational emphasis and resources.
Besides the imprecision in tasking and not knowing the bigger picture, the IPKF was inadequately trained and prepared for the transborder military expedition. Its single biggest failing was psychological warfare in which the LTTE shone throughout. There were various deficiencies in modern weapons and equipment. By contrast, the LTTE was equipped with ‘state of the art’ AK-47 rifles and hand-held radio equipment.
Next to guerrilla skills, motivation and intelligence, the rifle and radio are the two most important instruments of clandestine operations. In both these the IPKF lagged behind the IPKF; when they did receive some of the equipment it was too late. The major strategic handicap was the IPKF weakness in receiving timely intelligence – this despite RAW’s long and sustained alliance with LTTE.
Not even once, at least in the Batticaloa sector, did any external intelligence agency provide any worth-while intelligence to the field formations over the 30 months. If anything, RAW’s presence and influence in the field was the source of friction and confusion among other Tamil groups, leading to operational dissonance. The TNA, which was its creation, became the biggest embarrassment for the IPKF, both during its raising and training but even more when it was operationalised, because it had to be protected from the LTTE. This added to the already heavy IPKF operational burden.
Language was a problem both in communication as well as in deciphering inter-LTTE coded transmissions. One such message was translated two days too late. By then the LTTE had wiped out a big TNA camp. This camp could have been saved and a trap laid instead for the LTTE.
The IPKF did not and could not enjoy the operational flexibility of a sub-conventional guerrilla force. It not only had to control population centres, protect the people, help them run their business and day-to-day chores but also had to keep the LTTE at bay and secure the tenuous lines of communication. This meant securing and holding ground. It could vary its tactics, not so much the overall strategy.
Sometimes, the low intensity conflict became even lower. This had something to do with ethnic affinity of the combatants. The LTTE and IPKF had developed some emotional attachment, both in the run-up to the ISLA as in the run-up to the surrender of arms. At times, and especially at the beginning of hostilities, not including the Jaffna battle, the level of fighting was kept unconsciously controlled. There was at least one report of a unit of the Madras regiment which was suspected of having worked out with the LTTE a policy of live and let live.
Given the flaws in the ISLA, the impediments to its implementability and the operational handicaps – innate and self inflicted – did the IPKF fail in its mission? The short answer to that question is: No.
The military intervention in Sri Lanka was not so much a failure of the counter-insurgency campaign as it was the breakdown of coercive diplomacy. The hidden agendas carried by all sides – India, Sri Lanka and LTTE – further complicated any one party being able to achieve its agenda.
Many experts argue that India burnt its fingers in Sri Lanka. Young nations attain maturity after transcending geopolitical difficulties and learning geostrategic lessons. The LTTE has also learnt many lessons: that it is better-off sticking to guerrilla tactics and mobile war fighting than the conventional tactics it adopted in Jaffna. The bigger lesson is that it cannot expect to win Eelam militarily. This is the enduring lesson for all sides who are party to the ethnic conflict.
India has helped Sri Lanka in defending its territorial integrity and in maintaining its political stability. The IPKF presence allowed the SLA to crush the JVP. It succeeded in doing so not through military action but superior intelligence and by destroying the JVP leadership. Attacking the head of an insurgency movement has greater payoff than slugging at its roots alone. A serious, well-planned intelligence operation to nab Prabhakaran never materialised. All the IPKF did was dream about it. The LTTE, its Sea Tigers, Black Tigers and Tigresses are all the last word in motivation. They can be rated as the wiliest and deadliest insurgent group in the world.
The positive side of the military campaign was the politico-military awakening. If the decision to engage the LTTE was questioned at every level, so was its sanity doubted. Officers and other ranks gained first hand experience in administering towns, reviving moribund institutions and restoring normalcy. The IPKF’s most significant contribution was preparing the Tamils for elections and helping Colombo hold three of them. These bouts of electioneering in Sri Lanka later-enabled the army to help state governments in Punjab, J&K and elsewhere to hold free and fair elections.
Op Pawan was the first serious blooding of the army since the 1971 war. It shook up the rank and file and gave them the much-needed jolt to rouse units and battalions, some of who were quite laid back. Counter-insurgency is the infantry’s bread and butter. But in Sri Lanka, troops from other arms and services were also involved in close combat. It provided excellent training for about 100 infantry battalions and scores of non infantry units.
While higher leadership was found wanting, junior leaders and troops performed effectively, most of them through on-job, real time experience. Barring one officer who was from the artillery, every field commander belonged to the infantry. It was truly a perfect baptism for the infantry after 1971.
A number of books, including a few quickies, have appeared on the Indian intervention in Sri Lanka. There are unexplained gaps in all, principally in the military sphere. Two persons who can bridge the gap are Major General Harkirat Singh who was the first and only field commander to interact with the LTTE on a protracted basis, including Prabhakaran. General Harkirat’s summary removal from Jaffna in the heat of the Jaffna battle has never been explained. And his own lips remain sealed.
Similarly, Lt. General A.S. Kalkat, the officer commanding the IPKF, too has chosen to remain silent. Everyone knows he knows a lot because he often dealt directly with Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, frequently over the head of the army chief, General V.N. Sharma who would proudly refer to Kalkat as his ‘political general’. Kalkat has at times come close to revealing and then clamming up.
We in India are poor at recording history. But some of us who have led troops in the most intense counter-insurgency campaigns the army has ever fought, owe it to the future soldier to pen the unfinished slanging match between the IPKF and the LTTE in Sri Lanka. For the moment, let history record that the IPKF did a good job of a difficult mission.