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The Day of the Tigers - the Pooneryn Debacle
Major General Mehta, General Officer IPKF- Southern Region and
Founder-Member of the Defence Planning Staff of the Chiefs of Staff Committee
Courtesy - Sunday Times, November 1993
[see also Sri Lanka's Unwinnable War - Nadesan Satyendra, December 1993]
The Pooneryn battle will join the rank of the classic coup de main missions of the LTTE destroying the cream of the Sri Lankan Army. If the pre-dawn Pooneryn raid carried the hall mark of Prabaharan's cunning, its timing smacked of A. S. Balasingham's political sophistry, to remind the Sri Lankan government that LTTE's climb down from Eelam to a federal solution was not out of any military weakness.
In Sri Lanka, the IPKF did not have an end game. So they got roughed up without learning any lessons for the future. It was an unwieldy conventional army, not designed for low intensity warfare to tame the Tiger (LTTE); but it must be said to their credit that the LTTE never dared to attack an IPKF post or try a Pooneryn on them. There was a healthy mutual military respect that left them merely sparring with each other. In a sense, except for Jaffna and Vavuniya the intensity and scale of combat was tepid compared to the do-or-die skirmishes with the Sri Lankan security forces.
The Sri Lankan Army has, in the past five months, suffered three debacles in succession: they have lost six military posts in the second Eelam War. The irony is that Pooneryn itself has become untenable and may have to be withdrawn. LTTE has captured weapons military hardware that will not only qualitatively alter the military balance in their favor but will also ensure replenishment of stocks for one full year. While previously it was President Premadasa who kept their pipeline flowing in order to box the IPKF out of Sri Lanka, now it is the Sri Lankan security forces themselves.
The LTTE must be credited with a near maniacal sense of motivation which compensates for the slightest imperfection in military skills. No other fighters in the world today go around popping cyanide pills as easily as they do popcorn, Over the years they have become a highly disciplined and versatile guerrilla force with a bewildering range of military expertise , Prabaharan is easily the greatest living leader of a guerrilla movement of his time. Interestingly, LTTE's military skills get a divine boost from their belief in astrology and numerology.
The Sri Lanka security force on the other hand have been going downhill, especially after the `Kayts" Island mine blast that destroyed virtually the entire northern, command. including the dynamic Gen Denzil Kobbekaduwa. The expansions in the Sri Lankan Army have diluted both the equality and training of the soldiers. Actually, their one-month training program for recruits is shorter than the one that some Delhi security services provide to their sentries.
A string of stunning military victories, capture of tanks and artillery from Sri Lankan army have made the LTTE a phantom force, which the Sri Lankan security forces now fear. Here there is lesson for India: unless the government gets it's act together, militants wherever will get the better of the security forces.
The demolition job done by the LTTE in Pooneryn is a stinging rebuttal of President D.B. Wijethunga's and area commander Waidyaratne's combined pledge to end terrorism. It has also dealt a blow to the plans of holding a referendum on the merger of the north and east.
This is the first time in the history of Sri Lankan army that an
army commander had become so unpopular that he had to be cased out
of office without even a whimper of protest from the military. His
expected diplomatic assignment will be more face save for both the
Sri Lankan Army and Sri Lankan Government. Even so Sri Lankan Army
is a force to reckon with in the internal politics of the country
despite the diminishing trust between the civilians and military.
The author is also of the opinion that the finesse with which the
LTTE have humbled the IPKF earlier, and the Sri Lankan Army now,
should find a place in the "Hall of Revolutionary Fame."