Once bitten twice bloodied
Army’s sudden rush of blood, to discard tried,
tested and proven tactics, sheds more of it in its latest fiasco
Coconut plantations, paddy fields, sparse vegetation and patches of
sand, not to mention the two km wide and 25 km long lagoon, mark the
terrain across the 12 km wide southern neck of the Jaffna peninsula.
To the east of this stretch is the blue sea and to the west is the
The Forward Defence Lines (FDL) of the military and the LTTE, run across
Kilali on the west, Muhamalai in the middle and Nagarkovil towards the
east. The lines are extended, not only across the neck but also, a small
distance up and down along the lagoon and sea, to prevent an amphibious
attack by the enemy.
The location is not suitable for offensive military operations, as there
is no chance of assailing the flanks of the enemy or reaching its rear
Also, the terrain is not very suitable for military operations, given
the limited manoeuverability in the open stretch.
On top of that, with the North-East monsoonal showers lashing the area,
the stretch has become very boggy, making Main Battle Tanks and even
Infantry Carrying Vehicles (ICVs) difficult, if not impossible, to be
Muhamalai an Army graveyard
The weather is also not conducive for ground attack Mi 24 gunships of
the air force to take on the enemy.
It was in this backdrop that a large-scale raid was undertaken by the
military on Wednesday, November 8. Incidentally, today marks the 13th
month anniversary of the army debacle in Muhamalai on October 11, 2006,
when the military launched a similar offensive.
Some 175 security forces personnel perished and 400 more sustained
injuries in last year’s military operation just before the monsoon set
The Tigers’ offensive at Muhamalai on August 11, 2006, also turned out
to be a disaster on its side.
The moral of the lesson from the two attempts last year suggests that
this particular stretch is better suited for defence than offense.
The military’s advantage in air and armoured support could not be made
In recent months, Senpathi has warned that the accuracy of the Tigers’
artillery strikes was a matter for the security forces to worry about.
Even Security Forces Commander (Jaffna) Maj. Gen. G.A. Chandrasiri was
unsuccessfully targeted a few months back, while the Mechanised Infantry
Brigade Commanding Officer Lt. Col. Ralph Nugera was successfully
targeted early this year.
More than anything else, the battle theatre is an open stretch, making
retreating soldiers easily vulnerable to Tiger artillery and mortar
In this backdrop, why did the military undertake the operation on
Wednesday, despite the adverse weather conditions the security forces
had to grapple with?
Various reasons are trotted out from different quarters, for the
military operation this week.
But, before we get to them, let us consider another important
The military has been consistently claiming that all its actions were
counter operations to LTTE offensives or at least pre-emptive, to
prevent Tiger strikes. This Wednesday, too, the military propaganda
centre wanted to take the same path.
The truth and not the whole truth
But, Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa was keen on proclaiming
the truth, admitting that the military undertook the operation. The
reason: It was too obvious that the whole affair could not be concealed.
Previously, the LTTE posted pictures of security forces personnel taken
hostage, guns and other military equipment left behind on its websites.
These exposures only undermine the credibility of the security forces.
This time too it posted pictures of arms and ammunition left behind by
the security forces.
The Defence Secretary also knows that the Cease-Fire Agreement (CFA) is
almost a dead letter in terms of violations and the respective lines of
control. Hence, no qualms about violating the CFA.
But, unknown to Rajapaksa, there is another development. The whole
operation is made out to be a political blunder, by ordering an
operation on that scale, to, hopefully, announce at the Budget, a new
line of control along this neck.
On a previous occasion, too, the current administration has sought to
obtain political mileage out of a military operation. The announcement
of the completion of the Sampur operation in September 2006 was also
delayed by a few days till the SLFP Party Convention for maximum
To coincide with the deadline for abolishing the Executive Presidency,
President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s government ordered Operation Leap
Forward that returned to base faster than it took off.
Learning from the lessons following the first misadventure at Muhamalai
last year, the army is keen to keep the death toll and casualty figures
as low as possible.
But, the truth is that an operation in this theatre was likely to have
high casualties for lack of cover, unlike in the Wanni jungles.
Accordingly, small teams of elite forces and infantry did the trick in
the eastern jungles and continue to do so in the Wanni, where the LTTE
is finding it increasingly difficult to prevent the security forces
eventually from penetrating.
