The Advance to Mullaitivu
The fall of Kilinochchi on January 2nd 2009 (see battle map), was viewed as unexpectedly quick in many sectors. Several military analysts, particularly B Raman and Col Hariharan, were expecting a titanic duel between the SL Army and the LTTE before the latter eventually relinquished their hold on their administrative capital. Even with Task Force 1 poised to take Paranthan by New Year’s Day, and the 57th Division driving into the southern flank of Kilinochchi, the writing on the wall hadn’t been read. With the A9 Highway towns of Paranthan and Iranamadu in SL Army hands, the Tigers risked a double envelopment from both flanks, with brigade-sized units sweeping round to cut off Kilinochchi. The LTTE would have foreseen this danger, and as the flanks crumbled, they withdrew swiftly towards Vaddakachchi in the east. After the heavy fighting on the flanks, the taking of Kilinochchi itself was relatively fast.
Both the 57th Division and TF1 continued the momentum, driving east and northeast of Kilinochchi, pushing the Tigers back so as to prevent an immediate counterattack. Elements of TF1 turned north and fought their way up to the southern edge of Elephant Pass. To the north of Elephant Pass, on the Kilali-Muhamalai-Nagarkovil line, the 53rd and 55th Divisions continued to apply pressure and force the LTTE to commit troops that could be valuable on the mainland.
Meanwhile, on the southern flank, TF2 and TF4 continued to make incremental gains across the A34 Highway linking Mankulam and Mullaitivu, with TF4 taking Oddusuddan on the 5th of January. The 59th Division on the east coast is currently the closest to Mullaitivu, in the Thanniyuttu sector just south of the Kilinochchi lagoon. This is a relatively urban area and the lack of manouver room means that the division cannot use mobility to envelope the defenders as was done in the advances up the northwest coast and across the Kilinochchi District. Any drive into southern Mullaitivu by elements of the 59th will mean slow and bloody fighting against the best of the Tiger units. On January 1st, a day before the fall of Kilinochchi, the 59th got a taste of this as the LTTE’s Ratha Regiment counterattacked and overran the 59th’s forward defence lines before being repulsed.
With the fall of Paranthan and the capturing of the entire A9 Highway south of Elephant Pass, the Tigers on the Jaffna Peninsula were being increasingly isolated. The GoSL’s so-called National Front on the Kilali-Muhamalai-Nagarkovil axis had always been a holding action, in spite of widespread opinion that it would be the jumping-off point for the advance on Elephant Pass. Most SL Army operations in this sector were limited, and more in the form of punitive raids than actual advances to capture territory. Fortified Tiger defences across a very narrow front that was anchored on both flanks by water, ensured that there could be no avoiding a frontal assault. The Sri Lankan Security Forces don’t have a true strategic airmobile or amphibious capability, and without these it was impossible to bypass the LTTE defences on the Peninsula. The SL military was quite aware of this, but still focused attention on this front in an attempt to pin down LTTE manpower and resources on a static front, while the real advances were made through Mannar and then across the A9. This was very similar to the relatively slow advances made by TF4 and the 59th Division at the far end of the LTTE territory. Basically, we had holding actions on the left (Jaffna Peninsula) and right (west of the A9), while a three-division punch went north and then east through the center.
However, with the fall of Paranthan, the left flank began to look decisively shaky. Tigers on the Jaffna Peninsula now had only one land route for resupply – the Mullaitivu-Chundikulam-Iyakachchi road. That, and whatever irregular logistical support the Sea Tigers could provide from bases in the ever-shrinking coastal area controlled by the LTTE. Unlike with conventional guerrilla operations, the Tigers are now fighting a conventional war in the north, and need a steady supply of heavy ammunition and other supplies. Unlike with the Viet Cong, these cannot be manpacked through the jungle by a multitude of porters, and therefore must be transported by vehicles along a road. The Mullaitivu-Iyakachchi road will now be that sole lifeline, threatened by SLAF airstrikes and – as the SL Army gets nearer – by special forces and artillery. It could even be cut by elements of TF1 advancing parallel to the A35 in a bid to reach the coast.
It is unclear as to why LTTE troops on the peninsula did not begin to withdraw immediately Paranthan fell. There can be several reasons. One, the LTTE command didn’t want the entire northern flank to collapse, opening it up for a rapid advance by the 53rd and 55th divisions with their heavy mechanized components. Two, the LTTE hoped to counterattack south from Elephant Pass into the Paranthan area, but delayed until it was too late. Three, the LTTE planned a phased withdrawal southeast along the Iyakaachchi-Mullaitivu road in order to control the Chundikulam area and continue threatening Elephant Pass. Four, there was a breakdown in communication between the LTTE on the mainland and those on the Peninsula.
