SLA suffers for want of cohesive planning
* War on terror revisited
by Shamindra Ferdinando
June third week 1990 at Kalladi:
Major General Denzil Kobbekaduwa (left)
speaks with Lt. Colonel Hiran Halangode,
Commanding Officer of the First
battalion of the Gemunu Watch (IGW).
Troops under Halangode’s command held
their positions until SLA reinforcements
fought their way into the Batticaloa
district from two directions.
Reinforcements were led by Brigadiers,
A.M.U. Seneviratne and Asoka jayawardena.
Successive governments never realized the need to increase the strength of the infantry to an unprecedented level to gain overwhelming superiority on the ground. For want of the required number of battalions on the ground, the SLA could never sustain an offensive while holding onto areas liberated from the clutches of the LTTE. Major ground operations were carried out often to assault enemy targets, only to return to bases the following day. The LTTE simply used to vacate the area after offering resistance, only to return as soon as the SLA quit the area. On many occasions, the SLA had to give up areas under its control to build up strength elsewhere to launch a major offensive action. Operation Riviresa conducted in the Jaffna peninsula in the latter half of 1995 was a case in point. The SLA jeopardized security in the Eastern Province and neighbouring districts by pulling out troops for Operation Riviresa, undoubtedly the largest combined security forces campaign, until the launch of eelam war IV.
Having praised Defence Secretary retired Lieutenant Colonel Gotabhaya Rajapaksa for playing a pivotal role during eelam war IV, Sri Lanka’s most successful service commander, General Sarath Fonseka, accused the previous UNP governments of neglecting national security at a crucial time.
The Sinha Regiment veteran was speaking live on Independent Television Network (ITN) on May 26 night, 2009, seven days after the killing of LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon. The outspoken army chief alleged that previous governments had turned a blind eye to the needs of the security forces. The tough talking soldier didn’t mince his words when he recalled the circumstances under which a former Defence Secretary questioned the Sri Lanka Army (SLA) requirement for a large stock of ammunition for training purposes. According to Fonseka, the Defence Secretary had pointed out that there couldn’t be any requirement for such a large stock of ammunition for training purposes, as there were only 2000 LTTE cadres. General Fonseka said that the issue came up at a top level conference attended by senior officials of the Defence Ministry and the armed forces. Fonseka, at that time holding the rank of Colonel, had represented army headquarters. General Fonseka was referring to Defence Secretary General Sepala Attygalle, one-time commander of the SLA (Oct 1, 1967 to Oct 13, 1977).
During a wide ranging interview, the four star General said that unlike previous phases of the conflict, the SLA didn’t consult astrologers or delay offensive action due to the inauspicious ‘rahu’ period. "We conducted operations to meet our ground requirements." (Liberation operations named ‘Unceasing Tsunami I and II’-The Island May 27,2009).
SF surprised by Defence
The then Defence Secretary’s comment on the SLA’s training project reflected the overall thinking of the UNP administration. The rejection of the SLA’s requirement for ammunition hadn’t been an isolated case but reflected the common position taken by the UNP, particularly during Ranasinghe Premadasa’s tenure as the second executive President of Sri Lanka. General Fonseka said that he was very surprised by the then Defence Secretary’s approach.
Having won the presidential and parliamentary elections in December, 1989 and April 1990, respectively, Premadasa immediately threw a lifeline to the sinking LTTE. During President Premadasa’s negotiations with the LTTE spanning 14 months (May 1989-June 1990), he completely ignored even the basic needs of the armed forces. The President was naïve; he felt no need to include at least one senior military official in his negotiating team led by Minister A.C.S. Hameed. While depriving the SLA of its needs, President Premadasa used the SLA sports pavilion in Colombo as a venue for talks during this period. President Premadasa and his team which included retired Generals, Sepala Attygalle and Cyril Ranatunga remained blind to the LTTE build up during direct negotiations. Although both Attygalle and Ranatunga had realized President Premadasa’s actions were inimical to national security, they did nothing to stop him. In fact, there had not been any records of them as well as the then SLA chief Lieutenant General Hamilton Wanasinghe objecting to the President’s plans or at least expressing doubts. They remained silent as they felt the President wouldn’t tolerate dissent. While General Attygalle functioned as the Defence Secretary, General Ranatunga served as the Security Advisor to President Premadasa as well as to the State Ministry for Defence during the President’s honeymoon with the LTTE. Both Generals received plum diplomatic posts, with Attygalle being appointed Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner in London where he had to facilitate the LTTE project in the UK. With President Premadasa facilitating one-time LTTE Jaffna Commander Sathasivam Krishnakumar alias Colonel Kittu to take up residence in the UK in 1989, General Attygalle had to look after the top Tiger’s wellbeing.
