Waste in the Military: the Overlap of Special Forces Roles as Example*

What is the necessity for the armed forces of any one nation to have so many special operations forces under command, all seemingly doing the same sort of job, all vying for the same defence budget? The commonly believed fallacy is that each of these special forces units have a unique speciality that justifies their existence. This is largely nonsense, but is a popular theory, one constantly put out by these respective special forces units. It was true once upon a time. But no longer. In the US, and in the UK, many special forces units like the Rangers, Marine … Continue reading Waste in the Military: the Overlap of Special Forces Roles as Example*

Parama Weera

One of the most iconic images of the end of the war in Sri Lanka. A soldier walks past destroyed vehicles in Mullivaikal in May 2009. The Vijayabahu Infantry calling card scrawled in the background is almost symbolic. The very last PWV of the war would be awarded to an NCO of this regiment.

The eyes stared expressionlessly back at me from the fifteen small pictures, some clear, and some blurred; reflections that only hinted at the men behind those eyes. But sharp or soft, they all looked so innocuous, so devoid of any indication of what they had once seen. So normal. To look into those fifteen pairs of eyes, to read their names on the Wall that held thousands of similar names, was to gain no hint of the impossible acts of bravery that their owners had committed. Acts that would now see them join the eight who had gone before. Twenty-three names for twenty-three men. Twenty-three individual acts of supreme courage, selected out of twenty-eight years of war. The faces were tucked away in the second page of the Sunday Times, and I stared back at them for awhile before reading the short paragraph beneath each. The words were trite, cliched, dry; unable to capture the struggle of courage over fear that must have dominated each man’s last moments; the pain, the heat. And of course, that ultimate singularity, as they stepped forward and died. Alone. That solitude was also what singled them out, along with their courage, for none of them had done what they did as part of a whole, or at the order of someone else. They had each decided alone to do what they did, each for his own reasons.

At this year’s commemoration of the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the government decided to award the Parama Weera Vibushanaya, Sri Lanka’s highest award for bravery (equivalent to the British Victoria Cross and the American Medal of Honour) to fifteen members of the Sri Lankan Armed Forces for courage displayed in combat and, almost without exception, conducted in the last two years of the war. Fifteen may not seem like a huge number, but to give you an idea of its significance, consider that since the PWV was established in 1981, it had been awarded only eight times in the twenty-one years that preceded the Cease-Fire Agreement between the GoSL and the Tigers. Therefore, for it to be awarded over a dozen times in two years is an indication of the intensity of the fighting after the CFA collapsed, and the sacrifices needed to destroy the Tigers; particularly in the last year of combat.

Front face of the Parama Weera Vibushanaya (left) and reverse (C Ameresekere)

The Presidential Proclamation of 1981 that brought the PWV into effect states that the medal is to be awarded for … individual acts of gallantry and conspicuous bravery of the most exceptional order in the face of the enemy, performed voluntarily whilst on active service and with no regard to the risks to his own life and security with the objective of safeguarding thereby, the lives of his comrades or facilitating the operational aim of his force.

The twenty-three recipients of the PWV are all men and, with few exceptions, young. These are not generals or admirals. They didn’t command thousands of subordinates, or carry out great acts of strategy that would be recorded in military textbooks. Usually, they were in charge of less than a dozen men. Sometimes, not even that; being the youngest and most junior soldiers in their units. Only eleven of them, less than half their number, were officers. Twenty of them were soldiers. Two were sailors. And one an airman. Twenty-one were Sinhalese, one a Moor, and one a Tamil. And all of them are dead. In the eighteen years since the PWV was first awarded in 1991, not a single one of its recipients has ever lived to feel that medal’s weight on his chest or test the military code that requires even the Chief of the Defense Staff to salute, without regard to rank, the wearer of that 32-mm wide crimson ribbon. Some died leading attacks that would drive the enemy back to ultimate defeat; but many died in desperate rearguard actions to ensure that their comrades and friends retreated to safety; and at least one to save the life of a politician. As many of them died to save someone as those who died whilst killing the enemy. Continue reading “Parama Weera”

