Monday, September 14, 2009

Prabhakaran was a good weapon to use

Ever since the war in Sri Lanka ended, one question that has persisted is India's role in the battle against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

NDTV Defence and Strategic Affairs Editor Nitin Anant Gokhale's book Sri Lanka: From War to Peace answers that question. India gave Sri Lanka helicopters, supported it with intelligence and the Indian Navy effectively pinpointed LTTE ships and shut the door on the rebels.

While China and Pakistan merely gave Sri Lanka the muscle, says Gokhale, India helped the island nation land the knockout punch.

In this interview with Gokhale discusses India's role, the death of LTTE chief V Prabhakaran, the lessons for India and how Sri Lanka still looks at its big neighbour with respect.

How exactly did Prabhakaran meet his end?

In the last two days, the Sri Lankan army had intelligence that all the top LTTE leaders were in a narrow lagoon. They knew this from people who were coming out, and also one of his bodyguards who was captured.

The LTTE had tried to break through that lagoon. They launched waves of attacks, like they are known to do. The idea was to come out of the lagoon and get into the jungles of Mullaitheevu.

Prabhakaran's son Charles Anthony died in the first wave of attacks.

If the rest of the top leaders had managed to escape, the war would have been extended. But the army had deployed two defence lines and one of the reserve forces.

When they spotted some movement in the mangroves, they engaged in a gun battle and the top leaders were killed. When President Mahinda Rajapakse addressed the nation, he didn't mention anything about Prabhakaran.

Then Colonel Karuna was flown in to identify the body. It took three hours for a positive identification, as they call it.

You have been following this war, Eelam war 4, since it began...

The day after the failed assassination attempt on Lankan army chief General Sarath Fonseka, I went to Colombo and went to the east where the fighting was happening...

Did you get a sense then that this would be the biggest and bloodiest phase?

I could sense that this army was taking losses. Earlier leaderships did not want to take losses. But that this leadership was different was very evident. But it did not seem very apparent till January 2007.

What were the key aspects of Eelam 4?

As General Fonseka told me: "This time we were playing for a win, not a draw." Earlier, governments would go a distance and pull back. But this time the politico-military objective was to finish the LTTE militarily. Human rights be damned. The Tamil issue, the devolution of power would all come later, it was decided.

The second key thing was the total synergy between the three forces, which was never seen before.

Earlier, the navy used to be their weakest link. It had large boats that used to come under LTTE suicide boat attacks. When such a boat went down, it was a loss of about 40 lives and $15 million.

The (then) naval chief (Admiral Vasantha ) Karannagoda said 'Let me take them on at their own game.' He started building smaller boats. They were called arrow boats.

The navy started adopting the LTTE's swarming tactics. The air force too.

Leadership makes a difference. The air force was earlier basically an air transport wing of the army. This time, helicopter gunships were used, casualty evacuation used to happen. So the army knew it would be backed fully.

What was the single biggest turning point?

When they took the east, they realised the LTTE could be taken on. That was the biggest morale booster. Another thing was that the international atmosphere had changed after the 9/11 attacks in the US.

How will you quantify India's role?

When Rajapakse took over, he came to India within a month of taking oath. Initially, he was also saying that he would negotiate. He added that he didn't think the LTTE will be interested.

India straightaway told him that it won't give Sri Lanka offensive weapons.

Within a while of liberating the east, two teams comprising three members each were set up on both sides. They were constantly in touch. Thus, India was always in the loop.

We gave them MI-17 helicopters, but told them to fly those in their colours. The Indian Navy also played an active part in the LTTE's defeat. And we gave them intelligence.

We also denied the LTTE space to come out. We shut the door on them.

India was very clear that the LTTE was a terrorist organsiation. India said 'Go ahead with your operations', but was very clear in telling Sri Lanka not to harm civilians.

In percentage terms, how much did India help Sri Lanka in the war against the LTTE?

About 25 per cent.

In terms of importance?

Very important. Lanka knows despite the hue and cry, India cannot be ignored. And Sri Lanka holds India in respect.

India was quietly supportive of the military and also helped with humanitarian assistance.

Although there is a school of thought that India is no longer important, there is not enough evidence. The port that China was given, remember that they came to India first.

Only when India refused to give them arms, did they go elsewhere. But they have given another port, the northernmost, to India. Trincomalle is with India.

India's importance in the public eye may have diminished. But the Sri Lankan State knows it is a big power.

What role did China and Pakistan play?

China's role is mostly commercial. They gave out weapons at a discounted rate and also gave them a line of credit.

Pakistan mostly gave them training because India expressed its inability to do that. Although, I must say that about 800 officers come and train in India every year. Most senior officers I met in Sri Lanka had done at least three courses in India.

Pakistan's and China's help was mostly commercial in nature and they were able to be open about it.

As I say in the book, Sri Lanka won this war with China and Pakistan's open backing and with India's covert support.

So, the most hands-on help was given by India?

