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Home > Tamil National ForumSelected Writings by Dharmeratnam Sivaram (Taraki) > LTTE develops asymmetric deterrence to stall foreign intervention

Selected Writings by Dharmeratnam Sivaram (Taraki)

LTTE develops asymmetric deterrence to stall foreign intervention

22 May 2004

The LTTE's scenario planning for negotiating the Internal Self Governing Authority (ISGA) with the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) would necessarily include, among other things, some clearly thought out exit strategies if talks were to drag on aimlessly beyond 'a reasonable period of time'. This is only natural because President Kumaratunga's chief coalition partner, the JVP, went on record this week that it does not agree with the basis on which she has agreed to restart and take forward the talks with the LTTE. (Wimal Weerawansa's interview with The Island on Monday and Somawansa's meeting with the Prime Minister on Thursday)

The prospect of the JVP pulling the rug under the President's feet at a crucial juncture of her peace talks with the LTTE is very real. That the UPFA government does not have the two-thirds majority to change the constitution legally is another reason why the LTTE would like to enter the talks with a clear,politically impeccable exit strategy.

One of the scenarios for an LTTE exit strategy would entail war. And the Tigers have to contend with the prospect of limited or full foreign intervention in their calculations in constructing a scenario of war breaking out again in the northeast. This may sound bizarre at this juncture when hectic preparations are afoot to restart the peace talks soon. But effective scenario planning even for the most unexpected eventualities is the trademark of the LTTE's military strategists.

The first military lessons that Tamil guerrillas learnt in the early eighties was that a plan of attack, however small, should always include as many alternative routes of withdrawal as possible to ensure the safe return of fighters and their weapons. Training with scenarios make commanders more agile in making decisions in the battlefield where, as the British military historian John Keegan has argued in his impressive recent volume, predictions based on precise intelligence may turn out to be of little use.

The swift manner in which LTTE's renegade eastern commander Karuna was put to flight despite all the local and international media hype that surrounded his 'secession' showed, among many other things, that the "Defence Planning and Military Science Division" led by the erudite but secretive 'Sasi Master' had done its part in constructing a scenario of rebellion in the east and devised possible responses to it.

The need for scenario planning is a hard learnt lesson for the Tigers. They were utterly unprepared for the Indian military intervention in 1987. The LTTE had not more than two thousand armed fighters at the time. The Indian army pre-emptively arrested many of them who were working in the open on the eve of the war. The odds were so great that the majority of LTTE's second level commanders advised Pirapaharan against a confrontation with the Indian military. The Tiger leader was adamant. And of course the rest is now well-recorded history.

The Tigers have since then realised the importance of planning ahead for possible future foreign military interventions on behalf of the Sri Lankan state or to provide limited battlefield assistance to the Sri Lankan armed forces.

The Tigers are acutely aware that there is desire right across the political spectrum in the south to defeat or weaken them with direct foreign military involvement. The inclination to view foreign military intervention to crush the Tigers as a serious option has evidently become widespread in the south largely because many feel that the Sri Lankan state is not fully capable of controlling the LTTE.

(A second military intervention by the Indian army against the Tigers is largely ruled out for reasons expounded ad nauseam by defence and geopolitical pundits in Delhi - which nevertheless have failed to dissuade some ardent Sinhala nationalists from eagerly entertaining the prospect whenever they feel let down by the Sri Lankan state)

The Tigers perceived Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe's 'international safety net', which he promised to weave with defence deals with India and America, as a manifestation of this wish.

Given the state of mind in the south which favours (or is not averse to) direct military intervention by a foreign country or international coalition of armed forces to coerce the LTTE, it is only natural that the Tigers should include the possibility of facing an external military power as part of the scenarios entailed by their exit strategies for the peace talks.

Does this mean that the Tigers are planning for war with a foreign military force at some point in the future? Yes and no.

No, in as much as they consider a foreign military intervention against them primarily in terms of 'asymmetrical deterrence'. And yes, inasmuch as the potential ways in which they can wield their military power is one of the main components of this 'asymmetrical deterrence' strategy. What is 'asymmetrical deterrence' as conceived and formulated by the Military Science Department of the Tigers?

Anyone who has cared to study the LTTE's negotiating behaviour in the past two years even superficially would understand that the Tigers see their military power not as an end in itself but as a means to achieve the fundamental political objectives espoused by the Tamil national movement in Sri Lanka since 1948.

