India’s Vietnam moment, US pullout and Afghan dilemma

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UNP’s call to terminate diplomatic relations with Taliban questionable

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Can the recent US pullout, from Afghanistan, be compared with the Indian withdrawal, from Sri Lanka ,in late March 1990? Some sections of the Western media, at that time ,called the disastrous Indian military intervention here (July 1987-March 1990) India’s Vietnam. Reference was also made to what some called India’s Vietnam moment. The Washington Post report, that dealt with the situation in Sri Lanka, in the wake of ‘Operation Pawan,’ was aptly headlined, India’s Vietnam? The US media giant declared: “One reason that Sri Lanka had been unable to tame the ‘Tamil Tigers’ was the support that an indulgent New Delhi had let flow to them from India’s 50 million Tamils.”

What the Washington Post report, dated Oct 27, 1987, left unsaid, was that New Delhi armed over a half a dozen terrorist groups, in Sri Lanka, on the specific instructions of the then Indian Premier, Indira Gandhi, though Tamil Nadu was routinely blamed for the aggression. No less a person than the late Indian National Security Advisor and veteran diplomat J.N. Dixit, who had been Indian High Commissioner in Colombo (1985-1989) in his memoirs ‘Makers of India’s Foreign Policy’ acknowledged the executive prime ministerial decision to arm terrorists here.

Dixit’s declaration should be examined against the backdrop of Indira Gandhi‘s assassination by her Sikh bodyguards, on Oct 31, 1984. When did Indira Gandhi actually authorise arming of terrorist groups in Sri Lanka?

May be we shouldn’t be so unkind to Mrs. Gandhi, for obviously she was also a victim of circumstances, clearly sowed by the West. Mind you this was a time when the West was clearly lighting separatist fires right across India, be it in Punjab, Assam or Tripura. And the separatist fire that was lit here had, as its final aim, the breakup of India. The July ’83 riots, in the country, were clearly due to manipulation of the police here not to nip it in the bud by powerful interests. We even saw at firsthand how police, in different areas, went round egging the poor, among the Sinhalese and Muslims, to attack Tamils, who were considered the haves. So, in the resultant picture of mob violence, against hapless Tamils, that was created, can we blame Mrs. Gandhi for the counter steps that she took? She wanted to show the huge long restless Tamil population, in Tamil Nadu, that it was not the West that would give succor and protection to Tamils, in Sri Lanka, but mother India. The West even would have had plenty of infiltrators among her intelligence to feed her fears. From the word go, mind you, it was not in India that many of these separatists had their rear bases but in the capitals of the powerful West. For example, the LTTE International Secretariat was based in London, even after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi by it. Of course, their lame excuse was that the LTTE had not violated British laws!

She may have even assented to the ambush of a Sri Lankan military patrol, by Tamil terrorists, at Thinnavely, Jaffna, that was used by vested forces to trigger the anti-Tamil violence, in the south, with police not lifting a finger to stop it, let alone even firing a warning shot.

There had been an interesting incident, around 1977, at a cocktail party, in Manila, where a big talking American, who was obviously after one too many, had boasted to our Ambassador there, the late Oliver Perera, that soon there would be an armed rebellion, by Tamils, in Sri Lanka!

Obviously, Indira Gandhi’s assassination didn’t halt the despicable Indian project which culminated with the deployment of the Indian Army here. She was succeeded by son Rajiv, 40, the sixth and the youngest Indian Premier who intensified assistance to terrorist groups here. PM Gandhi also intervened, on behalf of the LTTE ,when the latter faced certain defeat in the hands of the Sri Lankan military.

If Rajiv Gandhi returned at the 1989 general election, the then Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa, elected in the previous year, wouldn’t have succeeded in getting rid of the Indian Army. Those who propagated, and justified, New Delhi’s direct intervention, here, following the July 1983 violence, directed at the Tamil community, conveniently ignored the truth that India triggered the riots by causing the deaths of 13 soldiers at Thinnaveli, in Jaffna. There had never been such a devastating attack on the Army, until Indian trained terrorists wiped out the lightly armed mobile patrol.

