The Zia factor in Sri Lanka, Pakistan relationship
War on terror revisited
by Shamindra Ferdinando
President Zia-ul-Haq was killed on August 17th, 1988 when a Pakistan Air Force C 130 crashed just five minutes after taking off. Among the dead were Gen. Akhtar Khan, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee and US Ambassador to Islamabad, Arnold Raphel. In accordance with the Indo-Lanka Accord (ILA), the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) was deployed in the temporarily-merged North-Eastern Province, therefore the SLA was confined to barracks. Many felt that Sri Lanka’s relationship with Pakistan could go sour following the Pakistani President’s death. Had that happened, Sri Lanka’s defence would have suffered irreparable damage. In spite of political turmoil, successive governments in Pakistan remained committed to Sri Lanka’s defence right throughout. The tough talking General said at the conclusion of his Colombo visit that had Pakistan been an arms producing country at that time, it would have given anything to Sri Lanka.
In December 1985, Pakistan threw its full weight behind Sri Lanka’s fight against Indian sponsored terrorism with the then President Zia-ul-Haq visiting Colombo on the invitation of President J. R. Jayewardene. During his five-day visit, the Pakistani leader called upon the world to help Sri Lanka preserve its sovereignty and territorial integrity.
President Zia-ul-Haq’s arrival on the morning of December 10, 1985 gave a tremendous boost to bilateral relations with Pakistan pledging its unstinted support for the Sri Lankan Army (SLA), to acquire the required expertise in anti-insurgency operations. The visiting President was accompanied by his wife. Pakistan stepped-in as the SLA was struggling to cope up with the rapidly deteriorating situation in the Jaffna peninsula. For want of strength as well as the expertise, the SLA struggled to contain terrorism.
The historic visit took place against the backdrop of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979, which paved the way for unprecedented cooperation among US-led Western powers, Pakistan and China against the Soviets. Pakistan spearheaded a costly destabilization campaign in occupied Afghanistan until the parties to the conflict reached agreement on a Soviet pullout. The former super power began withdrawing forces in May 1988 and completed the process in February 1989.
The SLA had been battling five major terrorist groups, namely the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), People’s Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE), Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization (TELO), Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF) and Eelam Revolutionary Organization of Students (EROS) at the onset of the first eelam war. Except the PLOTE, the other groups worked together as members of the Eelam National Liberation Front (ENLF).
The Pakistan leader’s state visit took place in the wake of the collapse of the Thimpu initiative (July/Aug 1985), and the breakdown of the three-month-long ceasefire (June 18-Sept. 18, 1985) as well as an attempt to extend the same by three more months.
JRJ vows to liquidate terrorists
Although President JRJ declared his intention to take on the terrorists in case Indian initiatives failed to bear fruit, the SLA lacked the strength to conduct a successful ground offensive in early 1986. According to SLA’s 50th anniversary publication, at the end of December 1985, the regular force comprised 1,055 officers and 17,876 other ranks (Volunteer Force comprised 281 officers and 4,771 other rankers), whereas in 1983, the regular force consisted of 615 officers, 9,513 other rankers (Volunteer Force comprised 163 officers and 3,130 other rankers).
Before the eruption of major hostilities in July 1983, the SLA had just a few regular infantry battalions, namely the First battalion of the Sri Lanka Light Infantry (I SLLI) raised on May 12, 1950, First Battalion of the Sri Lanka Sinha Regiment (I SLSR) raised on October 1, 1956 and the First Battalion of the Gemunu Watch (IGW), raised on December 7, 1962.
The fourth infantry formation, the First Battalion of the Rajarata Rifles (I RR), which was raised on January 15, 1980, was disbanded on August 14, 1983 following a revolt by a section of the formation stationed at Saliyapura. This was consequent to I RR troops blamed for violence unleashed in the wake of the killing of a member deployed for election duty in Jaffna on May 18, 1983.
The SLA raised the First Commando Regiment as a squadron on March 15, 1980. It was given the status of a Regiment on March 15, 1986.
Despite the gradual increase in strength, the SLA still couldn’t muster the required strength needed to eradicate terrorism, though President JRJ as well as the then National Security Minister, Lalith Athulathmudali publicly vowed to pursue a military option, in case negotiations failed to produce the desired results.
