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Sri Lankan military victory was commendable but not unique

Sep 7, 2010 11:02:45 PM- transcurrents.com

by Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka

The ongoing visit by the much-decorated chief of the Indian army provides an occasion for an objective perspective on Sri Lanka’s military achievement as well as the reactions to it. The Lankan military victory and our military have earned the respect of military professionals the world over.

If they haven’t been exactly hailed or has sometimes been "damned with faint praise", the responsibility accrues not only to the propaganda of the hostile but the wild exaggerations and embellishment of the Sri Lankan cheering squad. If Sri Lanka’s military performance and achievement is to be recognised, applauded and immortalised for what it was, it must not be depicted as what it was not. The achievement must be regarded objectively. This requires de-limiting and identifying its dimensions, contribution and applicability.

While it is indubitable that every serious military machine in the world took note of this or that aspect of the war and some would definitely have studied it more deeply, the chorus of congratulations offered to the Sri Lankan state have been short lived. Neither the states engaged in anti-terrorist warfare, nor anti-state movements with a history of engagement in asymmetric warfare have made any sustained analyses and commentaries on the war. From the anti-terrorist side one can think of only two think pieces, the Indian Defence Review one that has been recycled by the publishers and in the Lankan media and a significant essay by Robert D. Kaplan, followed by an interview. (The latter has been subject to reasoned criticism by Prof Michael Roberts and security studies researcher Sergei De Silva Ranasinghe).

Kaplan’s point was very simple, and goes a long way in explaining why even Western conservatives, neo-conservatives and military establishments have been wary of praising, let alone embracing, the Sri Lankan model: the attitude to the media; the controls, the disappearances, the killings, the justificatory propaganda. No Western military, no military of a developed or advanced liberal democracy could or should conceive of functioning along such lines, says Kaplan.

Both the relative silence that has accompanied the Sri Lankan military victory internationally and the parochial braggadocio that has followed it locally are unfortunate and counterproductive. The best recent example of the latter was last Sunday, in a long piece by a retired army officer, Lalin Fernando which was a counter-critique of a critique I had made of Prabhakaran and the LTTE from a comparative historical perspective. He accuses me, in the very title of his piece, of "Trivialising the Victory of May 2009". His opening criticism of me is that I do not hold, as he does, that the Sri Lankan victory was "unique". "...the question arises why after over one year he [DJ] propels himself to propagate his theory that the victory of 2009 was not all that unique. It appears to be a stubborn attempt to take away the lustre of what was SL’s epic victory."

Though I readily assert that it was exceptional in its own way and had its specificities which must be studied, I do not state that the Sri Lankan victory was "unique", for three reasons. (a) It is a demonstrable fiction. (b) It goes against my own writings and numerous lectures at Sri Lankan military academies (including to select audiences of our Special Forces and US Green Berets), before (not "over one year" after) the war broke out, in which I pointed to the successful, inspiring examples which proved that we could in fact win the war. (c) While it may be quite in order for a retired military officer writing to the Sri Lankan papers to assert this claim to uniqueness, I would have seemed an ignoramus if I were to have made this claim, for instance, at last Sunday’s brunch discussion hosted by Singapore’s President that we seniors of the National University of Singapore’s think-tanks had with Lord Patten, Chancellor of Oxford University (Oxford and the NUS being partners in the International Alliance of Research Universities).

The Sri Lankan military victory was commendable enough for it not to be passed off as unique. It is not ‘unique’ because in recent years (leave alone the long annals of military history) there were at least three outright victories of state forces over powerful irregular armies engaged in asymmetric warfare, of which two were more relevant to Sri Lanka than the third. I refer firstly, to the victory by Russian forces under the Presidency of Vladimir Putin, over the Chechen militia, with its fanaticism, ferocious mountain fighters, veteran jihadi foreign volunteers, deadly female suicide squads (the Black Widows) and terrorist outrages in Moscow itself. Putin’s forces smashed the Chechen separatist terrorist formations after Russia had failed to do so in two earlier wars and had also made the mistake of entering an appeasing ‘negotiated (non)settlement’ under weaker, pro-Western political leaders. The Sri Lankan military victory is not ‘unique’ also because of Angola, where after decades, the government forces succeeded in decapitating the UNITA (built up and equipped by the West and apartheid South Africa) by killing its legendary (Chinese trained) leader Jonas Savimbi. The third, though slightly less relevant recent military victory by state armed forces against a strong insurgency was that of the Algerian state under President (former foreign minister) Abdelaziz Bouteflika, which crushed the Islamist terrorist militias.

