It would be as foolish to think that the war is won on the basis of Friday`s elimination of S.P. Tamilselvan, the public face of the LTTE, by a Sri Lanka Air Force bomb as to have believed that all was lost two Mondays ago when the Tigers carried out a devastating attack on the Anuradhapura airbase. These are the ups and downs of war and must be treated as such. Tamilselvan will be replaced and the LTTE will have somebody else functioning as head of its political wing and chief negotiator if and when peace talks resume. The Tigers will naturally want to avenge his death and will look at both soft and hard targets. At least one headline yesterday said that that the Air Force had avenged the Anuradhapura debacle. Military strategists do not (or should not) plot their actions on criteria such as avenging a reverse. Friday`s air strike was the result of good intelligence and accurate bombing combining successfully. Given that the 2008 budget will be presented next week, the timing could not have been better for the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration, especially in the context of its opponents hoping to pull off a negative vote.
The first news of Friday`s attack and its far-reaching implications came from the LTTE itself with its peace secretariat posting the information on its website. The various defence ministry and military websites confirmed that Tamilselvan and five of his mates were dead and the Tigers posthumously conferred the rank of brigadier, the highest they have bestowed, on the fallen leader whose antecedents were military having once served as the Tigers` Jaffna commander. He began as an LTTE fighter before he was assigned political work following a battlefield injury. Some knowledgeable analysts say that his activities at the time of his death were not confined to politics alone as a leading LTTE figure, he had wide-ranging responsibilities encompassing many areas of the organization he served. While he was not as suave as Anton Balasingham who died last year and lacked the previous chief negotiator`s fluency in English, Tamilselvan undoubtedly possessed public relations skills which he used to good effect while interacting with diplomats, journalists and representatives of the international community who once upon a time used to make ritual pilgrimages to Kilinochchi.
The view that all the good intelligence Sri Lanka`s security forces gather comes from abroad has been rubbished by Friday`s bombing of what did not prove to be a safe house South of Kilinochchi for Tamilselvan and his five comrades who perished in the attack. While it is true that the country`s foreign friends have provided useful information that had on occasions enabled the interdiction of LTTE arms supplies among others, it is clear that ground intelligence from domestic sources enabled the successful strike on Friday. Just as much as the SLAF would have tightened its defences following the October 22 suicide attack on its base, the LTTE would do likewise. But there will be no human rights defenders to speak for anybody getting the third degree from the LTTE on suspicion of having even remotely helped provide information that led to a successful bombing sortie. It is unlikely that any news of what might happen, if that is not already an accomplished fact, will ever filter out of the Wanni.
Because of the heat of international public opinion, the Tigers have in the recent past desisted from outright terrorist attacks on civilian targets. No doubt an effort will be made to project Tamilselvan as a political rather than military activist and fault Colombo for targeting him although it would stretch anybody`s incredulity to regard him as a civilian. Given the fact that he died by ``aerial bombardment`` by the SLAF, as the posting on the LTTE`s peace secretariat website had it, compunctions against attacking civilian targets may very well become less compelling than before. This is something that not only the security authorities but the ordinary man in the street must take note of. Concerns for Prabhakaran`s own safety too would naturally have arisen in the context of the elimination of the LTTE`s most visible cadre.
Some foreign news agencies have quoted some gung ho remarks from a senior official saying that the military, with information of where key LTTE personnel are holed out, and ``we will take them on one by one.`` Such statements, if the official has been correctly quoted, are best avoided. The need of the hour is for all concerned to keep their eyes open and their mouths shut. A very careful evaluation of the scenario post-Anuradhapura and now post-Tamilselvan is essential. No doubt this work continues on an ongoing basis. However, it is essential as we have warned before that there must be no political agendas attached to military strategy. Our politicians, like their counterparts elsewhere in the world, are adept at preening themselves over battlefield successes but are slow in assuming responsibility for reverses. What is important that only military considerations should be taken into account in taking military decisions. Political timetables have no place in these matters.
Sri Lanka is under immense pressure from influential members of the international community to abandon what is perceived as a militaristic approach and return to the negotiating table. President Rajapaksa has on many occasions gone on record that he is very willing to find a negotiated settlement though not on the LTTE`s terms. The Tigers would like a return to the lines that existed when the Ceasefire Agreement was signed in February 2002 and has during previous rounds of peace talks urged the full implementation of the CFA they have breached many times more than the security forces. The president commands national support in his view that there will be no fall back to the previous lines and, as has been repeatedly urged in our columns, there must be a verifiable method of decommissioning LTTE arms. That is an essential quid pro quo.