Monday, 13 August 2012

A diabolical plot : Downsizing army

War on terror revisited:  Part 21



By Shamindra Ferdinando
Haiti bound Sri Lankan peacekeepers 
Had the then UNP leadership succeeded in downsizing the Army in the wake of the Norwegian-arranged Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) in Feb. 2002, the LTTE would have had an opportunity to overwhelm ground forces in a series of operations. In the absence of required ground strength, particularly the infantry, the SLA would have lost its capacity either to sustain a major offensive or to retain newly gained areas. On top of that, an enhanced UN peace keeping assignment, particularly during a ceasefire, would have had a debilitating impact on the armed forces. It could have transformed the SLA into a peacekeeping Army at a time of conflict. If the LTTE had simply remained silent, the then GoSL would have on its own caused irrevocable damage to the military effectively neutralising it fighting capability.

In spite of clear indications that the LTTE was busy replenishing its arsenal, the UNP-led UNF government went ahead with its plans to downsize the military heedless of the consequences of its action.

The UNP leadership felt confident that the LTTE wouldn’t resort to an all-out war, though it would conduct limited operations. The government believed that a relatively smaller military deployed at strategic locations in the then temporarily merged Northern and Eastern Provinces would be adequate to meet the conventional LTTE challenge, whereas a substantial number of troops were deployed under UN command, in support of peace keeping operations.

In line with the UNF strategy, the military was directed to discharge men who were absent without leave. The army launched a project on a district basis in October 2003 to release deserters. Those who had been on unauthorised leave for over three years by January 8, 2003, were given the opportunity to leave the army. In a bid to speed up the process, the army headquarters declared that deserters wouldn’t be asked to compensate the expenses incurred by the army for their training and uniforms. The deserters were also assured that they wouldn’t be deprived of money deposited in the army welfare fund (Deserters get chance to be discharged—The Island Oct 5, 2003).

The project got underway on Oct 20, 2003 in the Gampaha District—(Discharging begins today; Gampaha deserters get first opportunity-The Island of Oct 20, 2003). It was to continue till Oct 25, 2003. The Army faithfully pursued the project with over 1,000 deserters seeking to end their military careers on the morning of the third day of the on-going scheme (1,173 army deserters respond to call—The Island of Oct 24, 2003). Army headquarters extended the programme by three more days to attract more deserters. (Over 500 army deserters discharged with strap lineAmnesty extended – The Island of Oct 26, 2003).

The government wanted to discharge deserters in the Western Province before launching the programme in other provinces. Having completed the process in Gampaha and Kalutara Districts, the army called on deserters in the Colombo District to make use of the opportunity. (Deserters take the chance to quit honourably – The Island of March 24, 2004).

Always short of men on the ground and a high rate of desertions due to a multitude of reasons, including the absence of proper transport facilities for those serving in the Jaffna peninsula, the Army never thought it would be possible to discharge men in that manner. Instead, the Military Police, with the support of the police, conducted routine raids to apprehend deserters. They were unceremoniously sent back to the battle front, following short refresher training courses.

By then, the UNF project to provide troops to UN peace keeping missions was well underway, under the guidance of Gen. Sir Michael Rose, who once headed Britain’s 22nd Special Air Services (SAS) Regiment and served a year (from 1994 to 1995) as Commander of the UN Protection Force (UNPROFOR), in Bosnia.

It would be pertinent to mention that members of the SAS, too, had been involved in training Sri Lankan military personnel during President J. R. Jayewardene’s tenure in the early 1980s. Faced with a growing Indian backed insurgency in the North at that time, JRJ secured the services of the Channel Island based KMS to provide anti-insurgency/terrorism training.

The then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s government commissioned Gen. Rose to review post-war military situation including large scale overseas deployments under UN command. Rose arrived in Colombo in the third week of Nov 2002 on a week-long visit. It was his second visit since the UNF defeated the PA at the Dec. 2001 parliamentary polls.

Sri Lankan top brass didn’t have a say. In fact, senior officers didn’t even bother at least to oppose the UNP move, though some of them felt uneasy about the whole project. They didn’t realise it could lead to downsizing a demoralized army, following a series of heavy battlefield defeats, including the loss of the strategic Elephant Pass base in April 2000.

Even after the interception and destruction of two LTTE floating arsenals, MV Koimer (March 2003) and MV Shoshin (June 2003), in spite of the LTTE’s war preparations, the UNF went ahead with its efforts to find placements for troops under UN command. Gen. Rose was to prepare a report on ways and means of preparing troops for UN assignments.

Gen. Rose visited Colombo in Sept. 2002 for talks with senior military officials.

The then government enjoyed commissioning foreign military experts to advise the military on crucial military issues. The political leadership felt that foreign experts could help it overcome two critical issues, namely downsizing the Jaffna High Security Zone (HSZ), and a mechanism to set up a special sea lane for the LTTE to operate between the northern and eastern coasts. The UNF commissioned two retired Indian military officers, Lt. Gen. Satish Nambiar and Vice Admiral, P.J. Jacob, respectively, to formulate plans in this regard. A concerned Indian government quickly distanced itself from the UNF project. (This issue was dealt on July 13)

The UNF also sought the British official’s opinion on its plans on military reforms in the wake of CFA. It was not a secret that the UNF wanted to effect crucial changes in the defence sector to prevent President Chandrika Kumaratunga from exercising control over the military, which the government felt was detrimental to the peace process.