The Holes in the Darusman Defence — Examining the Probable Events

Last week, I attended a seminar conducted by the Colombo-based Marga Institute, a think tank devoted to studying and influencing human development in Sri Lanka. Marga is in the process of putting together a review of the UN Secretary General’s advisory panel report on Sri Lanka (the well-known Darusman Report), which will analyze several aspects of this document, including its legal credibility; the manner in which it makes its allegations and narrates the series of events that made up the final stages of the war; the recommendations of the report; and, very importantly, the impact all of this will have on the reconciliation process in Sri Lanka, via accountability and restorative justice. The seminar itself was to elaborate on the thinking behind the review, discuss the draft, and possibly include the conclusions of such discussions in the final review.

The seminar was therefore conducted in a series of panel discussions, each looking at a different aspect of the Darusman Report, and each made up of experts in that area. I was there mostly because I was part of the panel looking at the allegations made against the Sri Lankan Armed Forces in their conduct of the final operations to defeat the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. With me was Arjuna Gunawardene, a defence analyst, writer, and expert in suicide terrorism, and the session was moderated by Asoka Gunawardene of the Marga Institute. While this session began with presentations by both Arjuna and I, it focused around a series of key questions that we had been asked to examine. What I’m now going to do in this blog post is present our view in the form of a Q&A that will include our presentations and the questions that were subsequently put to us by the moderator and the other participants.

In the Darusman Panel’s account of the last stages of the war, and the events that lead to the allegations of war crimes, is the panel’s account complete, or if not complete, adequate, and has it been able to access all sources of information that are essential for coming to fair and just conclusions concerning the events and actions?

The account is certainly not complete, nor adequate, if it is taken as an objective narration of the events. But I believe it isn’t meant to be so, and is a document comparable to a policeman’s request for a search warrant, which sets out to show sufficient suspicion of guilt. However, since the report has been released to the public and is being treated and used as a historical account, its biases and subjectivity must be brought into account.

To be fair and objective, the panel would have needed to interview combatants as well as eyewitnesses to ascertain motive for some of the acts which are alleged to be criminal. It would need to examine the actual scenes of the crimes instead of merely examining photographs. Therefore, in Part I of the report (Mandate, Composition, & Programme of Work), Section D (Interaction with the GoSL), paragraph 22, the panel says that visiting Sri Lanka “was not essential to its work”, thereby confirming that an actual investigation was never its intention.

In spite of this statement, the laying out of the events takes the form of a narrative or historical account, suggesting that it is fact rather than allegation. Footnotes are given to previously documented statements or reports, but there isn’t any indication of where the other information came from. It is, of course, understandable that witnesses cannot be named at this stage, but it is still necessary to indicate what the capacity of an eyewitness was. Was he or she a civilian IDP, an NGO worker, or a journalist? Often, allegations of the use of artillery, cluster munitions, white phosphorous, etc are made without any indication of the source, or what expertise that source may or may not have in determining whether these were indeed the weapons and munitions used.

This is compounded further in the Executive Summary of the report which, for example says in the section Allegations Found Credible by the Panel, “Some of those who were separated were summarily executed, and some of the women may have been raped. Others disappeared, as recounted by their wives and relatives during the LLRC hearings.” By lumping together the unattributed allegations of rape and execution with those made by identified witnesses before the LLRC, the report gives the rape and execution allegations a higher credence which they may not deserve. There are many such similar examples, and it is a strategy subsequently used by the Channel 4 “documentary” Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields, in which footage of identifiable Sri Lankan soldiers committing shocking but non-criminal activities is shown alongside footage of unidentified persons committing obviously criminal acts, thereby implying that all the acts shown are criminal ones committed by identifiable SL Army personnel.

Has the panel examined all possible explanations and interpretations of the events and actions before coming to its conclusions?