Can the US invasion of Afghanistan, in the wake of the 9/11 carnage, and the Indian military misadventure, in Sri Lanka, be compared? In the case of Afghanistan, the US invaded that country, on the pretext of going after those responsible for 9/11, receiving refuge there, whereas New Delhi forced Army deployment here to impose a ‘political’ solution. Over 30 years later, the Indian solution is on the Geneva agenda!

On both occasions, powerful foreign forces had pathetically failed to achieve their primary objectives, though the circumstances were totally different. For the US, both Afghanistan and the fall of Saigon, way back, in late April 1975, meant the humiliating failure of Washington’s strategic policy. In other words, the US abandoned South Vietnam and Afghanistan administrations, and here, in Sri Lanka, India gave up a Tamil administration, installed by its Army. India went to the extent of forming, what was dubbed, Tamil National Army (TNA) to protect the NE provincial administration.

The US-led NATO forces, invaded Afghanistan to destroy the Taliban administration, accused of providing safe haven to those responsible for the 9/11 attacks, though, at the end, the US negotiated with them whereas the Indian military mission was meant to disarm Tamil groups, once sponsored by New Delhi. It would be pertinent to mention that the US invaded Afghanistan, though the majority of those involved in the 9/11 attacks, were Saudis. Of the 19 attackers, 15 were Saudi citizens, two were from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), one was from Lebanon, and one from Egypt.

India destabilised Sri Lanka in a bid to create a situation, conducive for deployment of its Army, followed by Provincial Council elections, rigged in favour of the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF). With the Indian Army deployed in Sri Lanka, New Delhi forced the then JRJ administration to introduce the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. As the writer pointed out before, the 13th Amendment has ended up in the Geneva agenda.

Perhaps, those who had referred to New Delhi’s military misadventure here as India’s Vietnam may consider calling the US withdrawal, from Afghanistan, America’s Sri Lanka moment. The US pullout caused the immediate collapse of 72-year-old Mohammad Ashraf Ghani’s Afghan administration. Twice President Ghani, with the knowledge of the US, secured political asylum in the UAE. Ghani couldn’t have done so without the blessings of the Biden administration. International media coverage of the pathetic scenes at the Kabul airport must have deeply embarrassed the US. Those who believed the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces — including an 180,000 strong Afghan National Army, and a police force with 150,000 personnel, besides an Air Force, and other security wings — trained by the US military, NATO and India – could face up to the Taliban. They simply folded up like a house of cards, proving utterly unequal to the task of holding on to territory, and containing the Taliban. The Afghan imbroglio cannot be discussed without taking into consideration the US-Taliban agreement, finalised in Doha, in Qatar, in February, last year. In other words, Biden implemented the agreement between his predecessor Trump and the Taliban. Most probably, the US must have sealed the fate of its costly mission by its blind drone strikes there, which would have killed many hundreds, if not thousands, of innocents, thereby turning many more Afghans against the whole false façade of the West, fighting for human rights and fair play for their much-exploited women. Surely, how many times did they strike funeral processions, or weddings, while targeting the Taliban, using their smart missiles? Now, they and their allies have turned tail and run, leaving behind for the Taliban to use billions of dollars’ worth of state-of-the-art weapons!

India also stepped up engagement with Taliban, in the wake of US moves to bring the 20-year-old disastrous Afghan chapter to an end. One shouldn’t be surprised by the Indian strategy, as India cannot lose its relationship with Afghanistan, in the wake of the US pullout. That would be a major blunder on India’s part. Perhaps, the Afghan military received instructions, from those who sponsored them, to quickly give up the fight. That possibility cannot be ruled out. Perhaps, Ghani knew of that likelihood. In spite of being trained and equipped by US and its NATO allies, the Afghan Army didn’t have the guts to face the Taliban, who advanced to Kabul without facing any organised resistance. Quad member India, too, provided training to thousands of Afghan officers, and men, both in Afghanistan as well as at various training facilities, in India, over a period of time. India also provided a range of weapons, including helicopter gunships to Afghanistan. Of several Mi-24 helicopter gunships provided by India, the Taliban seized one as the Afghan Army quickly gave up the fight for Kabul. The swift collapse of the Afghan Army must have definitely embarrassed those who trained them.