Absolutely. There is this lobby in India that is anti-China. They are obsessed with China. Even in Myanmar, only after India declined did they go to China.

What are the lessons that we can learn?

This is the only second instance in the world in the last 50 years where an insurgency has been put down militarily. Here, we don't do it. Especially in the last 30 years or so it has never happened.

But I don't think we can repeat what happened there. There are some lessons, but we can't take the full template because India is a much more open society and vibrant democracy and has a stronger press.

Can the North-east problem or the Naxal problem be solved militarily?

No. It can't be done. Unlike the North-east and the Naxals, the LTTE created a state within a state, a territory within a territory. It became important to clear the area. You have to clear the area.

In the North-east or Naxal-controlled areas or Kashmir , you can't do that.

The lesson is that you can take a military solution up to a point. But you also have to give the military a free hand. In India we always interfere. Be it with ULFA (the United Liberation Front of Asom), the Naga rebels or in Kashmir, as they were going to deal a final blow, you pull them back.

Once you have decided on it, you can't succumb to the liberal view.

Any non-military aspects of this war that stood out for you?

Nobody was ready for the kind of people who came out of LTTE controlled areas. At one point, 80,000 people came out in one day. If not anything you have to at least feed them.

Lanka failed to gauge the humanitarian issue. They could have done better. They never have dealt with this kind of thing. This is where the expertise of an army like India comes in. A force like the Indian Army would have handled it far better.

Politically, why do you think the ruling party fared badly in two local bodies election recently?

That will happen. The Tamil National Alliance has a hold in certain areas. That shows that like the Rajapakse brothers keep saying, they did not rig it. So they will see it as a victory.

What next?

Rajapakse has shown in the final analysis that a small nation can eliminate terror and still stand up firm against the West.

There are a lot of games going on in the Indian Ocean. The US wants a lever with Sri Lanka. Prabhakaran was a good weapon to use. Likewise the Scandinavian countries were the arms suppliers to the LTTE.

In fact, Fonseka told me on record that 10 minutes before they were killed, ambassadors were calling up the defence secretary (Gotabaya Rajapakse, the persident's brother) to save them (Prabhakaran and top LTTE leaders).

Fonseka said any fool would have known that a ceasefire appeal at that time was to save Prabhakaran and not the people, because there were no people there.

The issue had two aspects: Military and political.

Tamils will very frankly never get the kind of autonomy they have been demanding. But Sri Lanka now has to treat them with dignity. The death of one Prabhakaran should not give rise to another.

This is the chance for Rajapakse. He cannot afford to go wrong. There is too much international scrutiny. India has told them, 'We supported you in the international fora but that doesn't mean you can act with impunity...' So, the real test is to win the peace.


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Thursday, September 10, 2009

Fearing Taliban, Pak Hindus take Thar Express to India

In the past four years, some 5,000 Hindus may have crossed over from Pakistan, never to return. It has not been easy abandoning their homes, sometimes even their families, but they say they had no choice: they had to flee the Taliban.

It started as a trickle in 2006, the year the Thar Express was flagged off. The weekly train starts from Karachi, enters India at Munabao, a border town in Barmer, and runs up to Jodhpur. In the first year, 392 Hindus crossed over.

This grew to 880 in 2007. The next year, the number was 1,240, and this year, till August, over 1,000 have crossed over. They just keep extending their visas and hope to become Indian citizens.

Incidentally, these are official figures. Sources say there are many more who cross over and melt in the local milieu. And officials have a soft corner for these people, most of whom have harrowing stories to tell.

Ranaram, who used to live in the Rahimyar district of Pakistan’s Punjab, says he fell prey to the Taliban. His wife was kidnapped, raped and forcibly converted to Islam. His two daughters were also forcibly converted. Ranaram, too, had to accept Islam for fear of his life. He thought it best to flee with his two daughters; his wife was untraceable.

Dungaram, another migrant, says atrocities against Hindus in Pakistan have increased in the past two years after the ouster of Musharraf. "We won't get permanent jobs unless we convert to Islam."

Hindu Singh Sodha, president of Seemant Lok Sangathan, a group working for the refugees in Barmer and Jaisalmer, says there's unfortunately no proper refugee policy in India even though people from Pakistan reach here in large numbers.

He said in 2004-05, over 135 families were given Indian citizenship but the rest are still living illegally in the country and are often tortured by police because they don't have proper citizenship certificates. "In December 2008, over 200 Hindus were converted to Islam in Mirpur Khas town of Pakistan. But there are several others who want to stick to their religion but there’s no safety for them in Pakistan."

Immigration officer at Munabao railway station, Hetudan Charan, says the arrival of Hindu migrants had suddenly increased as over 15 to 16 families were reaching India every week. “None of them admit they are to settle here but seeing their baggage, we easily understand,’’ he said.

Ravi Kumar, who was Barmer collector till his transfer two days back, said the government in 2007 had given permanent citizenship to a few Pakistani immigrants.

