Asia Time Online - Daily News
              Click Here
Asia Times Chinese
AT Chinese

    South Asia
     Sep 22, 2006
The Pakistani muscle behind Colombo
By Sudha Ramachandran

BANGALORE - Even as fighting between government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) rages in Sri Lanka, a war of words has broken out between India and Pakistan over issues related to the island's civil war.

While Pakistan has accused Indian intelligence agencies of masterminding a blast that almost killed its envoy in Colombo last month, Indian analysts are drawing attention to Pakistan's role in

aerial bombardment of Tamil areas in Sri Lanka.

On August 14, a deadly claymore-mine blast in the heart of the Sri Lankan capital Colombo killed seven people. The blast was apparently aimed at Pakistan's outgoing high commissioner to Sri Lanka, Bashir Wali Mohammed. Although the high commissioner himself escaped unhurt, four Lankan commandos accompanying him were killed in the blast.

After the attack, the Sri Lankan government issued a statement that the Pakistani envoy had been targeted by the LTTE because of the defense cooperation between Sri Lanka and Pakistan. Not surprisingly, the attack on the envoy brought the military cooperation between the two countries under greater scrutiny.

Two weeks later, on his return to Pakistan, Bashir Wali Mohammed, a former director general of Pakistan's Intelligence Bureau, alleged that India's external intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), was behind the August 14 blast. He accused RAW of "starting a proxy war in a third country [Sri Lanka] by carrying out this lethal attack".

"The Indian High Commission in Colombo is quite disturbed with the fast-growing bilateral relations between Sri Lanka and Pakistan," he said. India dismissed Pakistan's allegation as "preposterous" and "absurd".

An Indian Defense Ministry official told Asia Times Online that India did not have a problem with the Sri Lankan government purchasing weapons from anyone, including Pakistan. And this apparently has been made clear to the Sri Lankans.

What is of concern to New Delhi, however, is that "as Sri Lanka's relationship with Pakistan deepens, the Lankan government is moving further and further away from pursuing a negotiated settlement of the conflict". Delhi's quarrel with the Lankan-Pakistani defense deals is that "it has encouraged Colombo to persist with the military option to tame the Tigers, rather than pursue a political settlement that meets the aspirations of the Tamil people while retaining the territorial integrity of Sri Lanka".

Defense cooperation between Sri Lanka and Pakistan, which has existed for a long time, has grown dramatically in recent years. Pakistan is one of Colombo's largest suppliers of military equipment. Unlike India, Islamabad has had no problems supplying the government with lethal weaponry for use in its counter-insurgency operations in the Tamil areas.

According to a report in Jane's Defense Weekly, Sri Lanka had given Pakistan a shopping list of weaponry worth about US$60 million. While the army's list was pegged at about $20 million, that of the Sri Lankan Air Force (SLAF) was said to be worth about $38.1 million. A recent Stratfor report says Pakistan sold 22 Al-Khalid tanks to Sri Lanka in a deal worth some $110 million.

What has set alarm bells ringing in Delhi now are reports that Pakistani air force personnel are deeply involved in directing Colombo's air strikes on Tamil areas. B Raman, a former director of RAW, has pointed out that "about 12-15 members of the Pakistani armed forces, including four or five from the Pakistan air force, are stationed in Colombo to guide the Sri Lankan security forces in their counter-insurgency operations. The Pakistan air force officers have reportedly been guiding the SLAF officers in effectively carrying out air-mounted operations against the LTTE. They have also been reportedly involved in drawing up plans for a decapitation strike from the air, with bunker-buster bombs, to kill [LTTE leader Velupillai] Prabakaran."

The SLAF has repeatedly bombed Tamil areas in recent months. The government claims the air strikes are aimed at LTTE infrastructure. Indeed, the air strikes have been rather successful in undermining the Tigers. Their fledgling "air force", for instance, has been substantially weakened with the SLAF inflicting damage on its runways.

But the SLAF has also indiscriminately bombed civilian populations in Tamil areas suspected of holding LTTE sympathizers. Scores of Tamil civilians, including children, have been killed in these operations. On August 14, SLAF planes hit an orphanage, killing 61 girls, in the LTTE-controlled Mullaithivu district in Northern Province.

"Not only are the Pakistanis guiding the air operations, there are reports too that Pakistani pilots are flying SLAF jets," alleged the Indian official. The bombing of civilian targets could have been carried out by some of these pilots, he pointed out.