India deployed Mi-24s against the LTTE here whereas the Sri Lanka Air Force acquired the same, in 1995, after the LTTE introduced surface-to-air heat seeking missiles.

In 1990, Sri Lanka faced a situation similar to that faced by the Afghan military. The Sri Lankan military struggled to cope up with an unprecedented crisis. The vacuum created by the Indian withdrawal had to be filled quickly but the Army lacked the strength. However, the country’s intrepid armed forces faced the challenge. The military saved the country from a catastrophe, in the wake of the Indian pullout.

The writer was among a group of journalists, invited to board INS Magar,on the morning of March 24, 1990, at the Trincomalee harbour, soon after the last contingent of Indian troops boarded the troop-carrier. The vessel left the port to the farewell strains of Auld lang syne, played by the Sri Lankan military. Before their departure, the Indian Commander, here, Lt. General A.S. Kalkat, declared, on board INS Magar: “We came as a proud force and are leaving as a proud force.” India lost 1,155 IPKF officers, and men, on top of 2,984 personnel wounded. India never bothered to build a monument for those who perished during the conflict here.

The Afghan Army didn’t have the stomach to fight the Taliban though there were some confrontations between them, as the US stepped up withdrawal. India re-trained Tamil terrorists, belonging to several groups, as well as new cadres, including underage children, as a last minute effort to establish, what was then known as the Tamil National Army. The TNA was meant to protect the then North-East administration of EPRLF strongman Varatharaja Perumal. However, the TNA collapsed, even before India completed its withdrawal, under controversial circumstances. India evacuated Perumal, along with those near and dear to him. The LTTE assassinated Rajiv Gandhi over a year later. Gandhi’s crime was sending the Indian Army here. Prabhakaran conveniently forgot how Gandhi saved him, in 1987, when the Sri Lanka Army was advancing on his hideout in the Vadamaratchchy region.

Resumption of hostilities

March 24, 1990, Trincomalee harbour: The last batch of Indian Army to leave Sri Lanka at the end of the disastrous mission

Less than three months, after India quit Sri Lanka, the LTTE resumed hostilities. Having gained valuable experience in fighting South Asia’s largest Army, the LTTE obviously believed the relatively smaller Sri Lanka Army could be overwhelmed in a meticulously planned offensive. By the end of June 1990, the LTTE had taken control of the Northern and Eastern Provinces, with the military confined to major bases. The police remained within their stations. When the writer, accompanied a group of journalists, assigned to cover the Indian departure ,from Trincomalee, the eastern port city was under threat. Both police and the military therein had no qualms in acknowledging the growing threat posed by LTTE units, operating just outside the town. Had the LTTE plan succeeded, Sri Lanka would have suffered an irrevocable setback in the Northern theatre of operations. As a result of miscalculations, on the part of the then political leadership, the LTTE had an opportunity to build up the required strength for a major offensive. The LTTE had the wherewithal to neutralise the Army, north of Vavuniya. Destruction, and the vacation of Army detachments, along the Kandy-Jaffna A9 road, isolated the Jaffna peninsula.

The LTTE couldn’t achieve its primary objective as the Army, in spite of being surrounded, managed to hold onto its strategic Elephant Pass base. The public would be surprised to know, at the time the LTTE resumed hostilities, the Army didn’t even have two battalions deployed in the entire Northern and Vanni regions. The then political and military leaderships never bothered to make contingency plans, as the Indians gradually withdrew from the Northern and Eastern regions. The last Indian contingent left by air, and sea, from Trincomalee, leaving the LTTE to isolate and destroy the police and the military. The LTTE realised the difficulties experienced by the military, primarily due to them not being at least engaged in proper patrolling. The armed forces, and the police, had been successful in neutralising the JVP threat (1987-1990) though the conventional LTTE challenge was not anticipated. The military hadn’t been prepared in the immediate aftermath of the Indian pullout.

