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Selected Writings by Dharmeratnam Sivaram (Taraki)

Creeping advantage: can the government hold on to it?

23rd November 1997


The latest argument in favour of the govern- ment’s war strategy is one that is based on the concept of ‘the creeping advantage’.

Unlike several bravado but naive theories which are afloat to bolster the PA’s approach to the Eelam War III, the ‘creeping advantage argument’ contains a degree of plausibility (or at least a compelling semblance of it) and hence merits some assessment.

The explanations currently proffered by the army’s top brass about the way in which the Eelam War III is being prosecuted, though not conceptualised as such, are in essence garbled versions of the ‘creeping advantage’ argument.

(It was left to an acutely sensible defence analyst in the west to present it as a tersely lucid concept.)

What does the creeping advantage which the government forces are said to possess in Eelam War III consist of?

It must be said at the outset that the argument is predicated on an inexorable denouement of the government’s strategic objective.

The creeping advantage unfolds thus -

- The government eventually opens the Main Supply Route (MSR) to Jaffna despite, let us say, fighting for another six months in the Wanni. Then supplies to Jaffna are restored, the pressure on troops holding the place is eased as ‘rotation’ is facilitated by road transport. Operations in the Wanni assume greater depth as troops launch offensives into LTTE terrain on both sides of the MSR, debilitating, thereby, the LTTE’s fighting power. Gradually pull out army units from the peninsula, handing over areas vacated by them to the Police, to re-deploy for offensive operations in the eastern and western interior of the Wanni. Eventually the peninsula is managed by a single division and the Police.

The Wanni operations weaken the LTTE and reduce it over the years or, with ample luck, months to a band of guerrillas. Once this is achieved, the Wanni is supervised by a single division and the Police, perhaps with the assistance of some ex-Tamil militant groups.

This will then leave the government with three extra divisions and perhaps a Task Force to wrest control of the east from the LTTE and dominate it with ease.

This in short is what the ‘creeping advantage’ should ultimately entail. The basic point in this argument is that even if it were to take many years to achieve all this, the army is in a position to do it, and that the LTTE, despite its tactical brilliance or dedicated fighting power, can only, at its best, slow the process but can never stop it for good.

Two questions arise here.

How long can the system bear the effects and cost of the war before the creeping advantage secures the northeast for the government completely?

Can the LTTE’s staying power to keep up sufficient pressure on the system (not merely on the army and the government) be crushed within this period ?

There are many who insist that the economy of Sri Lankan can indefinitely absorb the cost of the Eelam war. They, more often than not, do not say what kind cost they are talking about.

The fact is that the LTTE has been able to compel the PA government into increasing defence spending to phenomenal levels since it came to office. Here are some figures Batticaloa MP Joseph Pararajasingham gave in Parliament on the budget vote (as reproduced in the Virakesari of Friday).

The total amount the PA government has spent on defence since it came to office in 1994 is equivalent to the money that was spent on the war from 1983 to mid August 1994. The defence expenditure for 1998 is equivalent to the total defence spending for the first seven and a half years of the Eelam war from 1983. The 1998 defence spending is 23 percent of the country’s total revenue and 13 1/2 percent of the total expenditure for 1998.

It is not the purely monetary calculations but the deterioration of the general quality of life and income distribution which are important in this assessment. Such conditions will, among other things, inevitably produce a very poor quality of manpower pool from which the army can draw recruits.

The LTTE which, in 1983 July, was only able to hit a platoon and run away, is holding down three divisions in the Wanni today. One cannot ignore the truth that the LTTE has clearly demonstrated an ability since last year to take on divisions and effectively handle several large battle fronts simultaneously despite the government allocating for defence this year the equivalent of what the UNP spent on the war for seven and half years.

The degree of damage the LTTE is able to inflict on the government’s military assets is going up almost inexorably every month. (the Mi 24 which fell into Kokilai, for example).

Leave alone the point at which this trend can be reversed, but the point at which the army can at least slow it down is no where in sight. (stopping the LTTE from firing missiles or using artillery for instance)

Let’s assume that the MSR to Jaffna is opened eventually. The army can pull out troops for stepping up pressure on the LTTE in the Wanni only if the counter-insurgency operation in peninsula is a small scale one — the work of one army division and Police. But as we showed last week, and as events in the peninsula have proven since then, the army’s counter-insurgency (CI) operation in the peninsula stands in need of further expansion if it has to manage the deteriorating security situation there.

The Police are helpless bystanders in the Jaffna CI programme. This is in sharp contrast to their significant role in the east during 1990-94 counter-insurgency operation.

With less troops, the government was able to reduce the LTTE to very small isolated groups in the eastern hinterlands during this period. The terrain and the demographic character of the region helped. Jaffna is different. Despite the level of saturation reached by the army, the LTTE is able to hit troops almost daily in the peninsula now.

Hence, if the government cannot pull out at least one division from Jaffna for intensifying operations in the Wanni interior after the MSR is secured, then it will be compelled to keep all three divisions currently engaged in Jaya Sikurui tied down to the Vavuniya-Jaffna route.

If the Tigers compel the government into this situation until the next election while continuing to increase the degree of damage they can inflict on the army’s military assets, then the creeping advantage in the Eelam War might inexorably slip into Prabhaharan’s hands.

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