The report analyzes certain events and draws conclusions which often do not take into account factors that the report itself acknowledges elsewhere. While legally, the actions of the Tigers may not have any effect on the culpability of the Government of Sri Lanka or the SL Army, in a report which must examine motive, this refusal to examine the impact of Tiger actions on those of the GoSL and the SL Army is indicative of an unwillingness to acknowledge the possibility that there might be motives other than those alleged by the report.

For instance, in the Executive Summary’s conclusion to the allegations, it says, “the Panel found credible allegations that comprise five core categories of potential serious violations committed by the Government of Sri Lanka: (i) killing of civilians through widespread shelling; (ii) shelling of hospitals and humanitarian objects; (iii)denial of humanitarian assistance; (iv) human rights violations suffered by victims and survivors of the conflict, including both IDPs and suspected LTTE cadre; and (v) human rights violations outside the conflict zone, including against the media and other critics of the Government.”

It then goes on to say, “The Panel’s determination of credible allegations against the LTTE associated with the final stages of the war reveal six core categories of potential serious violations: (i) using civilians as a human buffer; (ii) killing civilians attempting to flee LTTE control; (iii)using military equipment in the proximity of civilians; (iv) forced recruitment of children; (v)forced labour; and (vi) killing of civilians through suicide attacks.”

However, there is no attempt to acknowledge the fact that allegations against the Tiger such as “(i) using civilians as a human buffer” and “(iii) using military equipment in the proximity of civilians” would contribute hugely to “(i) killing of civilians through widespread shelling” and “(ii) shelling of hospitals and humanitarian objects”, as the SL Army is alleged to have done.

It is on very rare occasions that the Tiger actions are specifically mentioned in relation to SL Army action. For instance in paragraph 79 of the report it says, “During the ninth and tenth convoys, shells fell 200 metres from the road, and both the SLA and LTTE were using the cover of the convoys to advance their military positions,” and then goes on to say in paragraph 86, “The LTTE did fire artillery from approximately 500 metres away as well as from further back in the NFZ,” without acknowledging that it was this very tendency of the Tigers to fire artillery and other weapons from close proximity to the civilians that was bringing in counter-battery fire 200 metres away.

500 metres is not a huge distance in such a restricted battle space, and it is very possible for even a single shell, or two or three, that could have devastating effect on concentrated civilians, to fall 500 metres off target. One or two shells could kill and injure a hundred civilians, and seem to indicate deliberate intent even when it isn’t so intended. Continue reading “The Holes in the Darusman Defence — Examining the Probable Events”

Use & Misuse of Special Forces in Sri Lanka — Does the SL Army Need to Rethink its Special Operations Doctrine?

One of the more interesting presentations at the recently concluded seminar, titled Defeating Terrorism: the Sri Lankan Experience, organised by the MoD and the SL Army, was done by Brig Nirmal Dharmaratne, the Special Forces Brigade commander, on the use of special operations forces in the defeat of the LTTE. The Sunday Times ran an excerpt of the paper on June 5th.

As with most of the seminar’s presentations, this too concentrated on the SL Army’s experience rather than that of the defence forces as a whole, and Brig Dharmaratne stuck to outlining the contribution of the SL Army’s two special operations units — the Commandos and the Special Forces, running through their missions and the tactics and strategies employed against the Tigers.

Although both the Commandos and the Special Forces were originally raised with very distinct and individual missions in mind, Brig Dharmaratne’s presentation seems to indicate that both formations were used in mutually interchangeable roles ranging from strategic deep penetration missions to direct infantry assaults on Tiger strongpoints. Therefore, I too am going to simply look at both these elite units together, examining the roles they were used in both in the North and East, before examining them individually and comparing them to similar foreign special operations units and their roles.

Before I do that, let’s take a quick look at the original missions these formations were raised to conduct. When the Commando Regiment was raised back in 1980, the SL Army was a totally different organisation from the one we see today, and more importantly, so were the Tamil militants. The SL army numbered around 10,000 troops, and the terrorists a tenth of that. The soldiers carried unweildy British rifles and obsolete submachine-guns, with little or no armour, artillery or air support. The terrorists were armed with little better than pistols and submachine-guns and rode around on bicycles.

