Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Defence, Foreign Affairs ministries lock horns

War on terror revisited: Part 43

by Shamindra Ferdinando

President Mahinda Rajapaksa stripped Mangala Samaraweera of the foreign affairs portfolio on Feb. 9, 2007 consequent to Samaraweera’s strong criticism of the government’s military strategy. His position was that the government should not antagonise the international community. He called upon the government to act with restraint. The Defence Ministry insisted that the country’s national security should not be changed according to the whims and fancies of the ForeignMinister.

Sharp differences between the Defence and Foreign Ministries emerged at the National Security Council (NSC) chaired by President Mahinda Rajapaksa. The growing dispute placed the SLFP-led UPFA government in an extremely difficult position. Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa stressed that the military strategy couldn’t be compromised to appease the international community. MP Samaraweera was alone in criticising the Defence Ministry. He had the backing of several senior foreign ministry officials.

The situation further deteriorated after President Rajapaksa authorised major ground operations in response to an LTTE multi-pronged offensive directed at Jaffna in the second week of Aug. 2006. By Feb. 2007, a major battle was on when Samaraweera used a section of the media to criticise the war effort. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) threw its weight behind Samaraweera. The TNA realised the LTTE needed some respite as troops gradually seized LTTE strongholds in the eastern theatre of operations (Spat over military strategy caused government crisis; MR forwarded comprehensive dossier on LTTE line of attack to New Delhi––The Island Feb.15, 2007).

Dispute over Muhamalai

The foreign ministry pushed for an early re-opening of the Muhamalai entry/exit point, closed after a massive LTTE attack on the Jaffna frontline in the second week of Aug. 2006. It argued that the closure of the Muhamalai entry/exit point would be counter-productive. The Defence Ministry insisted that it couldn’t be re-opened due to security considerations. The military opposed the foreign ministry move. Defence Secretary Rajapaksa and Army chief, Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka were of the opinion that it would be a mistake to re-open the overland route until the war was brought to a conclusion. In fact, the government was preparing to open a new front in the Vanni even before the successful conclusion of the campaign in the Eastern Province.

The foreign and defence ministries also clashed over international NGOs. The foreign ministry believed that regardless of allegations against INGOs, the government would have to be extra cautious in dealing with them. Foreign Ministry mandarins emphasised said that Western powers wouldn’t tolerate any attempt to interfere with INGOs. The Defence Secretary disagreed.

The Foreign Minister and the Defence Secretary also clashed on the issue of providing chopper rides to LTTE leaders.

At one point, the foreign ministry alleged that the military was behind abductions in the city and its suburbs. The foreign ministry endorsed allegations made by a section of the media to the effect that the military was responsible for such illegal operations. Non-cabinet ranker Sripathy Sooriyaarachchi threw his weight behind Samaraweera. National Heritage Minister Anura Bandaranaike, who undermined Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Nov. 2005 presidential election campaign, joined the rebel group. President Rajapaksa stripped all of them of their portfolios.

Dossier on LTTE strategy

Having helped, albeit unwittingly, the then Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa to win the Nov 17, 2005 presidential election by depriving Tamil people living in areas under its control of an opportunity to exercise their franchise in support of UNP candidate Ranil Wickremesinghe, the LTTE launched a series of attacks on the Army and the Navy. The then UNP Chairman Malik Samarawickrema said that Wickremesinghe could have comfortably won the election if the Tamil speaking people had been allowed to vote. Samarawickrema said that the UNP expected 450,000 votes from the Northern and Eastern Provinces (LTTE action belies ali-koti pact-The Island Nov 21, 2005).

On the instructions of the Defence Secretary, the armed forces prepared a dossier, which dealt with the ground situation and predicted the possibility of a major LTTE offensive targeting Trincomalee and Jaffna. During President Rajapaksa’s first visit to New Delhi after the Nov. 17, 2005 poll, Sri Lanka presented the dossier to India.

