29 July 2012 marked 25 years of the signature of the Indo-Sri Lankan Accord and the subsequent induction of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) in Sri Lanka. Much has happened in the past two-and-a-half decades, and one is tempted to make a realistic assessment of the operation to draw lessons for the future.
The odds were already against the IPKF when it landed in Sri Lanka in 1987. It had little idea of the nature of the mission. The specific role of the Indian Armed Forces was not detailed in the Accord; they were just told to ’implement the Accord’. The agenda of the Indian forces only emerged gradually in response to the ground situation. Although there were contingency plans, India did not seriously expect a military involvement. Even if the LTTE decided to fight, the then Army Chief, Gen Sundarji, maintained that ‘it will take just a fortnight to take care of them’. The Army did not have sufficient time to prepare its men psychologically; the mindset of the soldiers and commanders, until then sympathetic to the LTTE, were to be changed. Accurate intelligence was in shortage. The Army set-up its own intelligence structure only at a later date. Also missing and unknown to field commanders was the ‘higher intention’ and the bigger picture. As a result, the IPKF became ‘the most ill-prepared mission ever sent by any country’.
It was a politico-military engagement. Yet, political consensus on was lacking both in India and Sri Lanka. Neither Rajiv Gandhi nor Jayewardene could carry the opposition or even their own party men along on the issue. Hence when there was a regime change in 1989 in India, there was a reversal of decisions taken by the Congress regime. In the Sri Lankan case, Premadasa, who was opposed to the Accord, soon after becoming President, demanded the withdrawal of the IPKF and went on to connive with the LTTE to oust the Indian forces. There was also less synchronisation between the political and military leadership.
Despite all these difficulties, one can assert that the IPKF did a good job in Sri Lanka and in securing India’s interests. Minus the IPKF, it would have been a double headache for Sri Lanka to tackle both the LTTE and JVP who were causing trouble in the north and the south of the island respectively. Thanks to the presence of the Indian forces in the north, the Sri Lankan forces could completely concentrate on decimating the JVP. IPKF did the ground work for the Sri Lankan military to defeat the LTTE at a later date. The IPKF was also responsible for the laying down of arms by non-LTTE confidently and function as political parties. Without the IPKF’s work, they would have gone the LTTE way of hiding a chunk of arms and surrendering only a few. The Indian peacekeepers also made sure that provincial council elections in the newly created Northeast Province were held smoothly and assisted in conducting violence-free and high-turnout presidential and parliamentary elections in the region after several years. In the process, the IPKF lost 1,065 lives and four times that number injured; crores of rupees were spent on the mission. Interestingly, civilian casualties were minimal because the rules of engagement were clear in that regard; there was no use of air power or heavy equipment against the insurgents.
However, it took more than two decades for Sri Lanka to recognize the IPKF’s contribution in the form of a memorial in its capital. For India, it is important to look for valuable lessons from its ‘first out of area operation’. In hindsight, the very decision on the need for Indian involvement was taken without grasping the intricacies of the Sri Lankan conflict and the dominant actors involved. India especially underestimated the LTTE's military acumen, its organizational skills, use of civilians as shields and intelligence gathering, improvised armaments and explosive devices, and high motivation. The IPKF experience suggests that the concerned nodal agency (Armed Forces) should have its own independent intelligence not only on operational matters but on every aspect of involvement.
The IPKF involvement clearly shows that the decisions that were devoid of political consensus either ended in a failure or were unsustainable. A suitable method can be adopted to co-opt at least important opposition parties in important national security decisions that require sustenance. To avoid delays, a specific time-frame can be fixed for a final decision to be taken. During IPKF operations the Army was much closer to reality than any other agency, yet their views were not given adequate weightage. Yet another lesson is the need to harmonise political decision-making with military capability. A civil-military liaison office could work better to achieve the above objective. Covert manoeuvres would spoil the harmony. For better inter-services coordination there is a need for a 'unified command system', in short, a Chief of Defence Staff. Operationally, the IPKF involvement suggested that any military involvement overseas should be swift and short like in Maldives ('Operation Cactus'). If there are any indications of prolonged involvement, it is better not to engage.