If it had been driven by sheer 'warlord' logic, the LTTE should have regrouped by late 2002 and taken more territory in the northeast before any foreign power could effectively intervene. In fact some well-known Sri Lankan political commentators such as Dayan Jayatilleka argued that this was going to be the case.

That the LTTE was cowed by America's anti terror stance after September 11, 2001 attacks on the Twin Towers is absolute nonsense.

(The US army's quagmire in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown us that America's wrath after the Twin Tower bombing has not deterred even militant groups much smaller and militarily ineffective than the Tigers. Also it may be worth repeating ad nauseam that the Tigers declared a cease-fire and wanted to start talks in December 2000)

The LTTE's concept of the balance of forces or 'strategic parity' as the basis of the cease-fire agreement and as the stabilising factor of the peace process stems from its perception of its military power as a deterrent to make the Sri Lankan state stay focussed on the essentially political nature of the conflict.

When the Tigers say that the balance of forces between the Sri Lankan military and their armed forces sustains the ceasefire they mean that it is their military power that deters the Sri Lankan state from considering war as the chief means of dealing with the conflict despite the overwhelming Sinhala sentiment in favour of doing so.

Here deterrence is not based on symmetry of military power on either side. Actually there is an asymmetry if one calculates the armed strength of the Sri Lankan state and that of the LTTE in terms of their military assets and access to war resources.

The Sri Lankan state has an effective air force, naval facilities in Trincomalee, Colombo and Jaffna, an armoured corps official defence supplies and support from friendly countries. The LTTE has none of these.

Yet the LTTE has been able to achieve strategic parity of military force with the Sri Lankan state. The LTTE did this by pooling all its resources to launch a relentless assault on the military forces that the GOSL had disproportionately concentrated in the north between 1995-1999. This neutralised the defensive and offensive capability and debilitated the resolve of the main component of the Sri Lankan ground forces, which were massed up in Jaffna and the Vanni.

However, the GOSL's resolve to continue the war was finally broken when the LTTE hit Katunayaka.

Colombo is deterred from unleashing its armed forces to crush the Tigers and make them accept the unitary state as the majority of the Singhalese would prefer, not merely because it feels that the LTTE's military power equals its own in the battlefield - it is deterred also because the LTTE has the well-demonstrated power to carry out unconventional attacks where it could hurt the Sri Lankan state most - in the heartland of its economic and political power on the west coast.

Sri Lanka, being a small country, does not have economic and administrative centres that can function as an alternative to Greater Colombo inclusive of Katunayaka. Therefore the Sri Lankan state cannot withstand a concentrated LTTE attack on one or more strategic targets here.

The LTTE's ability to comprehensively wreck the heartland of the Sri Lankan state is now well recognised. The Tigers consider this as the main component of their deterrent; and it is asymmetrical.

They appear to believe, justifiably, that Colombo is deterred from choosing coercive means in its dealings with them today because of their ability to wreck the Sri Lankan state's heartland.

Now let us assume that a foreign power has decided to use military power against the Tigers. Two very important conditions have to be right for the intervention of an external armed force in the northeast to fight the LTTE.

One, the Sri Lankan state should have the resolve to 'host' the foreign intervention. And two, there should be credible and sizeable political groupings in the northeast that may favour the intervention in the name of peace or freedom or democracy.

A foreign power that may be ten thousand times superior to the LTTE in military terms would nevertheless be deterred from undertaking a war mission in the northeast because these two key conditions cannot be met today. Colombo does not want to risk its heartland for the sake of an uncertain foreign military intervention in the northeast. And secondly, anti LTTE Tamil groups have become politically and military useless to anyone. Also the LTTE has long since erased the line that divided moderates and militants in the Tamil political spectrum. They are all now part of one continuum. (The Sinhala press too has helped in the process by branding erstwhile Tamil moderates as terrorists' proxies)

Consider how the Americans had to count on moderate Shiites to invade and hold Iraq.

The Indian army had to leave this island when the second JVP rebellion broke the Sri Lankan state's will to 'host' the military intervention against the Tigers. The pull out was also precipitated by the perception that the political alternatives to the LTTE that India propped up in the northeast had clay feet. (However, in India's case one must note that both conditions for intervention were sufficiently met when it sent the army here in July 1987)

This is just a brief overview of the two basics of the LTTE's asymmetric deterrence strategy against foreign intervention. Obviously the one conceived and developed by the LTTE in recent years would be a much more complex politico-military system of deterrence than what we have discussed here.

If the talks with Chandrika's government fail, the LTTE would plan its next move only when it is sure that its asymmetrical deterrence system is impeccably effective.


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