On Sunday December 7, the security forces were within `kissing distance` of the outer defence lines of Kilinochchi, announced the defence spokesman. On Monday, December 8, it became `Troops in Kilinochchi are targeting the town and they are in the vicinity of the town.` However, by December 9 it seems the security forces` strategic focus had shifted from Kilinochchi to Mullaitivu according to the defence ministry. This contradicts what the army commander Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka said in his Sunday Observer interview on the same day he said, `after capturing Kilinochchi the security forces will definitely capture Mullaitivu.`
In military parlance, this kind of shift in 24 hours takes place only in tactical rather than strategic focus. Somebody is not getting the terminology right, or the army is facing major problems in turning the `kiss` into reality in Kilinochchi. Its two-pronged offensive on Kilinochchi by Task Force -I from the west and by 57 Division from the southwest was reported facing very heavy LTTE resistance. Could this have compelled them a change in the security forces` strategy? The defence spokesman had acknowledged this at least on the Task Force-I front. In the Muhamalai sector also there appears to be no substantial progress in spite of 53 Division`s claims of having captured 800 m long and 8 km wide line of defences there. All these bits put together would indicate stalling of the offensive.
A second possibility is that 59 Division was making better progress having captured Alampil on December 8. With Task Force-III, making good progress on the A34 Mankulam-Mullaitivu road branching off eastwards from A9 road 59 Division`s offensive to Mullaitivu would be benefited. Therefore, a tactical shift of immediate focus from Kilinochchi to Mullaitivu is understandable.
But such a shift in axis would still be a tactical shift. Ultimately, the security forces have to either capture Kilinochchi or force the LTTE to vacate it after they pay a heavy price. Then only the A9 Kandy-Jaffna road can be opened to restore some form of normal life for most of the population of the Northern Province. Regaining the A9 road from LTTE control by evicting them from Kilinochchi Elephant Pass would always remain the strategic objective of the entire operation.
But these are all military semantics in the absence of independent sources to verify operational information, semantics of both the defence spokesman and the LTTE become important they indicate the issues hidden behind the words.
After the capture of Pooneryn on November 15, crossing Akkarayankulam bund on October 31, and capture of Mankulam on November 17, it is a month. Evidently since then, the momentum of advance has been stalled due to adverse weather on a few days, and stiff LTTE resistance that had been progressively increasing. This would contradict repeated Sri Lankan assertion that the LTTE was on the run. If this is not so, what is holding up the troops?
Loss of momentum in an offensive means more time for the opponent to recoup, rest, repair and re-adjust defences, reinforce positions, launch counter offensives and inflict more casualties. The cost of war in terms of men, material and money goes up as the clock ticks in days and the days become months. The more it is prolonged the better it is for the forces on the defence.
Fortunately, the army commander has cleverly put himself in an advantageous position with multiple options of axes to pick and choose. He also has adequate troops for achieving the strategic objective. Even granting the monsoon rains that affected both sides comes in fits and starts, the progress is becoming slow and taking too long. This raises a few operational questions:
n Why is the offensive to Kilinochchi ending up as a slow crawl?
n Has the LTTE built up its strength beyond the ken of four divisions?
n Is the army commander facing a major operational dilemma or a political rider interfering with his operations for reasons not known to the public?
In this context, Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka`s comments on India`s role in Sri Lanka in an interview to the Sunday Observer is interesting for more reasons, than his derogatory description of Nedumaran and Vaiko,(Tamil Nadu politicians who head the pro-LTTE political lobby in Tamil Nadu) as jokers who receive money from the LTTE. Regarding the operations, he sounded quite confident of capturing both Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu. He was not unduly worried about the slow progress or any casualties. There was apparently no operational stress. Does it mean operations are going on smoothly at an accepted pace? In the absence of access to information, our questions still linger, unanswered.
(Col. R. Hariharan, a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia, served as the head of intelligence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka 1987-90.)