In an interview with India Today in December 1985, President JRJ vowed to go ahead with military action regardless of the consequences. When India Today asked what a military solution entailed, President JRJ said his government would do everything in its power to achieve ‘complete eradication of terrorist activities in the country’.
JRJ welcomed the Pakistani leader in Colombo close on the heels of his meeting with Indian Premier Rajiv Gandhi on the sidelines of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit in Dhaka (Dec. 7-8, 1985), to explore ways and means of convincing the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) as well as LTTE, PLOTE, TELO, EPRLF and TELO to resume negotiations.
The main stumbling block for a negotiated settlement was the armed groups’ confidence that they were superior to the SLA. They remained confident of their tactics to counter any move made by the SLA in Jaffna. Their strategies heavily depended on the effective deployment of landmines and ambushes in the peninsula. For want of a cohesive strategy to counter the growing threat, the SLA found itself under siege in August 1985. The situation continued to deteriorate with Jaffna bases totally depending on supplies by sea and air, due to the blockade of overland routes. The SLA couldn’t even maintain overland access between major bases.
Pakistani instructors at Saliyapura
Former Army Commander, General Gerry H. de Silva, in his memoirs titled, A Most Nobel Profession: Memories That Linger, quotes President Zia- ul-Haq as having declared that he was prepared to meet whatever requirements of Sri Lankan armed forces. According to General de Silva, the Pakistani President was responding to an Indian journalist at a media conference held at the Defence Ministry at the conclusion of the state visit.
Gen. de Silva, who had served as Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner in Islamabad in the 1990s, explained how Pakistan had gone out of its way to help the Sri Lankan military to fight terrorists. As Sri Lanka-Pakistan relations expanded, President Zia–ul-Haq had sent the then Regimental Commander of Special Forces, Brigadier Tariq Mahmood to explore ways and means of enhancing training facilities in Sri Lanka. The then Colonel General Staff, Gerry de Silva had to take the Pakistani veteran around the country to select a training facility. After having inspected several bases, Brigadier Mahamood picked Saliyapura, home of the Gajaba Regiment, to launch an intensive training programme for a selected group of officers-Non Commissioned Officers and junior leaders. According to General de Silva, Pakistani instructors trained nearly 500 in two batches. Pakistan also accommodated many Sri Lankan personnel at institutions at home, including at the Infantry Training School, in Quetta.
Pakistan played a major role in the gradual transformation of a once ceremonial army into a formidable fighting force. In fact, during the eelam war I (1983-1987), Pakistan had been the main supplier of small arms, according to General Gerry de Silva.
Indian media onslaught
President Zia-ul-Haq’s visit triggered speculation of a large scale military build-up against terrorist groups operating in the Jaffna peninsula. On behalf of the ENLF, the EPRLF issued a statement from India accusing President JRJ of planning to launch what it called the final offensive targeting the Jaffna peninsula. The EPRLF wouldn’t have issued such a hard hitting statement without the consent of its masters in New Delhi. The EPRLF alleged that the SLA was amassing troops in the peninsula and a fresh offensive was imminent. The propaganda campaign was timed for the Pakistani leader’s visit. An irate President JRJ directed the then Joint Operations Command (JoC) Chief, Lt. Gen. Cyril Ranatunga to counter Indian propaganda. Lt. Gen. Ranatunga issued a strongly worded rebuttal during President Zia-ul-Haq’s presence in Colombo.
Pakistan simply ignored the high profile media campaign directed against growing relations with Sri Lanka. The SLA would have found itself in a catastrophic situation if not for the prompt Pakistan training project launched by President Zia-ul-Haq. Interestingly, the Pakistani leader also accommodated SLA personnel at training facilities in Pakistan. Addressing a seminar in Colombo, which dealt with Pakistan-Sri Lanka relations, on Feb. 23, 2005, General Gerry de Silva, recollected how Islamabad’s growing role perturbed the Indian government during President JRJ’s period. A grateful former Army chief said that Pakistan had accommodated Sri Lankan personnel at Quetta, where young officers received specialist training, while junior leaders underwent intensive anti-terrorist training at Mangla and Shinkiari. President Zia-ul-Haq went to the extent of having a group of Pakistani cooks trained in Colombo to prepare Sri Lankan cuisine for those undergoing training there.