Sources: Times of India

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Behind Hamas' Own War on Terror

Eyebrows were raised around the world Aug. 14 when Hamas security forces in Rafah swiftly, and brutally, destroyed an al-Qaeda-inspired group that had proclaimed the southern Gaza town an "Islamic emirate." After all, Hamas is listed by the U.S. and the European Union as a terrorist organization, and many in the West don't expect an avowedly Islamist political organization to forcefully suppress jihadist groups.

Yet, that's exactly what happened when pro-al-Qaeda cleric Abdel Latif Moussa gathered about 100 of his heavily armed supporters in a mosque to denounce Hamas rule and declared himself the "Islamic prince" of the new "emirate." Hamas security men moved in to disarm the group, and 24 people, including Moussa and about 20 of his followers, were killed in the ensuing firefight. Their group, Jund Ansar Allah, claimed inspiration from al-Qaeda, and condemned Hamas both for maintaining a cease-fire with Israel and for its failure to impose Islamic Shari'a law after taking full control of Gaza in 2007. It had mounted small-scale attacks on rivals inside Gaza, and two months ago failed in a bizarre cavalry charge by mounted fighters against Israeli border guards. Following the Rafah showdown, the fringe group has vowed to wage war on Hamas, turning Gaza's rulers into an unlikely ally against Osama bin Laden.

Still, there was little surprise about the Rafah confrontation for longtime observers of Palestinian politics. Hamas, in fact, has always been at odds with al-Qaeda. Despite its Islamist ideology, Hamas is first and foremost a nationalist movement, taking its cue from Palestinian public opinion and framing its goals and strategies on the basis of national objectives, rather than the "global" jihadist ideology of al-Qaeda. For example, Hamas has periodically debated the question of whether to attack American targets in its midst, and each time has reiterated the insistence of the movement's founders that it confine its resistance activities to Israeli targets.

"What distinguishes Hamas - as well as organizations like Hizbullah and Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood - from groups like al-Qaeda is that they recognize, whether out of principle or practical necessity, that the will of the people they claim to represent is paramount," says Mouin Rabbani, an Amman-based analyst with the Center for Palestine Studies. "In deciding their actions, they're ultimately more responsive to their environment than to their principles."

And it's precisely that more pragmatic strain in Hamas that has often infuriated al-Qaeda leaders. Bin Laden's deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has savagely and repeatedly condemned Hamas for participating in elections, for accepting Saudi and Egyptian mediation of its conflict with Fatah, and for observing a cease-fire with Israel. Hamas officials routinely dismiss al-Qaeda's criticisms. Hamas' Beirut representative Osama Hamdan two years ago suggested that "a fugitive in the Afghan mountains" offered the Palestinian cause no advice worth heeding. Also in 2007, when a self-styled "Army of Islam" claiming inspiration from al-Qaeda kidnapped BBC reporter Alan Johnston in Gaza, Hamas forced the group to release him.

The harsh crackdown on Jund Ansar Allah sends two emphatic messages from Hamas: one to potential rivals, the other to potential interlocutors. The speed and violence with which it suppressed the jihadist group is a warning to all potential rivals that Hamas will tolerate no challenge to its authority in Gaza. But it also signals that as long as Hamas maintains a cease-fire, it is willing and able to forcibly restrain others in the Strip from launching attacks on Israel.

That display of force will likely reinforce the emerging consensus in the West that no credible Israeli-Palestinian peace process is possible without the consent of Hamas. Indeed, one European diplomat in the region told TIME that U.S. officials were pleased by the Hamas action in Rafah. The action "benefited Hamas because it allowed them to show that they're capable of enforcing their authority and order, in Gaza, and also to distinguish themselves from the radical jihadists," says Rabbani. "This shows not only that Hamas is different from al-Qaeda, but that the two are actually violently at odds."

While Hamas may have gained diplomatically from taking down Moussa's outfit, the emergence of an al-Qaeda-inspired group ready to openly challenge Hamas authority is a reminder of the downside. Some of the leading elements in Jund Ansar Allah were former Hamas members who broke with the movement over its decision to join in the political process of the Palestinian Authority by running for election in 2006. They were bolstered, according to Palestinian observers, by jihadist elements from other Arab countries, taking advantage of the widespread despair and frustration in Gaza brought on by the ongoing economic siege. While Hamas is currently enforcing the cease-fire it adopted seven months ago at the close of Israel's Gaza invasion, the economic siege remains largely in place - although if Egyptian-mediated negotiations over the fate of captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit are successfully resolved, that might prompt Israel to ease the pressure.

Although basic food and fuel supplies are entering Gaza, the Israelis have kept out the construction material essential for rebuilding the thousands of homes damaged and destroyed in January's fighting. If the onset of winter sees no progress in rebuilding the homes of those currently living in tents and other temporary shelters - and especially if the U.S. pushes a plan that is viewed as an attempt to isolate Hamas - the pressure on the group to end the cease-fire will be coming not just from more radical challengers, but from Hamas' own commanders and fighters.


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