When the government stripped the SLFP rebels of their portfolios on Feb 9, 2007, the Defence Secretary was in India to brief the Indian leadership on the military operations in the Eastern Province. Rajapaksa briefed Indian Defence Minister A. K. Anthony on Feb. 8, 2007 in the wake of the SLAF launching heavy attacks on the LTTE in the Northern Province. On the day the Defence Secretary briefed Minister Anthony in New Delhi, the SLAF mounted a major attack on LTTE positions south of Mullaitivu. Rajapaksa was in Bangalore for Aero India 2007, Asia’s premier biennial air show held at Yelahanka Air Force base. He was accompanied by the then SLAF chief, Air Marshal Roshan Goonetileke (Gotabhaya briefs Indian Defence Minister––The Island Feb 10, 2007).

The Defence Secretary always intervened on behalf of the armed forces to acquire whatever the required equipment. In early 2007, the SLAF took delivery of four MiG 27s from Ukraine, while several grounded MiG 27s were sent overseas for re-hauling.

President strikes back

While his brother handled the war effort, the President quickly moved on to isolate the UPFA rebel group. Having stripped three rebels of their portfolios, the President visited Visumpaya a few days later to wish Anura Bandaranaike on his 58th birthday. The president’s move jolted the rebel group. Bandaranaike quickly accepted the president’s offer to quit the rebel group. The visit was arranged by close associates of Bandaranaike, who sought the then presidential advisor Basil Rajapaksa’s intervention to settle the dispute. One-time close friend of Anura Bandaranaike, Basil Rajapaksa, played a critical role in building UPFA power in parliament. Anura Bandaranaike earned the wrath of the Rajapaksa Camp in the run-up to the Nov 17, 2005 presidential election by undermining the then Prime Minister’s campaign, though he was promised the premiership in a future UPFA government. But, he thought Wickremesinghe would win.

Immediately after losing his cabinet portfolio, a furious Bandaranaike declared that he was delighted to have left what he called a ‘carnival of clowns.’ Obviously, the SLFP veteran misjudged the Rajapaksas’ resolve to finish off the LTTE. They had the best possible military leadership with Lt. Gen. Fonseka, Vice Admiral Karannagoda and Air Marshal Roshan Goonetilike at the helm of the armed forces. (Split in Mango Group, Anura to re-join ‘Carnival of Clowns’––The Island Feb 15, 2007).

Those who waited for the SLFP rebels to make some headway quickly blamed Anura Bandaranaike for letting the side down. An attempt by the JVP to make the most of the crisis failed due to flaws in its strategy. On the one hand, the JVP demanded that the President abrogate the Norwegian-arranged Ceasefire Agreement (CFA), re-proscribe the LTTE and launch an all-out offensive against the outfit. The JVP flayed the President for not quitting the CFA immediately after the LTTE made an attempt to assassinate his brother on Dec 1, 2006. The JHU and the Patriotic National Movement, too, supported the JVP’s move (JVP: President missed chance to pull out of CFA–The Island Dec 10, 2006). On the other hand, the JVP backed Samaraweera, who had been a vociferous critic of military action and always pushed for a compromise formula. The Rajapaksa brothers were of the opinion that the CFA was not an obstacle to the on-going operations. In spite of heavy resistance, troops captured heavily fortified enemy bases in the Eastern Province (JVP’s two-track strategy in focus––The Island Feb 17, 2007).

Mangala makes fresh bid

A disappointed Samaraweera made a fresh bid to retaliate by calling for an investigation into findings made by the parliamentary watchdog committee, COPE. In a 17-page letter, Samaraweera alleged politicians and officials had swindled the country out of more than Rs. 125 billion. Samaraweera also fired a strongly-worded letter that had been prepared before Anura Bandaranaike broke ranks with the UPFArebel group. (Mangala demands speedy action on COPE findings––The Island Feb 18, 2007). Samaraweera’s move didn’t make any impact as the media had already extensively reported COPE findings by the time he took up the issue. But, Samaraweera pursued his strategy with the support of the UNP and the JVP. Former President Chandrika Kumaratunga, too, threw her weight behind him, though the Rajapaksas remained confident. They also approached the SLMC and the CWC, which joined the government, in spite of contesting the April 2, 2004 presidential election on the UNP ticket. They declined to show their hand unless the Opposition could succeed in its attempt against the President. The Defence Secretary was of the opinion that nothing could go wrong as long as the armed forces offensive was on track. As the government took measures to neutralise the Opposition, the army intensified offensive action in Batticaloa (Forces intensify offensive in Batticaloa––The Island March 9, 2009).