The SLLI, the SLSR, the GW and the newly raised First Battalion of the Gajaba Regiment (IGR), benefited tremendously from training provided by the Pakistanis.
Retired Warrant Officer Class II, T. M. S. Rodrigo, formerly of the Commando Regiment, recollected the role played by Brigadier Tariq Mahmood in facilitating parachute training for Sri Lankan personnel. (Decorated veteran Mahmood died in an accident one year after the death of General Zia-ul-Haq in a plane crash on August 17th, 1988. Some speculated that Mahmood, who was very close to the Pakistani leader, had purposely refrained from opening his parachute at a commemorative ceremony). The Special Service Group (SSG) was in charge of training conducted here. The former commando said that Pakistan had provided expertise in various fields over a period of time, beginning with intense training for the infantry at Saliyapura, Anuradhapura, in early 1986. "Pakistan remained solidly behind us throughout the military campaign until the conclusion of the conflict in May 2009," Rodrigo said, appreciating providing the required help to attain expertise in operations behind enemy lines. Responding to a query, Rodrigo said that the multifaceted Pakistan project had been geared to strengthen the overall fighting capability of the SLA.
Rodrigo, who retired in 2003 after having served the SLA for many years, explained the difficulty in obtaining foreign expertise at the onset of the conflict, due to external factors. The Pakistan project here had been timely and also of critical importance to the SLA’s efforts to build-up strength to face terrorism, he said.
Israeli expertise to handle explosives
One-time Commandant of the elite Special Task Force (STF), retired senior DIG Nimal Lewke recollected the role played by President JRJ’s son, Ravi Jayewardene (RJ) in bringing in foreign experts at a time the police and the military were struggling to tackle terrorism. Much to the surprise of those who had alleged that the government lacked a cohesive strategy to meet the threat of terrorism, the then Defence advisor, RJ, obtained the services of ex-British Special Air Services (SAS) personnel employed by KMS, an expensive firm managing mercenaries. In fact, the STF had been the first to benefit from foreign expertise in counter-terrorism operations in the wake of the Black July 1983 riots. According to Lewke, Israeli army instructors had conducted a special course for a group of security forces and police personnel at the Panagoda cantonment during 1984. Lewke had been among those who underwent training there in explosives handling.
Subsequently, the STF had an opportunity to send a group of personnel to Israel to undergo training. The STF squad had been led by the then ASP, Upali Sahabandu. (An LTTE suicide bomber killed Sahabandu at Kalmunakudi on the afternoon of November 19, 1996. Sahabandu, then an SSP, was on his way from Batticaloa to Ampara). According to Lewke, the Jayewardenes had a close relationship with the then Israeli leadership, hence could seek unprecedented assistance without having to undergo unnecessary hassles. A case in point was Israel sending experts in VVIP security, immediately after the JVP made an attempt on the life of President JRJ in August 1987. The Israelis trained 60 STF personnel to provide security to President JRJ and his family.
Having the Pakistanis and Israeli to train personnel simultaneously and the employment of ex-British commandos attached to KMS as instructors wouldn’t have been an easy task. Some KMS personnel were with the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF). The relationship with Israel remained throughout the conflict except for the period when the then President Ranasinghe Premadasa terminated the contract with the Israelis. The President made his move in the wake of claims that terrorists, too, had received military training in Israel. President Premadasa played politics with the issue, believing it could help him entice the local Muslim community as well as Muslim countries.
But, it would be pertinent to mention that in 1991, Victor Ostrovsky, formerly of Israeli intelligence, alleged in his book, By Way of Deception that Mossad had brought many Tamils to Israel for training in 1984 and 1985. The Indian media quoted Ostrovsky as having said: "These groups kept coming and going. When I was in Mossad, it was part of our routine job to take them to training camps and make sure they got training worth what they paid for, no more and no less. The Sinhalese paid in cash." The ex-intelligence officer alleged that India’s premier intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) had facilitated the project.