War is at a stalemate: Kalkat

[TamilNet, Friday, 08 August 1997, 23:59 GMT]
General A.S. Kalkat of the Indian Army was interviewed by the Colombo based weekly, the Sunday Times last week. In his opinion, the Sri Lankan government's war in the Tamil homelands is a 'stalemate'. General Kalkat has first hand experience of the conflict: he was the commander of the inaptly named Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) dispatched to tame the Tigers on behalf of the Sri Lankan government in 1987.

A S Kalkat When the Sri Lankan and Indian governments signed the 1987 Indo-Lanka accord, ostensibly to 'settle' the Tamil-Sinhala conflict, both Sri Lanka and India were the real beneficiaries, with the Tamil people receiving a token solution to decades of Sinhala domination.

In effect, Sri Lanka promised not to challenge Indian domination of the region by allowing 'foreign' (i.e. western) nations to achieve military footholds on the island. In return, India promised to prevent 'Tamil militant activities against Sri Lanka'.

India was to 'protect' the Tamils from the excesses of the Sri Lankan army, and in return the Tamils were to disarm. However, the Sri Lankan military continued to violate the cease-fire (underwritten by the Indians) with impunity.

Following the deaths of a dozen LTTE officers after being arrested by the Sri Lankan navy (which was supposed to be confined to barracks) and a series of massacres of unarmed Tigers by rival Tamil groups sponsored by the Indians, the LTTE refused to continue with the arms surrender.

The Indians then launched a military offensive to wipe out the Tigers, storming the Tamil cultural capital of Jaffna and deploying 100,000 troops in the north and east of the island. Expecting an easy victory over the LTTE's "boys in sarongs", the IPKF became embroiled in a vicious guerrilla war and finally withdrew having lost at least 1120 troops (officially; some Indian analysts estimate up to 3000 may have died).

When the IPKF arrived, LTTE strength was estimated at 2000. When the Indians withdrew in 1989, the Tigers had 5000 men and women under arms. However, Tamil civilians took the brunt of the Indian offensive, with up to 5000 Tamil civilians dying in retaliatory massacres and murders by Indian troops between 1987 and 1989.

According to Gen. Kalkat, the war has currently reached a stalemate. He believes that neither the Sri Lankan army nor the Tamil Tigers can achieve a significant military advantage.

In his assessment, Gen. Kalkat thought the current Sri Lankan military strategy was flawed, as a significant number of troops had been committed to take Jaffna city and peninsula (a 'symbolic', not a military victory in his opinion). He estimates that 65-70% of SLA troops are boxed into the peninsula.

Furthermore, as the garrison relies on naval and aerial supply lines (both of which have been almost severed by the LTTE) it is straining the Sri Lankan military without contributing significantly to the war effort. As many other military experts have said, up to 80% of the island's east is under LTTE control, leaving only the major towns such as Trincomalee and Batticaloa under Sri Lankan military control.

He rates the LTTE as a "highly trained, highly motivated, and committed organization, whose standard of fighting is about the best compared to any other insurgency movement in the world". Nevertheless, he does not think they can achieve Eelam by force of arms alone.

In the same breath he points out "nor can a majority government impose its will and its domination over the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka by a force of arms."

According to Tamil political analysts, the General's reference to the Tamils as a "minority" reflected the Indian and Sri Lankan governments' inaccurate measure of the strength of nationalism within the Tamil people on the island and elsewhere.

Gen. Kalkat admits that there is "very strong" support in Tamil Nadu for the Tamils on the island, but he is adamant that the support does not extend to the LTTE. However, support for the Tigers is clearly growing in Tamil Nadu, driven by recent Sri Lankan naval attacks on Tamil fishermen. As one Indian Tamil political activist pointed out, "the LTTE has the support of the Eelam Tamils and we identify with them".

When asked to comment on the Sri Lanka government's ban on the media from entering the Tamil homelands, Gen. Kalkat said that he did not believe in censorship. He said that the IPKF "permitted the world media free access". However, this is not entirely correct: only journalists who were not critical of the Indian operations and casualties were actually given free access.

Commenting on the Sri Lankan government's latest offensive, ostensibly to open a land- based supply route to its Jaffna garrison, Gen. Kalkat thought that the SLA would not be able to sustain a permanent supply line. He believes that the road would be vulnerable to continuous guerrilla attacks which would be extremely costly.

Gen. Kalkat has had considerable experience of guerrilla war against the Tigers. Many of the Indian army's elite units such as the Parachute and Gurkha regiments took severe casualties in battles against LTTE units. Since the IPKF withdrew, the LTTE have tripled their troop numbers and have substantially improved their armoury.

Gen. Kalkat said that the Tamil people (and to a lesser extent the Sinhala people) were the ones to suffer in the war as "No one gains". However, Tamil observers pointed out that since the IPKF had inflicted as much suffering on the Tamils as the Sinhalese army, and that since not a single Indian soldier had even been charged for war crimes, Gen. Kalkat was not the ideal person to comment on the issue.

Gen. Kalkat refused to be drawn into criticising the government's peace package, but did not endorse it either, merely saying he 'had not studied them'. He did say that the 'mistrust' between the Tigers and the Sri Lankan government had to be overcome by implementing a political solution such that " both sides stand to lose" if either reneges.


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