The Commandos were formed as a direct action and counter-terror force, tasked with raiding terrorist bases deep in the jungle that could not be reached by regular infantry units. It was also envisaged that the Commandos would be the dedicated hostage rescue team in the event of a hostage crisis, regardless of whether it happened within the theater of military operations or not. For this purpose, the Commandos were initially trained by former members of the British Special Air Service (SAS), and the Commandos’ role was more or less that which the SAS had had been tasked with during WW2 and in the ’50s and ’60s in Oman, Malaya, and Borneo; basically small unit raids that could not be conducted by larger formations such as the British Commandos and Chindits.

The Special Forces were raised in 1985, and clearly a different role was planned for them that was distinct from the ranger/raider-oriented mission of the Commandos. This was articulated as unconventional warfare operations in both urban and remote rural environments. This was a role closer to that of the US Special Forces, and one which the SAS too had adapted to; that of fighting as guerrillas, saboteurs, and in fact “terrorists”. In WW2, this role had mostly been undertaken by civilian organisations such as the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) and the US Office of Strategic Services (OSS), mostly because there were no military units trained or ready to carry out such missions. By the ’60s, however, the fledgling US Special Forces and the reinstituted SAS had taken on this role.

In spite of the fact that both the Commandos and Special Forces had seemingly distinct and separate roles to each other, the leadership of both formations ambitiously expanded their roles in the early ’90s, competing with each other for MoD budget allocations, until by the end of the 20th century, both formations were virtually indistinguishable from each other when it came to mission role. The Special Forces had even usurped the SL Navy Special Boat Squadron’s amphibious specialisation, eventually relegating that unit to a support role, much as the Commandos had once done to the SL Air Force’s special operations unit which specialised in air mobility. Both units were running long range sabotage and assassination missions, strategic and tactical reconnaissance, training indigenous units like the National Guard Battalions and the Civil Defence Force, maintaining a hostage rescue capability, and operating with former separatist organisations like the Karuna Group and the EPRLF. They were also often misused as shock troops when regular infantry units were unable to overcome Tiger defences, and this often resulted in heavy casualties among these elite troops. This latter role was very similar to that carried out by the US Ranger Regiments in WW2. As Eelam War IV approached, both the Commandos and Special Forces, either by necessity or ambition, were covering every aspect of infantry warfare, both conventional and unconventional. Continue reading “Use & Misuse of Special Forces in Sri Lanka — Does the SL Army Need to Rethink its Special Operations Doctrine?”

The Ban Panel — to Ban or Not?

UN Sec Gen Ban Ki Moon with SL President Mahinda Rajapakse

There’s been a lot of discussion and drama around the UN Secretary General’s advisory panel on Sri Lanka, it’s validity, necessity, and legality. These have ranged from newspaper editorials to street farce. Rather than adding my own narrative to this, I thought I’d reproduce some of the conversations that have been taking place online. This particular one emerged in the comment thread of one of Indi’s posts on the matter, and amongst other things, discusses Star Trek. The debate can be seen in whole on that blog, but I’ve just selected a portion of it that I think highlights some of the viewpoints, as well as a lot of the fallacies. It often gets off the topic, but in order to avoid being accused of manipulation, I haven’t edited any of the comments.

Mahinda: This whole mess was created by our dearly beloved Mahinda & Co. in the run up to the Presidential Elections.

Our General (who has a bit of a bad habit of speaking his mind sometimes, even when it may not be appropriate) mentioned to Indi’s boss, the Jansz woman, that he had information that our friend Gota issued a silly order to a certain Major General to “shoot any LTTE personnel, even if they were trying to surrender waving white flags”. The General went on to add that no such thing occurred on the ground, and that he himself took responsibility for actions of the Sri Lankan Army during the final stages of the war, as the serving Commander of the Army. I think the General was just getting involved in a spot of character assassination here, and to try and show the public what sort of man our Gota is, in his opinion. Our Frederica immediately got extremely wet, sensing an opportunity to flog a few more copies of her rag with a controversial exclusive. She wrote and published her infamous story, presumably omitting bits she felt would have lessened the impact of the controversy. The General and his media team, understandably upset, issued a correction, stressing that the General was certain, as a Commander who had direct contact and control with and over troops on the ground, that no acts in contravention of the Geneva Convention were committed by the SL Army. Frederica made some noises to the effect that she had a tape recording of the interview and that he actually said war crimes had been committed, but seeing as she has failed to produce the said tape, I suppose we can write this off as a little white lie.

