( From the "Daily Mirror" of Colombo of October 25,2008)
Former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein captured the world’s imagination with his prediction about the ‘Mother of all battles’ in 1991 after seizing Kuwait.
The much-awaited mother of all battles turned out to be damp squib. It was a case of beginning with a tremendous bang and ending in a pathetic whimper.
Recent hype in sections of the media about the seizure of Kilinochchi preceded by a fierce battle, brings back memories of the mother of all battles that never occurred.
If current politico – military realities are taken into account all indicators are that the anticipated mother of all battles for Kilinochchi may not take place after all.
Multiple factors such as the serious concern evinced by New Delhi about the safety and security of Tamil civilians, the onset of North – Eastern monsoon rains, the defensive measures set in motion by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the pragmatically flexible military approach adopted by the Sri Lankan armed forces are leading to a dicey situation where Kilinochchi’s fate could be uncertain.
Kilinochchi was a fast developing town in the Northern mainland until the ethnic conflict escalated. The town lies alongside the Jaffna – Kandy trunk road known as the A – 9 Highway .It was earlier part of the Jaffna administrative district. Kilinochchi was re- demarcated as a separate administrative district with Kilinochchi town as its capital.
The name Kilinochchi is derived from “kili” meaning parrot and the tree “ nochchi “ (vitex negundo). Kilinochchi district is a sprawling agrarian region extending even into the Jaffna peninsula in the form of Pachchilaipalli AGA division.
Although Kilinochchi is a separate administrative district, it is also an electoral division forming part of the Jaffna electoral district when it comes to polls.
It could be seen therefore that the name Kilinochchi refers to the town, administrative district, electoral division and in a general sense the outlying region.
In recent times, Kilinochchi shot to fame when it became the de – facto administrative “capital” of LTTE controlled territory in the North.
Kilinochchi itself was wrested back by the tigers from Government control in 1998 through phase – two of the LTTE military operation codenamed “Oyatha Alaigal” or ceaseless waves.
The ceasefire agreement of February 23rd 2002 saw a period of relative peace.
It was during this period that Kilinochchi acquired importance as the LTTE began setting up various structures like an administrative secretariat, political headquarters, military headquarters, peace secretariat etc in Kilinochchi town and its suburbs.
Many other LTTE controlled organizations like the Tamil Rehabilitation Organization (TRO) also set up office in K’nochchi. Other tiger departments like the radio “voice of Tigers/Tamil Eelam Radio” and TV “ Nitharsanam/Tamil Eelam TV” also established themselves in the area.
Several Non – Governmental organizations, International NGO”s and also International agencies located their regional offices in Kilinochchi. Visiting dignitaries, official delegations and key officials also met with LTTE officials including tiger supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran in K’nochchi.
It is against this backdrop that K’nochchi evolved into an unofficial administrative capital of the LTTE.
This phenomenon has afforded Kilinochchi a great deal of symbolic value. Militarily K’nochchi town does not have the strategic merits of even Paranthan situated four miles to its north.
Kilinochchi’s short tenure of fame or notoriety as the LTTE “capital” has made it a prize target in Colombos calculations.
An ambiguous irony in this war is the “contradiction” visible between professed intention and actual implementation.
LTTE controlled territory is deemed as rightfully coming under Sri Lankan state writ and the people in those areas are legitimate citizens of this country. “re- unification” in essence is the rationale for war.
The manner in which the war is conducted suggests otherwise. It is as if war is being waged in a hostile country against an alien people. When military plans are formulated practically no concern is displayed for the fate of civilians.
Recently Defence secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa boasted that the Sri Lankan air force had conducted more than six thousand air raids as opposed to the six done by the LTTE.
The tragic irony of an air force bombing its own people on its own soil six thousand times seemed to be lost on the defence secretary. Thus the Tamil people are constantly reminded that the war is against the LTTE and not them, but the way in which it is conducted makes the people feel differently.
There is also a tendency to revive the atavistic past and introduce some elements of it into the current war in a spirit of conquest.
When Parayaanaalankulam was captured, former deputy defence minister Anuruddha Ratwatte who fancied himself as a latter - day Sapumal Kumaraya re-named it Sapumalpura.