Once the LTTE resumed hostilities, in the East, where the group massacred several hundred policemen, after they surrendered, on a government directive, the fighting quickly spread to the Northern theatre. The LTTE overran the Kokavil detachment, north of Vavuniya, in June 1990, and swiftly established control over the Vanni region. Successive governments had to move supplies, required by the military, and police, deployed in the Jaffna peninsula, by sea and air. The overland Main Supply Route (MSR) was restored in January 2009, during the final phase of the Vanni offensive.

The military and the police thwarted two JVP insurrections in 1971 and 1987-1990 and defeated conventional military challenges posed by the LTTE.

When the LTTE resumed hostilities, within months after the Indian withdrawal, in March 1990, the total strength of the Army had been 60,596 officers, and men, in both the Regular and Volunteer Forces. They had been deployed in isolated bases, with the majority outside the Northern and Eastern regions and, if not for the bravery of ordinary men and resolute leadership, given by some officers, they would have been overwhelmed in the Northern Province. Of the total strength at that time, the Regular Army comprised 2,221 officers and 36,304 other ranks. The Sri Lanka Army must have found the ground situation extremely difficult to handle as, at the height of the Indian Army deployment here, the IPKF comprised approximately 100,000 officers and men.

TNA’s view on Taliban

Jaffna District Illankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi (ITAK) MP Sivagnanam Sridharan recently compared the spectacularly successful Taliban advance, on Kabul, and the Tamil community’s struggle. Sridharan declared that struggles, undertaken by minority communities, could erupt at any moment. Justifying their struggle, MP Sridharan warned of dire consequences if the community was suppressed. Obviously, the Jaffna District lawmaker believed the Taliban’s return to Kabul boosted the Tamil community. Sridharan should be reminded that his political party served the LTTE’s terror project, from 2001 until the crushing military defeat of the organisation, in May 2009. The TNA believed in the LTTE’s capability to bring its terror project to a successful conclusion. MP Sridharan, expecting Taliban to provide a boost, shouldn’t come as a surprise, as another TNA lawmaker. M.A. Sumanthiran, PC, attempted to exploit the 2019 Easter Sunday attacks. The TNA heavyweight had no doubts in issuing a warning, a week after the Easter Sunday carnage (at the BMICH), when he declared that such attacks should be expected if grievances of minorities weren’t addressed.

Norwegian Anders Behring Breivik, 32, shocked the world, in late July 2011, by massacring 90 and wounding over 300 in two separate incidents. Breivik made references to the LTTE as a role model in his ‘manifesto’ that was released to the web, hours before the devastating bomb attack, in central Oslo, and the subsequent shooting rampage in an island resort. So no one should be surprised over MP Sridharan talking in glowing terms about Taliban’s triumph, or MP Sumanthiran seeing the Easter Sunday massacre as a way to pressure the government over minority rights.

UNP Chairman Vajira Abeywardena’s recent call to terminate diplomatic ties with Afghanistan, in the wake of the Taliban triumph, reminded the writer of UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe assuring Japan (now a Quad member) that the LTTE hadn’t been involved with Al Qaeda. The assurance was given at a meeting organised by the Japan Center for Conflict Prevention (JCCP) at the Imperial Hotel. The writer accompanied the GoSL delegation, led by the then Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe whose task was to appreciate the Japanese role in the Oslo-led peace process (LTTE not linked to al-Qaeda, PM tells Japan-The Sunday Island, Dec 8, 2002). The Taliban provided a safe haven for those who had fought the Soviet Union, in the wake of its invasion of Afghanistan, in Dec 1979. Osama bin Laden had been among those who secured the protection of Taliban, having served US interests during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. The Western media, and top US officials, have routinely referred to Afghanistan being the Soviet Union’s Vietnam. Decades later, the same fate has befallen the US military.

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Disclaimer: India’s Vietnam moment, US pullout and Afghan dilemma - Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect point-of-view

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