Sunday Leader editor Frederica Jansz

Philip Alston also got wind of the Jansz woman’s controversial article, and was obliged to contact the Sri Lanka Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights regarding the article. The Secretary of the said Ministry at the time, (who was, unusually for a Secretary to a Sri Lankan Ministry, an Oxbridge educated, presumably intelligent man) promptly replied to Alston saying that the article was erroneously published and that the General had issued a correction claiming that no one waving a white flag trying to surrender was shot by SL Army troops.

However, Team Mahinda & Co. had other ideas-they retracted the reaction of the Secretary to the Ministry of Human Rights and Disaster Management (which would have solved the whole problem) and turned the issue into a political drama to dupe the easily fooled masses. They even went as far to publish full page ad’s of a noose with the caption “don’t vote in the man who will send our brave soldiers to the gallows”. And lo and behold, the highest ranked serving Officer in the history of the SL Army, the man credited with ending the war, became a traitor who betrayed the country (this was similar to the process by which Ranil, the man who convinced Karuna to defect along with his eastern LTTE types, which weakened and lead to the defeat of the LTTE, became a “deshadrohiya”). Continue reading “The Ban Panel — to Ban or Not?”

Protecting Crime by Criminalising an Entire Populace

Part 6 of the UTHR(J) Special Report No 34: Protecting Crime by Criminalising an Entire Populace

Welcome to Snake Farm

Although the plight of the IDPs in Manik farm has received considerable media attention, an aspect of the IDP situation that has received little attention, illustrates best the rationale behind mass detention of IDPs. Until mid-March 2009, IDPs with the most serious injuries from shelling and bombing who were evacuated from the NFZ by the ICRC, with their care givers, landed at Trincomalee. Trincomalee is a place where most Tamils have social contacts in the local civil society, its hospital and in the government administration. It is also a place with several foreign organisations and is frequented by foreigners.

Trincomalee thus became a major point of information exchange about how the war affected civilians, but this was not a situation the Sri Lankan government appeared happy about.. During the early half of March 2009, Amos Roberts of Australia’s SBS spoke to Major General Palitha Fernando, the military liaison officer in Trincomalee. The latter informed Roberts that there was ‘absolutely no problem in visiting Trincomalee’, but added that it is not possible to interview wounded people who have been evacuated from the war areas and brought to Trincomalee. Asked why, Maj. Gen. Fernando replied, “That’s the way we want it, Simple answer.” Continue reading “Protecting Crime by Criminalising an Entire Populace”

Disappeared on Paper

Part 5 of the UTHR(J) Special Report No 34: The Population Game: Disappeared on Paper and Killed with Cannon

Strategic Numbers

For a government’s claim to have accomplished the ‘hostage rescue’ with zero civilian casualties to carry conviction, it should have had some idea in advance of how many hostages it had to rescue and where they were. Minimally it had to ensure that they did not starve. It was basic intelligence, and indeed administrative work, to determine how many there were, and where. After all it is the government of these people, with administrators in the area whom it regularly met formally and informally and who would have told them where matters stood even when local records were flawed. Tamil administrators were worthy of at least that little respect. By rejecting their word the Government was deliberately or through incompetence preparing to act blindly.

