LTTE develops asymmetric deterrence to stall
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
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
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
(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
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
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
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
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
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.