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Selected Writings by Dharmeratnam Sivaram (Taraki)
Eelam War: Growing more complex
21 March 1999
The Tigers are not going to let the army take over the Mannar - Pooneryn road without a fight.
The unprecedented artillery or mortar barrage on the Thallady base on Thursday puts it beyond doubt. The army reached Paapamoddai, north of Mannar, on the road to Pooneryn unopposed last week.
The Vidaththaltheevu junction is not far from here. Once this junction is captured, it would only be a matter of time before the army extends its positions from Iranai Iluppaikkulam along the road running west through Palampiddy to the Mannar Pooneryn road.
This would take another large chunk of important real estate from the Tigers, including Madhu.
However, it now too early to say whether the military really intends to open the Main Supply Route to Jaffna through Pooneryn although the LTTE appears to firmly believe that it is the case.
In the beginning there were many officers in the army who felt that 'giving depth' to the military gains in Jaffna by quickly opening the MSR along the Mannar-Pooneryn- Jaffna road was more important at that juncture than spending time on the Vavuniya - Kilinochchi highway.
Furthermore, this MSR is much shorter than the one that Op. Jaya Sikurui was supposed to take. (Jaffna is 146 kilometers from Vavuniya whereas it is only about 89 kilometers from Mannar.)
There were predictions in sections of Sinhala press soon after the army walked into Oddusuddan, that the march would soon resume thence towards the Mullaithivu coast to eventually open the MSR by linking up with Paranthan.
This was a tall order by any standard. It was not only going to be a circuitous route but would have been opposed tooth and nail by the Tigers.
But now everything in the Wanni theatre of operations seems to have fallen almost perfectly in place for the army. Why?
The MSR to Jaffna between Vavuniya and Mankulam has been completely secured to the east and the west. Today there cannot be a question of the Tigers attempting to cut off the lifeline to the army's' forward areas on the Mankulam-Oddusuddan axis.
With the western flank completely secured by Op. Rana Gosa, the Vavuniya Mankulam military supply route can be expanded immensely by the opening of the railway line and hence can be kept open in all weather.
Let us assume that the army is able to do another operation like Edibala on the Mannar - Pooneryn road with a minimum concentration of forces and that over a period of time it is able to pull out troops from this MSR by deploying the Police between a few strategic positions well secured by army.
Let us also assume that the government is able to pull out troops from the areas captured by Op. Rana Gosa.
This will mean that the army would be in a position to concentrate forces at the Elephant Pass - Paranthan base to make another attempt to thrust forward south to link up with Mankulam, unhampered by the logistical problems which beset it now in the Jaffna peninsula where it has to rely on supplies by sea and air.
Contrary to what critics of the army's policy in the Wanni (including this column) have stated in the past, spreading troops thin on the ground may no longer expose the weakened flanks to devastating and strategically successful attacks by the LTTE which can seriously set back the government's gains in the Wanni.
The army high command (JOB or sans JOB) has shown that it can concentrate forces for purpose of spreading inexorably over the vital parts of the Wanni by pulling out troops from captured and consolidated areas, replacing them with Police (though it currently escapes my ken whence the army high command is going to withdraw further troops to spread over more ground in the Wanni.)
Rana Gosa was made possible, among other things, by pulling out army units from the Mannar - Chettikulam road that was brought under control in early 1997 with the swift completion of Op. Edibala.
The point once more is that theoretically and practically, it is possible to repeat this process of pulling out army from one area, replacing the thinned out positions with Police, concentrating the pulled out troops to capture more ground etc., until the A9, the Mullaithivu coast and key junctions of the interior are no longer under the LTTE's control.
For example, say that the Tigers launch a large operation to clear that important segment of the Mannar - Vavuniya road between Paraiyanalankulam and Uyilankulam where the army recently thinned out its positions to a basic minimum.
It would not mean anything strategically as troops from either side can clear it again because the LTTE cannot afford to hold it the way it defends Kilinochchi now for want of manpower and in view of the tactical purposelessness of the exercise given the cost.
This is the case today in all the areas captured by Op. Jaya Sikurui south of Mankulam and most of the areas which are under the control of the army and Police in the east (particularly the Main Supply Route to Batticaloa north, between Welikanda and Valaichenai where troops have been thinned out almost precariously) This could also become true for the road from Mannar to Pooneryn if it is brought under control.
>From the time Op. Jaya Sikurui started running into trouble the Tigers have been saying the army is getting drawn inexorably into a quagmire in the Wanni by spreading itself thin on the ground (Akalakkaal Pathithu). They would still be right only if they can prevent the army from taking the Mannar - Pooneryn road and are able to further enhance and sustain their conventional fighting power while blocking the security forces from advancing either out of the Mankulam-Oddusuddan axis or out of Kilinochchi.
In this connection one has to take note of an important development in the Eelam War: that the Tigers are now in a position to stymie a major buildup in a large, safely located base like Thallady without having to re-deploy their forces being concentrated elsewhere against a strategically more important target.
So while we say that the thinning out of troops in the Wanni no longer poses a problem, we have to emphasise that it is not a basis for an unstoppable success in the war against the LTTE.
Now look at this scenario: the Tigers continue to maintain, for the next two years or so a level of presence in the east which requires the army to maintain its current troop strength there; they let the army move up on the Mannar - Pooneryn road to, let's say, Vellankulam, and stubbornly resist, as at Mankulam, any further advance towards Jaffna; and they continue to prevent the security forces from taking the rest of the A9 or advancing too close to the strategic part of the Mullaitivu coast.
The military and financial resources they seem to have at their disposal seem quite adequate to do this unless of course there is lethal reduction in the flow of expatriate funds to the Wanni.
Hence, at the end of another two years we may find that the government still has no way of reducing its military budget so that Sri Lanka can catch up with the rest of the world. And to this we should add the possible consequences of Prabhaharan's inclination to go for the hard hit.
The fact which few take note of these days is that the Eelam War is growing more complex militarily by the day rather than moving along a unilinear tangent of steady success.