The UNF also wanted Gen. Rose to advise the military on re-settlement of civilians in the HSZs in the Jaffna peninsula. (On July 13, 2012 we discussed how the then Maj. Gen. Sarath Fonseka had publicly opposed the removal of Jaffna HSZs, to appease the LTTE. But for Fonseka’s strong stand, the government would have given in to the LTTE’s demand.

Even after the LTTE quit the negotiating table in April, 2003, the government still pursued its peace strategy. Repeated warnings by a section of the intelligence services led by Director General of Intelligence, retired DIG, Merril Gunaratne didn’t prompt a change of government strategy. Gunaratne, in spite of being a Wickremesinghe nominee, didn’t mince his words when he warned the Premier of the rapid expansion of the LTTE fighting capability. (Cop in the Crossfire).

Although the UNF leadership and the Norwegians remained blind to the rapidly deteriorating situation on the ground with the LTTE targeting intelligence services and rival Tamil groups, a section within the military establishment increasingly opposed the UNF’s appeasement policy. But, the UNF carried on regardless. Despite growing indications of an inevitable war, the UNF accepted a major commitment to troop deployment in Haiti in 2004. It was in line with the advice given by Gen. Rose. The GoSL deployed 15 contingents in that country.

Interestingly, President Chandrika Kumaratunga didn’t interfere in the UNF’s plans to downsize the military, though she took over three key portfolios, including defence in Nov 2003. In fact, Gen. Rose visited Colombo subsequent to the President taking over the ministries. The peacekeeping project continued even after the UPFA defeated the UNF at the April 2, 2004 parliamentary polls. The project gathered momentum after the UPFA victory and the then PM, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s triumph at presidential polls on Nov. 17, 2005.

When the GoSL decided to launch a counter offensive in August 2006, subsequent to the Mavilaru battle, many felt that the military would terminate its Haiti mission. In fact, the international community didn’t expect the GoSL to honour its troop commitment in the wake of heavy fighting in the Eastern Province. But the GoSL was determined to sustain the Haiti mission, though at one point it seemed an impossible task. During eelam war IV, the GoSL continued to enhance its overseas commitments, with the deployment of a contingent in Lebanon.

A massive recruitment campaign doubled the strength of the Army from 116,000 at the onset of eelam war IV to over 200,000 at the conclusion of the conflict in May 2009. The GoSL authorised the Navy and Air Force, too, to enhance their strength. While Gen. Fonseka conducted Sri Lanka’s largest ever multi-pronged ground offensive in the Vanni (March 2007 to May 2009), the three services continued to rotate their overseas contingents twice a year.

During Lt. Gen. Fonseka’s tenure as the Commander of the Army, those reluctant to serve on the front were dealt with in line with military rules and regulations. Those who had benefited from an honorable discharge from service during the UNF government experienced a totally different situation as the Army took on the LTTE, head-on. To meet growing manpower requirement, the army enhanced training facilities, stepped-up walk-in interviews, shortened the period of training, but it sustained UN missions.

Over the years, the SL troops deployed in Haiti, as well as Lebanon, had won the admiration of foreign troops working alongside them. Troops deployed in Lebanon are equipped with armoured fighting vehicles.

Sri Lankan troops recently helped douse a raging fire onboard a foreign ship, anchored at Miragone harbour while simultaneously preventing looters reaching the vessel. They also intervened on numerous occasions to rein in armed gangs.

Although many expected the government to downsize the Army immediately after the conclusion of the conflict, the ruling coalition decided to sustain the Army. Defence Secretary Rajapaksa is of the opinion that a sharp decrease in the troop strength would be detrimental to national security, though the LTTE does not pose a conventional military threat.

Since the conclusion of the conflict, the GoSL has indicated its readiness to increase overseas deployments.

Army Chief Lt. Gen. Jagath Jayasuriya informed a visiting high level Global Peace Operations Initiative (GPOI) delegation of the SLA’s readiness to increase its contribution by two more battalions.

Jayasuriya emphasised at a Jan. 31, 2012 meeting at army headquarters that the SLA was in a position to deploy well-trained troops at short notice when he met the delegation here on a fact-finding mission aimed at assessing the SLA’s preparedness to sustain existing missions as well as taking on new assignments.

The GPOI is a US initiative launched in 2004 by the then Bush administration to ensure the availability of well-trained fully equipped troops for UN missions.

The visiting delegation comprised Scott A. Weidie, Chief of Multi-national Training, US Pacific Command (USPACOM), Rich Maloney, GPOI Planner, USPACOM, John L. Otte, Director of Camber Corporation’s International Civil Military Division and Lt. Col. Lucien Campillo, Desk Officer, USPACOM. Lt. Col. Patrick Schuler, Defence Attaché at the US Embassy and Wing Commander Chanaka Fernando (Rtd), Training Programme Manager, US Embassy, too, were also present.

The meeting took place against the backdrop of Sri Lanka’s No 2 at the UN Maj. Gen. Shavendra Silva being appointed to the Special Advisory Group on UN Peace Keeping Operations.

In line with UN policy, peace keepers rotate every six months. Smaller SL contingents are deployed in Ethiopia, Congo, Burundi, Western Sahara and Sudan. Irrespective of rank, peacekeepers receive approximately $ 1,100 a month.