Lalin Fernando takes umbrage at my evaluation of Velupillai Prabhakaran, complaining that "DJ says that VP was ‘not a master strategist….. like Fidel, Ho Chi Minh’... DJ says that any comparison of Prabakaran with Castro is like comparing ‘[a] Hobbit with an Olympian’. Did he get the order of names right? He goes on to state that the ‘LTTE was the world’s top terrorist but not the world’s best guerrilla formation’, without defining the difference."

Finally Fernando bares the heart of his argument and historical evaluation, constructing the silliest of syllogisms, as follows: "The courage, daring, resolve, endurance and initiative of the LTTE was second to none amongst terrorists, insurgents and guerrillas in history. That is what makes the SL victory famous. ... Castro has a place amongst the best insurgent leaders of the 1950s. VP has one amongst the best in the world in history. That is why the victory of May 2009 is momentous, tremendous and yes thrilling and those who won it famously. [Sic]"

While I have made the point that Prabhakaran was indeed "second to none among terrorists", I have contested, resorting to many comparisons and examples (e.g. the Hezbollah), that he holds the same status among guerrillas and insurgents. Fernando’s bundling of ‘terrorists’, ‘insurgents’ and ‘guerrillas’, with the implication that they are all really the same, tells us at least two things about him. He cannot tell the hugely basic difference between the Nicaraguan Sandinistas and the LTTE or the Vietnamese NLF (Viet Cong) and al Qaeda, or Che Guevara and Bin Laden.

He is utterly unaware of the doctrinal debate among leading political and military professionals in the USA precisely between "counter-terrorism" and "counter-insurgency" strategies in Afghanistan!

As ancillaries of Fernando’s ignorance we have remarks on Mao, Leonidas and Fidel Castro, which seek to counter my own assessment that Velupillai Prabhakaran was not in the same league as strategist or leader. Fernando writes "However it is true that VP did not revert to guerilla war like Mao when his conventional war attempt was failing... When the LTTE were surrounded by the SL Army in Mullaitivu their position was unlike that which faced Mao‘s force of 200,000 surrounded by the 700,000 Nationalist Army of Chiang. Mao’s great escape with a ‘Long March’ of 6,000 miles left him with only 8,000 of the 100,000 who started the trek"

The Long March took place before Mao got to Yenan and it is indeed to Yenan that Mao marched, after the urban insurrections were defeated in 1927. In 1945 when he abandoned Yenan, Mao’s forces were way over the 200,000 mentioned by Lalin Fernando, and ran into the millions, organised into several armies! If Mao was able to abandon the extensive Red base of Yenan after a decade of control and 28 years of warfare, while Prabhakaran didn’t want to or couldn’t do likewise, there was something wrong with the latter.

In Fernando’s version of Thermopylae, King Leonidas and the 300 Spartans faced an opposing Persian force of "180,000 infantry and cavalry (not ‘several hundred thousand’ as DJ states) of the invading Persians..." However, the revered ancestor of modern history writing, Herodotus (thought to have had access to official Persian Empire records) gives a total figure of 2.5 million military personnel, accompanied by an equivalent number of support personnel. His near-contemporary Simonides says four million while Ctesias says 800,000. Even the most wildly conservative of contemporary ‘revisionist’ scholar estimates puts the Persian combatants in the battle at no less than a quarter million. Taking all this into account I used the figure "several hundred thousand" which is very low, but way too high for Lalin Fernando. In the admittedly difficult choice I have to make between Herodotus and Fernando, I’ll stick with Herodotus over the home-grown.

Fernando reserves much of his literary powder and shot for Fidel Castro’s military stature, scorning it as infinitely inferior to that of Prabhakaran, let alone the latter’s nemesis the Sri Lankan army brass. To show this up for the arrant nonsense it is, I quote from ‘AFTER FIDEL’ (Palgrave Macmillan, 2002) by Brian Latell, the CIA’s topmost Cuba analyst for decades, and hardly a Fidel fan or consumer of Cuban propaganda:

"With the exception of Israel, no other small country has tallied as many stunning battlefield victories as Cuba has. Not even the Israeli military has ever exhibited the long-range force projection capabilities that Cuba’s did in the 1970s when tens of thousands of troops were dispatched first to Angola and later to Ethiopia, both many thousands of miles from Cuban shores. It was Fidel to be sure, who was the grand strategist of those interventions ...he was sharp and in command during the Bay of Pigs, moving Cuban forces around the island like chess pieces. He made all the strategic decisions during Cuba’s military interventions overseas."

In order to make his absurd argument, Fernando ironically canonizes Prabhakaran ("among the best in the world in history") to a degree that no Tiger spokesman living or dead, has attempted! For its part, the Sri Lankan military achievement is sufficiently superb not to require tall claims and which erode, not enhance our credibility. The lily needs no gilding.