The Military Factor
Given their earlier military cooperation, there is more room for Sri Lanka and Pakistan to expand mutual ties.
Sri Lanka’s ties with Pakistan are solid and both countries seem eager to expand cooperation in political, commercial and military fields.
On May 19, 2009, the Sri Lankan Army completely subjugated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE or ‘Tamil Tigers’) in the north of the country. Their leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran was killed along with 17 of his closest followers, bringing to an end a dreadful civil war that caused the deaths of over 80,000 people in its 27 years.
There is no doubt that the Tamil minority, mainly in the north of the country, had been grossly discriminated against by the Sinhalese and it was understandable that they would protest strongly. But the terrorist insurgency directed by Prabhakaran was so intense and brutal that extreme action was necessary to establish the authority of the elected government.
Pakistan took note of Sri Lanka’s eventual military success, but in Islamabad and Rawalpindi, the politicians and the military heeded the price in human suffering in the course of overcoming the fanatics, for a similar penalty that might be exacted in the event of Pakistan government’s ordering a comparable full-scale military onslaught in North Waziristan.
Before the insurgency, the Sri Lankan armed forces (like those of Pakistan before the invasion of Afghanistan sparked violent extremism in the region), were trained mainly in conventional warfare and the army’s main difficulty was to retrain in counterinsurgency warfare concurrently with conducting operations against the rebels.
India supported the Tamils, and the worsening situation did not improve when India violated Sri Lankan sovereignty by using its air force to drop tons of supplies to the LTTE when they were besieged in Jaffna by the Sri Lankan Army. Then New Delhi prevailed on the Colombo government to accept a military contingent, the Indian Peace Keeping Force, that began operations in 1987 and withdrew, defeated, two years later. At its peak it numbered 100,000 but was unable to overcome the LTTE who suffered over 1200 dead.
After the Indians left, the war seesawed between the two sides – with Prabhakaran’s insurrectionists being on the ascendant most of the time. Casualties were horrifying, with the army losing 1200 soldiers in 1998 alone and the LTTE committing many hideous atrocities. There were cease-fire agreements, just as there have been in Pakistan’s western areas, but nothing worked and eventually the army was trained well enough and was of a sufficient size to take the offensive to the end of 2006 after a surge in LTTE terrorist attacks on civilian targets, including many suicide bombings, the murder of the highly respected foreign minister and 17 international charity workers and the attempted assassination of Pakistan’s high commissioner.
The reason for the attempt on the life of the high commissioner was apparently the support given to Sri Lanka by Pakistan, both in political terms and through military hardware and training. India objected to such assistance and although New Delhi had no reason to support the Tigers, having received a drubbing at their hands, it was galling for it that there was growing trust and cooperation between Colombo and Islamabad.
Many countries considered that Prabhakaran was prepared to engage in negotiations that could result in a political settlement, but when it became obvious that he was intent only on creating havoc, the Sri Lankan government and army took the gloves off. The western world expressed disapproval of Sri Lanka’s methods in its fight for survival as a nation and refused further provision of defense equipment and professional military assistance. Sri Lanka turned to Pakistan, which itself was suffering from the vicious extremists.
Pakistan had been exporting military material to Sri Lanka for many years, because the Ordnance Factories at Wah produce world-standard small arms and ammunition, mortar bombs, artillery shells and explosives at a fraction of the price demanded by most other manufacturers. Islamabad was only too pleased to sell such material, and, indeed, to provide anything else that the armed services might require. But China was in a better position to supply heavy weapons and aircraft at an attractive price.
It was apparent that the aircraft bought from Russia and Israel were cast-offs of inferior quality and supply of spares and longterm maintenance became a severe financial burden, while the Chinese F-7s were not only more reliable, simpler to direct in the ground-attack role and very much cheaper to maintain, but had the added attraction of pilot training by Pakistan Air Force instructors.
The Pakistan Military Academy at Kakul had for many years taken Sri Lankan cadets and the numbers increased while the Pakistan Navy trained up to 70 Sri Lankan Navy personnel annually, including at the naval establishment PNS Iqbal in Karachi.
Growing cooperation did not go unnoticed by India whose National Security Advisor, MK Narayanan stated on May 31, 2007: “It is high time that Sri Lanka understood that India is the big power in the region and ought to refrain from going to Pakistan and China for weapons, as we are prepared to accommodate them within the framework of our foreign policy.”
But India’s domestic policy did not cater for the provision of weaponry, as any such assistance would result in discontent among its 72 million Tamil population. Therefore, Pakistan and China continued to meet Sri Lanka’s requirements. Indian training had included attendance by two Sri Lankan officers at the Defense Services Staff College at Wellington in Tamil Nadu State, but in June 2013, they were withdrawn following protests from the state government and were offered places in Pakistan.
Liaison between Sri Lanka and Pakistan developed in other aspects of military affairs. While both countries had exchanged information about terrorism and its effects, there was extension of intelligence liaison in 2004-2006, when the Pakistan High Commissioner in Colombo was Colonel (R) Bashir Wali Muhammad, who had been the head of the Intelligence Bureau. He was the one on whom the LTTE assassination attempt was made.
More emphasis was given to direct cooperation in, for example, provision by Pakistan of information about Tamil fund-raising in London and Canada. In exchange, Sri Lankan intelligence did what it could (not a great deal) in informing Islamabad about India’s activities.
Defense aspects of cooperation continued to receive priority when retired Air Vice Marshal Shahzad Chaudhry was Islamabad’s representative in Colombo during 2007-2011. It received further impetus when President Zardari appointed Major General (R) Qasim Qureshi as High Commissioner in March 2013. His experience and acumen have contributed to mutual trust. The importance that both countries place in the relationship was emphasized by an invitation to Pakistan’s then Chief of the Army Staff, General Kayani to attend the passing-out parade of the Sri Lankan Military Academy in July 2013.
He gave the assurance that cooperation would continue in accordance with government policy, which was underlined at the meeting between Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and President Mahinda Rajapakse and during a visit by Pakistan’s chief of naval staff in 2013.
Pakistan’s ties with Sri Lanka are solid and it appears that both governments wish to expand cooperation in political, commercial and military fields. Given China’s considerable economic investment in Sri Lanka and Pakistan and the cordial relations between the three nations, it is likely that their continuing collaboration will be of benefit to all.