Tigers wait for the kill
Since the terrain along the Kilali-Muhamali-Nagarkovil axis is more
suited for defensive warfare, than staging an offensive, the casualty
figures of the retreating side in an open theatre were likely to be
With artillery positions in Pooneryn and mortar positions at Pallai
still secure, despite air force claims of pounding them time and again,
the military should have anticipated that level of counter action.
The LTTE is clearly having a manpower problem and would prefer to take
on the military using indirect fire, than go for face to face
confrontations. But, in defending territory, this was inevitable. The
LTTE is also in no mood to attack the army’s FDLs across this southern
The Tigers would prefer to attack high value targets with limited cadres
or resort to suicide bombings, than undertake large-scale offensives,
until its morale is high. Sections of the military believe that the
Tigers, in late November, were planning to take on the FDLs along this
axis and push forward to Jaffna. Hence, the pre-emptive operation that
was also meant to destroy bunkers.
The Tigers are aware that the security forces have, besides the
artillery and mortars, the deadly multi barrel rocket launchers (MBRLs)
that would be put to good use, as in April 2001.
If the Tigers failed in their tracks in April 2001, when their morale
was high, and at the beginning of the undeclared ‘Eelam War IV’ in
August, 2006, it is unlikely when they are fighting with their backs to
They would rather dig in and prevent the military from advancing through
the Wanni. So, the pre-emptive action was uncalled for. Destroying of
bunkers could have been done with limited operations by small groups as
observed during the past several weeks. It was a slow, but steady, and
safe approach that was making a dent in the Tiger defences.
This should have continued until the Tigers were worn out so that they
could be taken line after line and when they were burnt up with no power
to push, the army should have gone for the Tiger’s jugular, once the
Army rushes in where Tigers fear to tread
Instead, throwing caution to the wind, the army, like a batsman who
has lost his patience, had a fling, skying the ball for an easy catch
that the fielders and bowler were expecting.
This attack came hot on the heels of the air force scoring a bull’s eye,
when its bombers swiftly targeted the eastern Kilinochchi bunker that
Thamilselvan, the Tigers’ de facto No. 2, was putting up in. This
success was preceded by the navy’s unprecedented destruction of four
Tiger vessels in this war of attrition.
The army, which has had its fair share of success in the East, suddenly
had a rush of blood, instead of patiently penetrating the Wanni. In the
north, the prudent course of action is a series of limited operations
until the right time.
More to it than meets the eye
Other reasons are attributed for forcing the pace and the tempo.
In as much as, ‘war is too serious a matter to be left in the hands of
the generals,’ waging war and selecting battles for political expediency
is another dangerous exercise.
Last year’s Muhamalai operation was executed despite President Mahinda
Rajapaksa assuring the international community that the army would not
The military is an extension of the government. Therefore, the defence
minister, the defence secretary, the chief of defence staff and the
service chiefs must plan and execute strategy, after the government lays
down general policy.
On war and peace, ideally there must be continuity in policy even with
change in administrations.
It doesn’t mean that all battles can be won in a war. For instance, in
Vietnam, the US army won most of the battles, but lost the war.
Sometimes, you have to pay the price of taking a decision. As in this
latest case, you might have to take a beating. That is fine, provided
there is a rationale for each strategy, not, however, based on petty
The vote following the Second Reading of the Budget stands as a Sword of
Damocles over the head of the Rajapaksa Government. A defeat here would
mean an automatic dissolution of Parliament.
The JVP is the key political party on whom the Government depends for
its survival. The Marxist party is also bent on defeating the Tigers and
fully endorses the government’s military strategy. Hence, was it a
politically-motivated military decision to take on Muhamalai on the day
the 2008 Budget was unveiled in parliament? The failure at Muhamalai,
should open the eyes of one and all, given that Rs 165 billion for
defence is unprecedented?
In the end, the purpose was defeated by the Tigers but, at a cost to
them as well.
‘Mourners’ more than a match
Did the Security Forces expect the Tigers to be still in mourning
for Thamilselvan, when they undertook the large-scale raid? At the time
of his death, Thamilselvan was overlooking Pooneryn.