Whatever the reason for the delay, the LTTE then began a phased evacuation of its troops on the Peninsula, moving to two extraction points – eastern Vadamarachchi on the northeast coast of the Peninsula from where Sea Tiger boats would ferry them south, and Ooriyan, east of Elephant Pass, where LTTE special operations troops are using rubber dinghys and other small craft to cross the Chundikulam lagoon. It is reported that around a thousand LTTE troops escaped Kilinochchi, and these will be joined by the Peninsula veterans for the defence of Mullaitivu.
Within a day of the first evacuations, SL Army infantry recce groups had reported the withdrawal of Tiger troops from the Kilali-Muhamalai line to Pallai and Puththukaadu. The 53rd Division immediately advanced, and by 6th January had taken the LTTE’s second line of defence. LTTE troops facing the 55th Division at Nagarkovil remained in place until the 7th before falling back southeast to Aaliywalai, probably to prevent a collapse of the entire front and the turning of the Pallai northern flank. By the 8th the LTTE had fallen back from Pallai to the Puththukaadu junction. Intelligence gathered from air reconnaissance and special forces patrols has enabled Army artillery and SLAF airstrikes to target the evacuation points, which are nevertheless operational. It is expected that the evacuation of the bulk of the LTTE’s Peninsula troops will be complete in the next few days, though it’s very likely that small suicide teams will remain to delay the 53rd and 55th divisions’ advance on Elephant Pass. The area is also heavily mined and boobytrapped and so the SL Army’s pace will have to be a cautious one if they are to avoid unnecessary casualties. It is also pretty much a given that the Elephant Pass causeway will be impassable to heavy vehicles like tanks and AFVs for some time, if it hasn’t been destroyed completely.
So Now What?
Looking at a map, one will see that the LTTE’s conventional forces (except for the remnants on the Jaffna Peninsula) are roughly confined to a triangular area between Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu. The triangle’s lines consist of the Mankulam-Mullaitivu A34 Highway in the south, the A9 between Mankulam and Elephant Pass in the west, and the northeast coast between Mullaitivu and the Chundikkulam lagoon. The SL Army’s six divisions on the mainland are all massed on the southern and western lines of the triangle.
Mullaitivu itself sits on the coast, astride a narrow spit of land, with the sea at its back, and protected in front by the lagoon. On its southern flank, less than 2km away is the SL Army’s 59th Division with three brigades under command. While this division is the closest to the final objective, it will also find the going the toughest. The LTTE would have by now heavily fortified the urban areas of southern Mullaitivu and Thanniyuttu, where fierce fighting has been reported. The 59th will be faced with a situation similar to the 53rd and 55th on the Jaffna Peninsula – a narrow easily defended front with the sea on one flank and the lagoon on the other. To make matters worse, it’s a relatively built up area which includes ruins from airstrikes and the recent tsunami. The LTTE has also crammed a sizeable number of civilians into the area.
Given these restrictions it would seem sensible for the SL Army to use the 59th as a pivot, holding in place and applying maximum pressure against Mullaitivu’s southern defences, while the long curving arm of the other five divisions, with Task Force 1 as the punching fist, sweeps in a left hook from the west that will end with all six divisions encircling the Mullaitivu lagoon.
Even as I write this, all five divisions on the 59th’s left flank have pushed battalions forward into their respective fronts, but have faced heavy resistance by the LTTE. At the northern end of the line, elements of TF1 advanced on the 6th of January in two prongs along the A35 axis southeast from Paranthan, and by the 7th were in contact with the Tigers’ next line of defence which cut the A35 just outside Murasumoddai.
This LTTE defence line – including another earth bund — stretches from Ooriyan on the Chundikkulam lagoon to the Iranamadu area, and as TF1 advanced against its center, the 57th Division sent its 574 Brigade against the southern end, and here too the SL Army was in heavy contact.
Southeast of the 57th, TF3 sent troops north up the Old Kandy Road, which parallels the A9, to secure the right flank of the advancing 57th. According to some reports, these units too were facing stiff resistance, and had been forced back.
Simultaneously, elements of TF4 advanced northeast up the Oddusuddan-Puthukkudiyiruppu road against heavy LTTE defences. Though it can’t be confirmed, this looks like being more of a diversionary raid to support the advances in the Kilinochchi area rather than an actual thrust. While the LTTE claims to have thrown the TF4 troops back to their start line, it’s more likely that this was a diversion, given that TF2, positioned on TF4’s left, between Oddusuddan and Karuppaddamurippu, didn’t advance in its sector.