The Government’s cavalier attitude to the lives of the trapped people is revealed by its unacceptably low figures for the displaced population, and is further illustrated by its claim on 17th May before the final free-for-all that 50 000 civilians had come out of the NFZ and all the civilians had been rescued. After the final bash it announced on 18th May: “Despite the speculations of a ‘bloodbath’ and a ‘humanitarian catastrophe’ at the final military push Sri Lankan soldiers were able rescue about 70,000 people within the last 72 hours without causing any harm to the innocent” (defence.lk). In fact 29 000 civilians were transported from the battlefield to Chettikulam Zone 4 from 18th May and 1400 injured civilians to Padaviya Hospital. Civilians were coming out of the war zone until at least 20th May 2009. This means there must have been nearly 35 000 civilians left when the Government said on the 17th afternoon there were none. Continue reading “Disappeared on Paper”

The Final Phase

Part 4 of the UTHR(J) Special Report No 34: The Final Phase

Deception over Civilian Safety

Having taken Valaignarmadam after overcoming strong LTTE resistance, which gave it time to build three defence bunds, the Army on 28th April launched a fierce attack on the first bund at Irattaivaykkal. The result as civilians had experienced repeatedly was a rain of army shells falling among IDP camps in Mullivaykkal, two miles south, causing enormous civilian casualties. The Government denied using its heavy weapons while blaming the LTTE of using its. President Rajapakse the previous day pledged that the Government was abandoning the use of heavy weapons.

If there was a military method in this madness, one needs to look back at the experience of civilians in the Udayarkaddu-Suthanthirapuram-Thevipuram safe zone during January and February 2009. In the reality of things, calling the war zone a safe zone was a mere piece of deception for the international community. The civilians were in their bunkers listening to the music of falling shells, having no idea where those shells were coming from. It was when they saw withdrawing LTTE cadres that they knew the Army was very close, perhaps just 50 yards away. Continue reading “The Final Phase”

Escape invites Death and Staying is Worse

Part 3 of the UTHR(J) Special Report No 34: Mattalan: Escape invites Death and Staying is Worse (continued fromPart 2)

Use of Bombs, Cluster Munitions and White Phosphorous; and Curtailment of Medical Aid

The first public reports on the use of cluster munitions appeared in the international media in early February 2009. On 4th February AFP’s Ravi Nessman reported citing the Colombo UN Spokesman Gordon Weiss that 52 civilians had been killed in intense fighting over the past day and that cluster munitions were fired outside the Puthukkudiyiruppu Hospital, which too had been struck by artillery killing 12 persons. The Government immediately denied it. Mr. Weiss as quoted by AFP said that cluster munitions had been used at least once earlier in recent weeks. The same report also quoted him saying, ‘the UN accepted the government’s assurance that they did not have the weapons’. It appears the UN took a political decision not to pursue the matter.

Our sources have assured us that cluster shells, known locally as kotthu kundu, were regularly fired from 21st January. They were then noticed by the Oxfam staff at Thevipuram and subsequently by the OCHA, which had its office near Puthukkudiyiruppu Hospital. Both observations were reflected in the UN statement. Continue reading “Escape invites Death and Staying is Worse”

From Kilinochchi to Puthukkudiyiruppu

Part 2 of the UTHR(J) Special Report No 34: From Kilinochchi to Puthukkudiyiruppu (continued from Part 1)

The fall of Kilinochchi and After

Soon after Kilinochchi fell on 1st January 2009, senior LTTE leaders conferred in Visuamadu. While several of the senior leaders reportedly believed that the war could no longer be won and that it was time for a new approach, none was in a position to tell Prabhakaran, who had acquired a reputation of invincibility to live up to.

Sources who had access to senior leaders said that the counsel of men like V. Rudrakumaran and K. Pathmanathan would have been of little consequence because they were not on the ground and it was often easy for those like Castro and Nadesan to discredit them by dropping innuendos suggesting they were agents of outfits like CIA or RAW. If a difference was to be made it need have come from persons like the late Anton Balasingham or Shankar who had the capacity to force the leader’s attention and carry through an argument to its end. The talk got around among the people that Prabhakaran had become mentally unbalanced after the fall of Killinochchi. Other reports said that he was refusing to meet groups like the Christian clergy and intellectuals, who were pressing for course change. Continue reading “From Kilinochchi to Puthukkudiyiruppu”