Successful navy action, too, particularly the sinking of LTTE ships on the high seas, undermined Opposition efforts. A section of the international community backed the Opposition’s strategy as it quite rightly asserted that as long President Rajapaksa was in power Sri Lanka wouldn’t stop the ongoing offensive. The military top brass pushed for liberation of the entire Eastern Province as the LTTE gradually retreated. Defence Secretary Rajapaksa, on March 9, 2007, told visiting US State Department official Steven Mann that the offensive would continue. The LTTE leadership was an obstacle to peace, hence it had to be wiped out, he said. Mann was accompanied by the then US Ambassador in Colombo Robert O. Blake, who had had a narrow escape from an LTTE mortar attack in Batticaloa a few weeks back. The meeting took place at the Defence Ministry about a week after Sri Lanka and US reached an important bilateral agreement to give access to the US Navy and Air Force to use facilities in Sri Lanka (No halt on offensive against LTTE with strap line Lanka seeks more US support to stop arms flow––The Island March 11, 2007).

The President’s readiness to finalise the agreement on the recommendation of the Defence Secretary jolted many. The JVP lashed out at the government, while the UNP remained silent as that particular agreement had been first discussed with the previous UNP-led UNF administration. The UNP lacked the courage to go ahead with it due to domestic political pressure. The Rajapaksas felt that US support was crucial and every effort should be made to obtain its assistance. After the conclusion of the conflict, President Rajapaksa publicly thanked the US for helping the SLN to destroy some of the LTTE floating warehouses. Former SLN Commander, the then Vice Admiral Wasantha Karanngoda said that US had provided intelligence on four LTTE vessels destroyed in separate attacks carried out on Sept. 10, 11 and Oct. 7.

Raid on Katunayake airbase

On the night of March 26, 2007, the LTTE almost succeeded in causing an irrevocable damage to the war effort, as troops were about to overrun Kokkadicholai, the one-time LTTE’s main centre. The aircondioned LTTE headquarters in Kokkadicholai had been the venue for talks between the then LTTE commander Karuna (before he quit the organisation on March 2, 2004) and the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission, INGOs, politicians and diplomats. The week-long offensive was conducted by the seventh battalion of the Sri Lanka Light Infantry (Last major LTTE-held civilian centre in East falls-with strap line eelam ‘court’ ‘police’ and political office constituted the centerpiece of the power structure––The Island March 29, 2007).

Low-flying LTTE fixed wing aircraft dropped three bombs on the Katunayake airbase in a bid to destroy Sri Lanka’s precious Israeli-built Kfirs and recently acquired MiG 27s. The LTTE missed the target, though 17 airmen suffered injuries in the blasts. Three of them succumbed to their injuries. (Abortive raid jolts government to review defences with strap line Low flying light aircraft escape SLAF radar––The Island March 27, 2007).

The TamilNet quoted LTTE spokesman Irasaiah Illanthiraiyan as having said that the target of the LTTE air wing was the Katunayake-based jets.

The destruction of NO 10 and NO 12 Jet Squadrons comprising Kfirs and MiG 27s in service with the SLAF since 1996 and 2000, respectively would have resulted in a debilitating setback to the war effort in the Vanni. Although it wouldn’t have made any major difference in the Eastern theatre of operations, the army on the Vanni front would have faced an insurmountable problem. Obliteration of air power would have definitely forced the army to review its plans on the Vanni front. At the time the attempt on the Katunayake air base was made, the 57 Division was struggling on the Vanni front. The army launched its Vanni campaign in March, 2007, as the offensive in the Eastern Province reached its last phase.