Had President Premadasa allowed the SLA to take advantage of the 14-month long truce with the LTTE to prepare for any eventuality, the group wouldn’t have been able to seize the initiative on the northern front at the onset of eelam war II. Due to politico-military miscalculations, the SLA quickly succumbed to well rehearsed LTTE strategy. Their primary objective had been the capture of the entire Jaffna peninsula, including the Elephant Pass causeway, which linked the Wanni mainland with the Jaffna administrative district. At the onset of eelam war II on the night of June 10, 1990, the SLA lost the Kandy-Jaffna A-9 overland Main Supply Route (MSR) to Jaffna. The LTTE overran the Kokkavil detachment during the second week of July 1990. The SLA vacated Kilinochchi and Mankulam detachments in late July and November 1990, respectively. For want of a contingency plan, the SLA didn’t have the wherewithal to meet the LTTE challenge. In fact, the SLA didn’t have at least adequate transport to move troops from the south to the northern and eastern districts.
General Ranatunga, who had been silent during President Premadasa’s honeymoon with Prabhakaran, blamed the UNP leader for the catastrophic situation on the battlefield. Ranatunga revealed that the SLA had to depend on private transport to move troops to operational areas. One-time Joint Operations Commander General Ranatunga said: "SLA personnel had little or no training for over a year due to protracted peace talks. The 14 months of ‘peace talks’ had ended in disaster and humiliation. President Premadasa was desperate. The President summoned the service commanders and allocated Rs. 5 billion to purchase arms and other equipment required to fight the LTTE. But it was too late (Negotiating Peace in Sri Lanka: Efforts, Failures and Lessons-an International Alert publication, 1998).
The writer hadn’t come across any previous instance where General Ranatunga candidly admitted the crisis faced by the SLA due to the failures on the part of decision makers. Unfortunately, Ranatunga waited for seven years to admit the failures. But he was careful to absolve himself of any shortcomings and squarely blamed President Premadasa for the catastrophe. During his presentation, Ranatunga alleged that President Premadasa, his chief negotiator A.C.S. Hameed and Inspector General of Police, Ernest Perera decided to hand over the SLA base at Valvettiturai to the LTTE without consulting him. Would General Ranatunga have opposed the move if President Premadasa bothered to ask him? Would he have dared resist the handing over of the Point Pedro base or releasing Maradana bomber Manohari Daniels?
The London headquartered International Alert had been propagating that peace couldn’t be achieved through military means. The well-funded NGO had been closely working with the LTTE since the 80s and was involved with the conflict throughout the deployment of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) here (July 1987-March 1990). In July 1997, IA invited a group of experts to Lucerne, Switzerland to discuss the Sri Lankan issue. Dr. Kumar Rupesinghe had been a prime mover of the project. Among the invitees were General Ranatunga and former Air Force Commander, Air Vice Marshal Harry Gunatilleke. In his presentation at the parley, AVM Gunatilleke declared that the Sri Lankan government was waging an unwinnable war. His assertion would have made the sponsors of the event happy. In fact, the IA included the presentations made by both General Ranatunga and AVM Gunatilleke in Negotiating Peace in Sri Lanka: Efforts, Failures and Lessons first released in February 1998. AVM Gunatilleke was at the helm of the SLAF (Nov 2, 1976 – April 30, 1981).
A veteran’s opinion
Retired Brigadier Hiran Halangode, formerly of the Gemunu Watch (GW), explained the extreme difficulties experienced by the SLA at the onset of eelam war II. In fact, Brigadier Halangoda, who had also served in the Air Mobile Brigade as its first Commanding Officer during one of the most difficult phases of the war (July 1994 to September 1996) is of the opinion that re-examination of the conflict/war was necessary to ensure that the country was ready to face any eventuality. Had the decision makers studied the circumstances leading to the June 1990 security crisis, the country could have averted catastrophes during subsequent attempts, Brigadier Halangode asserted. The bottom line was that the military basically remained passive during negotiations, while terrorists prepared for the next bout.
Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa expressed a similar opinion on the Thimpu talks held in July and August 1985 in the Bhutanese capital. Rajapaksa said that a three month long truce declared on June 18, 1985 to facilitate direct talks between President JRJ and the Indian sponsored terrorist groups plus the TULF had been exploited to the hilt by the enemy. It had been the first formal truce between the warring parties. Defence Secretary Rajapaksa said that when the Thimpu initiative collapsed in late 1985, the LTTE had the upper hand in the Jaffna peninsula, with all bases in the northern as well as the Vanni mainland under siege.
The SLA faced a similar ground situation in June 1990. The then Lieutenant Colonel Halangode, Commanding Officer of the First battalion of the Gemunu Watch (IGW), deployed in the Batticaloa district, was one of those officers who had to face the first wave of attacks at the commencement of eelam war II. Halangode emphasized the importance of examining the deployment of the infantry as well as other elements in the northern and eastern theatres at the initial stage. Referring to the previous installment bearing No 151, Brigadier Halangode said that as the CO of the I GW and Coordinating Officer for the Batticaloa administrative district, he also had a Company of the Sixth battalion of the Sri Lanka Light Infantry ( 6 SLLI) under him. At that time, Halangode held the rank of Lt. Colonel.
Brigadier Halangode said: "At the commencement of hostilities, I was in command of one battalion plus a company. An infantry battalion comprised four rifle companies, one administrative company and one headquarters/command company approximately 33 officers and 650 men. A company consists of four platoons. A platoon consists of one officer and 30 men, while the smallest element is called the section, comprising 10 men. Three sections make a platoon."
A Brigade comprised three infantry battalions plus elements of armour, artillery, engineer and signals (1,800 to 2,500 officers and men) and 3-5 Brigades make up a Division (6,500 -10,000 officers and men).
Halangode’s I GW had manned Wellawadi, Kiran and Kallady in the Batticaloa district, whereas 6 SLLI held Kalmunai and Kalawanchikudy detachments. Halangode said that it was important to keep in mind that the 6 SLLI had been raised in late May 1990.
Halangode explained that when trouble started on the night of June 10, 1990, the I GW had shed one company to raise the sixth battalion of the Gemunu Watch (6 GW). The 6 GW was raised on May 22, 1990. In fact, at that time, all battalions had shed a company each to raise new battalions. "The bottom line was that the battalions deployed in the northern and eastern districts during the second week of June 1990 hadn’t been at full strength. Confusion amongst the officers and men, lack of cohesion and training, deployed on a defensive role and most importantly, peace at any cost, caused a catastrophic situation. Due to the above mentioned reasons, the SLA wasn’t prepared to face the LTTE onslaught. The LTTE had the initiative while troops under my command reacted successfully. Luck doesn’t prevail all the time. Politicians and the military top brass are responsible for these situations."
Halangode asserted that it was unfortunate that the SLA had to face similar situations on many occasions.
The ground situation would never have deteriorated to such an extent by the end of 2001 to pave the way for the Norwegian intervention here had the SLA taken remedial measures in the wake of debacles suffered in late 1985 (after Thimpu fiasco) and June 1990 (eelam war II).
Asked whether the SLA planned a project to expand the SLA in the run-up to eelam war II, Halangode said: "The SLA never planned an expansion project. We were saddled with the JVP problem in the south. The SLA had to commit troops for anti-JVP operations in some parts of the Ampara and Trincomalee districts. In the northern and eastern districts, the SLA had five under strength battalions . We had not prepared, trained and equipped troops mentally and physically to meet a major LTTE offensive. In case of I GW, we moved from Hambantota to Moneragala. From there, IGW moved to Ampara and then to Batticaloa on May 18, 1990, a few weeks before the commencement of major hostilities."
Brigadier Halangode echoed the views of many other senior officers, both serving and retired, that the war wouldn’t have lasted three decades had the political establishment and the military top brass pursued a cohesive strategy, without being manipulated by other external and domestic factors.
For want of men, the SLA struggled throughout the war against the LTTE until President Mahinda Rajapaksa authorized the expansion of the SLA after the outbreak of eelam war IV in August 2006.