Even at the start of the armed conflict in the 1980s, India had been wary of any move by the Sri Lankan government to inject foreign military personnel or allow the setting up of "listening posts" in any part of the island, especially the northeast, given its proximity to Indian shores. "Delhi had made this clear to the Lankans decades ago, and the Lankans have in the past been mindful of Indian sensitivities on the subject," said the Defense Ministry official.

This respect for Indian sensitivities appears to have diminished considerably in recent years. Indian officials claim that Pakistani personnel have been involved in planning offensives against the LTTE since 2003.

The LTTE believes that Pakistani involvement began much earlier. According to a June 1997 report on the pro-LTTE Tamilnet website, "The Tamil Tigers say they have independent confirmation that Pakistani officers are involved in planning the current Sri Lankan army offensive in the Vann." In a further statement, the LTTE said, "Pakistani officials converged at Sri Lanka's Anuradhapura army headquarters immediately prior to the launch of the military offensive."

Indian officials say they are not surprised by the Pakistan-Sri Lanka defense cooperation. They admit that Sri Lanka is leaning more on Pakistan as India is unwilling to meet its needs with regard to lethal weaponry. At the same time, they point out that the Pakistan-Sri Lanka cooperation with regard to charting strategy is based on a meeting of minds.

India has avoided aerial bombing of its insurgency-racked regions, even in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, where Pakistan is seen to have waged a proxy war against India. However, neither Sri Lanka nor Pakistan has had any compunctions about bombing their civilian populations, Sri Lanka of the Tamils and Pakistan of the Balochis.

Sri Lanka launched air strikes on the Jaffna Peninsula as far back as 1986. That the Lankans and the Pakistanis would work together in militarily stamping out the insurgency in the island's north and east is therefore not surprising. The embrace has been mutually beneficial. It has provided Colombo with Pakistan's military muscle. And it has provided Pakistan an opportunity to sit at India's southern doorstep.

This is a concern for India. For years India has watched Pakistan encourage anti-India activities on the soil of its other neighbors - Bangladesh and Nepal, for instance. Now this is happening in Sri Lanka - long regarded by India as its sphere of influence - as well.

India is concerned that Pakistan's influence on Sri Lanka's counter-insurgency operations will grow. Islamabad's new envoy in Colombo is Air Vice Marshal Shehzad Aslam Chaudhry, who recently retired as the deputy chief of air staff (operations) of the Pakistani air force. He is believed to be the architect of the air strikes launched on Balochistan last year and is said to have drawn up the plans of the operation that resulted in the recent killing of Baloch leader Nawab Bugti. Colombo could draw on his expertise in aerial bombing of insurgency-racked areas.

There seems to be little India can do at this juncture to prevent Pakistan from gaining more ground. It cannot endorse Colombo's current military adventures as it is committed to a negotiated political settlement of the conflict and internal political compulsions inhibit it from providing Sri Lanka with the kind of military equipment it wants. And it cannot back the LTTE, which is designated as a terrorist organization in India.

But Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh just might meet with members of the Sri Lankan parliament representing the pro-LTTE Tamil National Alliance (TNA). If such a meeting does take place, it will be the first between the Indian leadership and the TNA.

Indian officials hasten to clarify that this meeting would only be to blunt accusations from Tamil parties in India, some of which are peeved with New Delhi for not meeting with the TNA, despite it being the largest Tamil party in Sri Lanka. Manmohan's meeting with the TNA might not change his government's perception of the LTTE, but it does represent a small shift in India's Sri Lanka policy.

Beyond that, there is little India can do. It will wait out the current fighting between the Lankan government and the LTTE, hope that this will be short-lived, and then reassert itself in the political process in Sri Lanka. It could also help open Colombo's eyes to the mess Islamabad has made of things in Balochistan.

Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore.

(Copyright 2006 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing .)

The Sea Tigers of Tamil Eelam (Aug 31, '06)

Had enough? Tigers turn on Pakistan (Aug 16, '06)


All material on this website is copyright and may not be republished in any form without written permission.
Copyright 1999 - 2006 Asia Times Online Ltd.
Head Office: Rm 202, Hau Fook Mansion, No. 8 Hau Fook St., Kowloon, Hong Kong
Thailand Bureau: 11/13 Petchkasem Road, Hua Hin, Prachuab Kirikhan, Thailand 77110