Uniting against terror

They say the terrorist only needs to succeed once. A single attempt that strikes fear into the hearts of the citizenry that runs far deeper than the ensuing military losses. The aim of the terrorist is to create insecurity, instill fear and besiege a populace. The military gain is almost inconsequential. The resultant terror is the greater measure of success.
Therefore, at midnight on Sunday, March 26, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam succeeded.
The attack on the Katunayake Air Force base not only bears all the potential for exponential economic fallout for Sri Lanka, but turned a page in the war against the LTTE.
The Tigers have come of age. They may possess derelict and outdated aircraft that have little or no fighting power against the government owned supersonic jets, but the humiliating fact of the matter is that the organisation’s ‘air force’ not only attacked the high security base but went back home to the Wanni to roost 40 minutes later.
The damage sustained is virtually non-existent, so say the government. There was no harm caused to the international airport or any tourist there, leaving the authorities to breathe a sigh of relief. But succeed the LTTE did, and while it is unlikely that they would attempt it again any time soon, they returned to Wanni fully assured that they leave in their wake, a frightened and insecure population.
And indeed, if the LTTE is now aerially empowered, that means none of us are safe. The capital Colombo is now more vulnerable than ever, parliament is at risk, the President is at risk and to be sure, the ordinary citizen, going about his business in the heart of the city stands at great risk.
In fact the attack on the air force base increased the government’s defence burden a thousand times, upping the stakes and leaving it to consider options that have hitherto remained unchartered territory. The air force could till now, carry out sorties on rebel targets without looking over its shoulder all the time. Air power was till now, the state’s domain.
Since March 26, the equation has changed dramatically.
Art of War author and one of the greatest military strategists of all time, Sun Tzu would say that the Sunday night attack on the air base had a lesson to teach the government, the armed forces and the general public – never underestimate your enemy.
For years the media has been harping on the LTTE’s development of an air wing. There have been exposes and lengthy articles about the manner in which the Tigers had imported aircraft parts and smuggled them into their territory and sent their cadres abroad for training. For some reason, all this reporting and advanced warning had little or no impact on the forces’ preparedness for this eventuality.
It is time then, to gird up our loins for a battle like never before. It is time to quit harping about ‘Tigers becoming pussycats’ and certainly time to stop fighting a war in wonderland. Our jubilation at the recent military gains may have blinded us to the grim realities that have protracted this civil war for more than two decades. The time has come to wake up and smell the coffee.
For the government, the aerial bombardment of Katunayake has been a massive loss of face. It is not however by any stretch of the imagination a debacle. Proper damage control methods and better planning for contingencies on the ground will go a long way in neutralising the threat from the Tigers’ ‘air force’. Fortunately, the forewarning of their capability came with minimal losses; now is the time to maximise on that advantage. It has to simultaneously take steps to ease the minds of its people, who are now contemplating an existence with not only ground attacks to be wary of but also being bombed to smithereens in their beds at night by terrorist aircraft. The fear psychosis created by the Katunayake will be the hardest battle the government has to fight and it is one that cannot be won by blacking out details of the attack or concealing the truth. The government must treat its people as mature citizens, capable of dealing with the truth, however brutal and ugly reality may be. Concealment breeds suspicion and the people deserve to know.
Instead, the government seems intent to play the blame game. Within hours of the attack, Cabinet Spokesman Nimal Siripala De Silva unblinkingly told media personnel that the attacks had been carried out in planes the LTTE had acquired during the UNP initiated ceasefire agreement. The statement was rich, but not surprising, The Sri Lankan people have long since come to expect its leaders to be reactive to emergency situations rather than proactive, quick to pin blame and slow to introspect and take steps to prevent similarly adverse situations. De Silva’s comment came before an investigation had even commenced into the incident, making it all the more obvious that all the government was trying to gain from what is nothing less than a national crisis, was political mileage.
The main opposition United National Party has been no less lowly. Instead of reaching a hand of support out to the government to assist in the current crisis, it has been quick to condemn and eager to obtain maximum political gain from the attack. In fact, to the sorrow of many Sri Lankans, the Green camp has seemed almost jubilant about the turn of events, believing no doubt that this attack on Katunayake, like its predecessor in 2001, would hasten their ascent to power. The opposition could not be more wrong. In mature democracies worldwide, crisis and national tragedy have been a time for political rivals to unite for the good of a nation. It is a time to take off political blinkers and don nationalistic caps. There are moments at which opposition parties must rejoice at the plight of a government – this is not one of them. The only way to defeat terrorism is by standing united and this is exactly what Sri Lanka lacks.
Indeed, there is a tragedy greater than what occurred in Katunayake last week. In fact, some might say it was greater than the devastation of 2001. Our supreme tragedy is that our leaders do not have ‘national’ in their lexicon; that they cannot, no matter how dire the need, put the country first.