From these actions over the last few days, it’s clear that while the left hook is reminiscent of Gen Norman Schwarzkopf’s ‘Op Desert Storm’ – where Arab infantry and the US Marines were used on the right against the dense southern Kuwaiti defences, while highly mobile armour swept across the Saudi-Iraqi border on the left – it will in no way be so fast. The SL Army’s slow-paced infantry divisions will face heavy fighting as they advance on Mullaitivu. The first main objective will be Puththukudiyiruppu at the northwest end of the Mullaitivu lagoon. Between this town and the SL Army divisions is the LTTE-held triangle, traversed from southwest to northeast by seven rivers and countless smaller waterways which will be in spate after the recent monsoons and likely to be heavily defended. To avoid slow and bloody fighting down the A35, the SL Army is likely attempt a flanking drive by TF4, parallel to the Oddusuddan-Puththukudiyiruppu road which will destabilize the LTTE defences facing TF1 on the A35. Meanwhile, TF2, TF3, and the 57th Division will creep steadily forward to maintain pressure on the Tigers all across the western edge of the triangle. The pace of the main advance parallel to the A35 will depend a lot on the success of TF4’s northward thrust. TF4 itself will be vulnerable to flanking attacks from the interior of the triangle, as well as LTTE commando operations across the Mullaitivu lagoon.
The LTTE itself must already be aware of the danger posed to its flank by TF4, and if the recent heavy fighting in that area is any indication, a rapid advance may not be possible. In any event, TF4 will draw off Tiger forces that could otherwise have resisted the main advance from the west.
It is also likely that the mechanized component of the 53rd Division on the Jaffna Peninsula would be released and move through Elephant Pass to join operations on the mainland, leaving the 55th to secure the neck of the Peninsula.
Another factor hindering rapid advances will be the large amount of civilians in the area. In the recent fighting, most of the populace of Murasumoddai fled east into LTTE territory as the SL Army advanced. The latter will need to convince these civilians to move into GoSL territory instead, where they can be safe from the fighting. The LTTE will certainly resist such moves as they back their way towards Mullaitivu.
Despite all these sandbox maneuvers by me, one thing can definitely be taken for granted – LTTE resistance will be ferocious as they fight with their backs to the wall. Casualties on both sides will be much higher than anything we’ve seen thus far, as will civilian deaths. As the fighting area shrinks, the room to manouver and use special forces will also reduce, and both sides will find themselves fighting toe to toe. The LTTE cannot sustain such a brawl, and will crumble.
However, we have no idea what the LTTE high command will choose to do. Will it decide on a last-ditch showdown at Mullaitivu, a bloody ‘mother of all battles’ in which it will hope that the civilian death toll will be so horrendous that there will be an international outcry? Or will it attempt to exfilterate its best units out of the area and disperse them back into a guerrilla role to fight another day? If the latter, the LTTE needs to be doing it now, before the triangle shrinks any further.
Whatever that decision, the first phase of the advance on Mullaitivu will end with the SL Army arriving at the edge of the Mullaitivu lagoon. By this point it will be expected that the SL Army will be on a three-division front – the 59th in its anchor position at the southern end of the lagoon, Task Force 4 facing the lagoon, and Task Force 1 in the Puththukudiyiruppu area. This will leave three more divisions and elements of the 53rd free to secure the flanks and ensure there’s no attempt to infilterate LTTE troops back behind the Army lines via the coast between Chundikulam and Mullaitivu.
What the LTTE situation will be by this phase is very hard to predict, and depends very much on their overall strategy. The smart money will be to live to fight another day as a guerrilla force, though it will be a hard trek for them to recreate their organization after such a catastrophic defeat, especially given their ageing top brass. If this is their plan, common sense will dictate that they start evacuating the Mullaitivu area once TF1 breaks through the defences east of Kilinochchi and reaches Vishvamadu. Once that town is taken, the LTTE will have very little chance of using the coastline between Chundikkulam and Mullaitivu for evacuation. Also, if TF4 were to reach the inland shore of the lagoon, Mullaitivu itself would come under heavy fire.
On the other hand, if the LTTE decides to fight it out in Mullaitivu, it will create a huge humanitarian crisis that the world will find hard to ignore, as the SL Army attempts to crack this hard nut.
Only time will tell.