EVENT: The Sri Lanka Army is poised to capture the key rebel town of Kilinochchi, an army spokesman said yesterday.
SIGNIFICANCE: The army has advanced along the western coast to within two miles of Kilinochchi, the administrative centre for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. The capture of Kilinochchi would inflict a significant blow against the rebel group, prompting the government to say that it may soon win the three-decade civil war.
ANALYSIS: The Sri Lanka Army (SLA) has been significantly strengthened since the last phase of the conflict against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which resulted in a battlefield stalemate. It now says that the rebels are on the verge of collapse. The government in Colombo, which since mid-2006 has made crushing the LTTE its priority, also says that that the Tigers will soon be wiped out and the war over.
The recent advances follow two years of intense campaigning -- first in the island's east (in 2006-7) and, since 2007, in a four-front offensive against the LTTE's northern stronghold. The rebels have been running a mini-state from the town of Kilinochchi, the largest town in the Vanni region, for over a decade. Its capture would be a major blow to their cause.
Yet the LTTE show distinct signs of resilience, and a more realistic outlook is for further protracted and sustained conflict. The government's planned increases in defence expenditure and the military's fresh recruitment drives suggest that preparations for this eventuality are under way.
Questionable claims. Government assertions of imminent victory are based on equating the military's recent territorial gains to LTTE weakness. However, the SLA has made similarly impressive territorial advances before without conclusive results. The Tigers have appeared on the brink of defeat on other occasions, notably in 1999, but later proved able to blunt the state's offensive and inflict serious defeats.
There are a number of reasons why government hopes of an impending, strategic victory are unlikely to materialise:
1. Tactical difficulties. To destroy the LTTE, the military must achieve several goals:
It must steadily advance into the rebels' longstanding jungle base areas in Mullaitivu, in the eastern Vanni.
It must maintain effective control over previously captured territories -- including the sprawling eastern province and the Jaffna peninsula.
At the same time, it needs to protect Colombo and the south from bomb attacks.
A conclusive victory would require fulfilling these objectives simultaneously, which is a tall order.
2. Prior experience. Given these tactical needs, the military's recent territorial gains are inconclusive. When the LTTE launched a counter-offensive in 1999, the military controlled more of the Vanni region than it does at present. It held the ground from Kilinochchi's northern outskirts through Elephant Pass and all of Jaffna, and was advancing steadily up central and western Vanni. The LTTE then controlled only Kilinochchi town (which it recaptured in 1998, having lost it to the SLA in 1996) and part of Mullaitivu district. Nonetheless, in that limited space the rebels were able to mass sufficient troops and material for a significant counter-offensive, recapturing the entire Vanni area and going on to overrun Elephant Pass and southern Jaffna.
3. LTTE tactics. The SLA has significantly expanded in recent years, both in terms of numbers (from 100,000 to 160,000) and firepower. Yet the LTTE have done likewise. They had just two artillery pieces in 1999 but now have several more, as well as a large number of heavy mortars. They have also expanded their naval wing and acquired a rudimentary air force.
As in 1999, the LTTE's true fighting capacity is not known with certainty. That they have not resisted the SLA more strongly thus far is being interpreted as weakness. Yet it can also be argued that the LTTE strategy is more in line with a protracted 'war of the flea', with a strategic stalemate as the goal.
Resilient LTTE. The military is already facing significant troop shortages. Casualties and desertions are increasing, especially in key front-line units. Civilian hospitals in Colombo and the SLA garrison towns of Vavuniya and Anuradhapura are handling a steady stream of seriously wounded soldiers.
At the same time, guerrilla attacks and bombings are increasing in government-controlled areas. Although each individual attack may not be serious, large numbers of military personnel are tied up in efforts to pacify and/or protect these areas:
A recent attack in Anuradhapura killed a prominent former general together with 30 civilians, demonstrating the LTTE's ability to strike a key logistical and operational town for the SLA.
There are persistent reports that hundreds of guerillas have re-infiltrated the east, from where they were driven out after a year of campaigning by the SLA.
There have also been regular attacks against troops, police and Sinhalese civilians in the south, including occasional (albeit small) blasts in Colombo.
Difficult terrain. The military has had to work unusually hard to secure territorial gains on the northern battlefronts. In principle, its new assets and simultaneous assaults (on the Mannar, Jaffna, Vavuniya and Weli Oya fronts) should have delivered quicker gains.
Moreover, it is significant that Mannar is the only front where the LTTE have fallen back. A marshy area that is short of drinking water, prone to flooding in the monsoons and parched in the hot season, it is particularly harsh terrain for a protracted war. Until the LTTE's strongholds in Mullaitivu are captured, the SLA will need to hold Mannar -- especially since the government has made much political capital from its gain there.
Rebel staying power. The Tigers are suffering casualties, but the numbers are much lower than the government claims. More importantly, they are neither unprecedented nor intolerable for the rebels, who have previously demonstrated an ability to sustain high attrition rates:
The government claims that the LTTE have suffered 8,000 casualties this year. Yet examination of the data together with local press commentary and LTTE statements indicate that this is an exaggeration. A more credible estimate of LTTE losses in 2008 is approximately 2,000.
Even in 1997, the most intense year of the earlier phase of the conflict, the LTTE lost almost the same number. This represented more than 10% of the rebels' numerical strength that year. They nonetheless proved capable of a major counter-offensive in 1999 and 2000.
Crucially, while the military's 'teeth' units have been campaigning relentlessly for over two years, the LTTE's core forces have yet to be committed to battle. In the past year of resistance, the rebels have mainly deployed units of new recruits, including those withdrawn from the east, stiffened by a few experience cadres. Where core units have been committed, especially in Jaffna, SLA advances have been quickly stopped, often with heavy losses.
CONCLUSION: The military has made impressive territorial gains this year, but this does not amount to a strategic weakening of the LTTE. Similar territorial gains made in the late 1990s against a much weaker LTTE were swiftly reversed in a year-long counter-offensive which the exhausted military could not resist. In assessing the LTTE's capacity for survival, the rebels' present territorial confines should be compared to those of 1995-1999, rather than that of the 2002-2006 ceasefire period. A swift victory by the military is highly unlikely.
- Oxford Analytica
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