Even Chandrika Kumaratunga despite her enlightened approach towards the Tamil national question re-enacted a medieval pageant of sorts when Jaffna was taken. In an elaborate ceremony, Ratwatte presented to her a scroll in a casket announcing the capture of “Yapapatuna”.
It is this mindset that is seemingly dominant when it comes to Kilinochchi. It is being projected indirectly as the tiger or Tamil capital. The hype is seemingly all about the imminent fall of an enemy capital.
Currently Kilinochchi is but an empty shell. The LTTE has withdrawn all its departments. The NGO’s and INGO’s have closed their offices. Even Government offices, departments, secretariat and hospital etc are re- located. Most people have left and it is fast turning into a ghost town.
In utilitarian terms Kilinochchi is of little practical value. It is not important even in military considerations as some other places like Paranthan, Thunukkai, Oddusuddan, Nedunkerni or Mankulam.
What it retains is the dubious prestige of having been a de – facto administrative capital of the LTTE. Given the Rajapaksa regime’s penchant for crass exhibitionism, there is a need to take Kilinochchi and flaunt its conquest to the nation at large.
It is this notion of conquest, which gives Kilinochchi its enhanced prestige and symbolic value.
Militarily it is not of great importance though sections of the Colombo media are fond of describing each military advance as being of strategic importance.
The other side of this Kilinochchi obsession is among sections of the Colombo Tamil media and Diaspora.
Like their counterparts in the English and Sinhala media, Tamil media also allots to Kilinochchi, undeserving prominence as an important Tamil capital like how Madurai was to the Pandiyans, Thanjai/Uraiyoor/Gangaikondacholapuram was to the Cholas and Nalloor was to the Arya Chakrawarthy dynasty.
So the anticipated fall of Kilinochchi by the “opposite” side is opposed by a counter – argument in Tamil media that is two – fold. On the one hand we are told that K’nochchi will not be allowed to fall and on the other that the war will continue regardless of Kilinochchi’s fate.
It is in this atmosphere pervaded by martial spirits that the fate of Kilinochchi town is being speculated upon. Great expectations have been aroused in the South about its imminent capture.
Some sections of the media have gone to the extent of stating that the armed forces are within a 1600 metre distance of Kilinochchi town limits. This news may provide a “feel good” feeling to many but ground realities are not so rosy.
The actual position seems to be this. The two closest points to K’nochchi held by the army are in the old Murugandy – new Kokkavil area and in areas south – east of the Akkarayankulam tank.
Both these locations west of the A – 9 are not along the highway though quite close to the road. The nearest villages along the A – 9 that are close to both points are either Kokkavil or Thirumurugandy.
Now Thirumurugandy is seven miles to the South of Kilinochchi. Kokkavil is nine miles to the south of K’nochchi on the A – 9. The shortest distance to K’Nochchi from Thirumurugandy and Kokkavil is along the A – 9.
As for Akkarayankulam, troops are currently in locations to the south of Akkarayan tank. The village Akkarayan is to the north of the tank. There is a C - grade road linking Akkarayankulam to Kilinochchi town. But that means a distance of 14 km.
There has also been a lot of hype about breaching the LTTE constructed bund and capturing Vannerikulam. It is certainly a military feat but again the geographical reality is that Vannerikulam is five km to the west of Akkarayankulam.
This means the distance to Kilinochchi is even greater. Likewise, Jeyapuram that was taken recently is another four km to the west of Vannerikulam. These military accomplishments do not reduce the distance to Kilinochchi in any way.
Given these geographical realities it is indeed puzzling to witness gleeful declarations of the armed forces being within kissing distance of Kilinochchi town. (Maybe it’s a flying kiss!)
Initially it was assumed that Kilinochchi would be taken by mid – October as further delay would have seen the Monsoon rains falling in late October. But the monsoon rains have begun even before the town fell.
In a bid perhaps to educate people of prevailing conditions the defence authorities released pictures of soldiers pushing vehicles bogged down on mud tracks. Since a picture is said to be worth a thousand words these demonstrated clearly the difficulties faced by soldiers in proceeding towards avowed destinations. In a sense, the bogged down vehicles were a metaphor for the war on Kilinochchi.