Mourning or no mourning, the counter plans were in place and well
executed in the end by self styled “Colonel” Thileepan
Contrast this with the army at Saliyapura and the air force at
Anuradhapura. They were all in a jubilant mood with Super Cross and
Super Star when the Tigers struck.
Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, they say. How true!!!
In launching military operations, there should be proper planning
and examples from the past must be taken.
When taking the fight to the enemy’s area of control, another point must
be considered. The area could be booby trapped, as was the case not just
on Wednesday, but several times before, during the operations in the
Anti-personnel mines and those that set off claymore mines, Improvised
Explosives Devices, trenches, false frontages must be guarded against,
as you are fighting a top guerilla organization with conventional
After Operation Jayasikuru, the army learnt it the hard way. Columns of
infantrymen advancing into enemy-held territory, could be disastrous.
Hence, a different strategy of small groups of elite forces was used to
beat the Tigers in their own lair. But, in the southern neck of the
peninsula, this is not possible. At least, not during the monsoon, and
not as long as the LTTE gun positions are in place at Pooneryn and
Pallai. Hence, another strategy must be mapped out.
of the military offensive in Muhamalai, Army Commander Lt. Gen. Sarath
Fonseka skipped a visit to Jaffna, and did so only on Thursday, after
the operation was called off.
That General Fonseka met the Security Forces (SF) Commander (Jaffna)
Maj. Gen. G.A. Chandrasiri only on Thursday, raised speculation that the
army chief had washed his hands off this military operation, that some
claim was a political decision.
It may also be a tactic on Fonseka’s part to take the Tigers by
surprise, as previously, the LTTE had got wind of operations on the
cards, when the army chief made a visit.
At the Security Council Meeting following the first Muhamalai debacle,
Fonseka claimed responsibility. This time around who will claim
The target during this operation was the LTTE’s Muhamalai FDLs.
The Reserve Strike Division, also known as 53 Division, and the holding
55 Division were involved in this operation.
Jaffna SF Commander General Chandrasiri was in touch with the General
Officer Commanding (GOC) 53 Division, Brigadier Samantha Suriyabandara
and the 55 GOC Brigadier Kamal Gunaratne. More than 300 men were
handpicked for the operation.
Infantry from 5 GW, 1 VIR and 6 GR of the Air Mobile Brigade (AMB) of
the 53 Division, were alerted to move out of their FDLs in Muhamalai, to
launch this surprise attack.
The 53 Division consists of elite forces that include the AMB, the 533
Brigade and the Mechanised Infantry Brigade, which was not deployed, as
the operation was called off after the Tigers rained artillery and
mortar fire, when the troops took control of the first line in the early
hours of Wednesday.
Troops deployed along the Muhamalai FDLs from the 55 Division and
attached to 4 SLLI, 7 VIR, 4 GW and 1 SLLI, were also given instructions
to support troops of the AMB, in a bid to take the Tiger bunker line.
Troops, using explosives, are believed to have destroyed several bunkers
of the LTTE and as they advanced, fired at Tiger cadres on the second
line. The military claims that some 57 Tigers were killed and 50 more
injured in the fierce fighting that lasted a few hours, before troops
returned to base at 8:30 a.m. Tiger casualties include those from
artillery and MBRL fire. Several Tiger vehicles carrying reinforcements
and logistics from Iyakachchi, Chempiyanpattu and Pallai, were hit by
When troops retreated to base, the Tigers fired 81 mm mortars and 120 mm
mortars at them from Pallai, while a barrage of artillery fire came from
The military admits 11 killed and 50 wounded, classified according to
the seriousness of the injuries as P1, P2 and P3. The LTTE displayed
eight T.56 guns and ammunition left behind by the retreating soldiers.
Those from the engineering corps, deployed to neutralize the highly
booby trapped area, were also injured. Troops who stepped on Johnny
mines, not only lost their legs, but the action sparked off claymore
mines. Improvised Explosive Devices were also used by the Tigers, who
had dug up trenches and pits to trap troops. Though the air force
deployed MI 24 helicopter gunships to assist ground troops, their role
was very limited, given the adverse weather conditions.
However, unconfirmed reports place the death toll of the military at 20
and the wounded at 115. No battle tanks were lost by the military as
claimed by the LTTE.