That the rains and weather conditions are dampening war efforts is crystal clear. This was why the armed forces wanted to take symbolic Kilinochchi by mid – October.
What went awry with these plans were two factors. One was the stiff resistance proffered by the LTTE. The other subsequent factor was India’s role.
When the armed forces began nearing Kilinochchi via Akkarayankulam and Old Murugandy – new Kokkavil, the tigers changed tactics. The women’s brigades and newly recruited/conscripted cadres were withdrawn from those frontlines.
Experienced cadres of Charles Anthony regiment under “ColAmithab were brought in. These cadres fought with dogged determination on multiple fronts in these crucial areas.
The armed forces with overwhelming superiority of numbers and military assets did manage to push through but the LTTE succeeded in holding them off for a long time thus delaying the military drive.
Even now the armed forces are close to the A – 9 at many places but are not attempting to occupy the road physically. On the other hand tiger resistance along the Pallavarayankattu – Jeyapuram – Vannerikulam, Akkarayankulam – Old Murugandy – new Kokkavil axis has been formidable.
Another development in the fighting was the use of the air force. At one stage Air Force planes and helicopters unleashed a barrage of bombs on Kilinochchi and outskirts. Several abandoned LTTE offices were hit.
Suddenly things changed. The LTTE began deploying its Radha anti aircraft unit in Kilinochchi and environs. When warehouses run by the TRO were being bombed the Radha unit allegedly engaged in anti aircraft fire.
Kanagasabapathy Harichandran alias Radha was at one time LTTE commander for Mannar and Jaffna. An alumni of Jaffna Hindu College, he was a bank employee in Colombo when July 1983 erupted. He joined the LTTE and rose up from the ranks.
Radha was killed in a bombing spree by the Air Force in 1987. The anti – aircraft unit (vimaana ethirpu ani) pioneered by Vaithilingam Sornalingam alias “ColShankar was developed further and re-named after Radha.
With Radha unit cadres converging in Kilinochchi the Air Force began targeting spots further north in Paranthan and also in areas like Viswamadhu and Puthukudiyiruppu.
It was at this juncture that India began intervening “diplomatically” on a humanitarian basis on behalf of beleaguered Tamil civilians. India did not demand that Colombo call off the war against LTTE but emphasised strongly that civilian safety and security have to be ensured.
This “benign” intervention coincided with a lull in aerial bombardment. It also brought about greater consideration for civilian plight. President Mahinda Rajapaksa was so “moved” by Indian entreaties that he announced publicly of slow progress by the armed forces due to concern showed for civilian safety.
Up to now, New Delhi has not demanded an end to war against the LTTE. No Congress dominated government can do so. What India wants is a change in the way the war is being fought ensuring civilian safety.
Since most civilians in Kilinochchi and to the South of Kilinochchi had fled the areas there is little chance of innocent non – combatants being victimised if hostilities spread towards Kilinochchi.
This provided a window of opportunity to the armed forces. If they could advance swiftly in a few days time towards Kilinochchi then the town could be taken before Tamil Nadu public opinion consolidated itself and erupted on a mass scale.
Given these imperatives there was a spurt of military activity. Some analysts described it as a “race for Kilinochchi”. If the armed forces could have taken Kilinochchi within a short time, then there was nothing anyone across the Palk straits could have done. Time was of the essence.
But the tigers fought back fiercely thus delaying and obstructing military plans. The past few days have seen enormous casualties on both sides. There are wild rumours about the figures. What is of importance here is the Defence Ministry decision not to reveal casualty figures on official websites.
The end result of all this is Kilinochchi’s fate turning dicey. It is one thing to have taken Kilinochchi quickly but a prolonged battle targeting the town is likely to have an impact in Tamil Nadu.
With a Tamil Nadu all – party resolution demanding that the Central government should take steps to end the war in Sri Lanka, it does not seem prudent for the armed forces to take symbolic Kilinochchi even if it was capable of doing so by overcoming LTTE resistance quickly.
The fall of Kilinochchi at this juncture could set off an emotional backlash in Tamil Nadu. New Delhi has been straining itself to contain Tamil Nadu passions but the capture of the “Tamil” capital Kilinochchi by “Sinhala” armed forces could trigger off much heat.
Even if the armed forces were to renew the drive towards Kilinochchi there is every chance that the LTTE would fight and resist. The tigers may even force some civilians to return to Kilinochchi.
If there were constraints on Colombo then use of Air power or artillery power would be severely curtailed. Without aerial bombardment and artillery shelling the armed forces would be at a disadvantage vis a vis the LTTE. In that event, the fight for symbolic Kilinochchi amidst adverse weather conditions would take a long, long time.
Thus a combination of four factors namely weather, tiger resistance, Indian concern and the Governments professed commitment for civilian safety has served to circumscribe Colombo’s intention of waging an all – out war to take Kilinochchi.
There was a moment when it could have done so. Colombo failed to seize the moment. That moment has now seemingly passed.
At the moment the long awaited mother of all battles for Kilinochchi taking place seems a remote possibility. Even the anticipated fall of Kilinochchi seems unlikely to occur.
But all is not lost for the Government as far as Kilinochchi is concerned. Defence secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa made a revealing comment while briefing Editors at a meeting convened by President Rajapaksa.
The secretary compared military manoeuvres to the progress of water. Just as water moves rapidly at suitable levels to move forward the armed forces also do so, he said, according to media reports.
This in a nutshell has been the guiding military philosophy. The LTTE has been frequently outsmarted by the military strategy of circumventing tiger defences, going around and then encircling by coming up from behind.
From Vidathaltheevu to Pallavarayankattu this strategy has been the key to military success. The tigers are compelled to withdraw after being encircled to avoid being trapped.
It does appear that the armed forces could repeat the same strategy regarding Kilinochchi also. Instead of getting tied down to the Akkarayankulam – Old Murugandy – new Kokkavil front or walking into a politico – military minefield by attempting to take Kilinochchi town the armed forces can duplicate their previous strategy with appropriate innovation.
If the armed forces can take the Mannar – Pooneryn road and then the Pooneryn – Paranthan road they can reach Paranthan four miles to the north of Kilinochchi and nine miles to the south of Elephant pass. The forces could then gradually expand an arc of encirclement around Kilinochchi forcing the tigers to withdraw. But then this requires an extended time – frame that may not be feasible.
Before I conclude let me refer to the furore caused by Indian analyst. B. Raman when he compared the siege of Stalingrad to the siege of Kilinochchi. Some newspaper reports say that Gotabhaya Rajapakse has called for a comparative study of both sieges.
The siege of Stalingrad during Second World War was a historic event when the Soviet defenders and winter combined to defeat Hitler’s forces. Raman sees a parallel in Kilinochchi with monsoon rains replacing harsh Russian winter.
Interestingly the first to refer to Stalingrad was not Raman but former LTTE political commissar Yogi who is now in charge of LTTE military research unit. Yogi in an article written for LTTE journal “Eela Naatham” on July 21, compares Wanni resistance to Stalin Grad.
Then on August 15, there is a comparison with Stalin grad siege in another article written by Anbarasu. Incidently Anbarasu is the pseudonym of an Oxonian contemporary of Canadian Liberal MP Bob Rae. Anbarasu is now in the Wanni committed to the LTTE struggle.
Both Yogi and Anbarasu did not specifically refer to Kilinochchi as the equivalent of Stalingrad. The resistance on the lines of Stalingrad could be in other places east of the A – 9.
However a systematic study of the siege of Stalingrad and the besieging of Kilinochchi shows there is no parallel at all. There is only a superficial similiarity.
For one thing Mahinda Rajapaksa is not Adolph Hitler and Velupillai Prabhakaran is not Josef Stalin. More serious comparison reveals that trying to equate Stalingrad and Kilinochchi (though it may warm the cockles of LTTE hearts) is like comparing apples and oranges.
Comparing both on an equal basis and trying to draw a parallel between Stalingrad and Kilinochchi amounts to in logical terms as the fallacy of false analogy.
D.B.S. Jeyaraj can be reached at