Tamilchelvan’s killing was either a strategic mistake or an error
It’s easy to see it as a tactical success but a strategic blunder: why would the Sri Lankan armed forces carry out a decapitation strike on LTTE’s second rung leadership? S P Tamilchelvan, the head of LTTE’s “political wing” was killed in an air strike by the Sri Lankan Air Force earlier this week. Now despite being the head of its political outfit, Tamilchelvan was very much involved in its military activities. But in a sense, killing him is like as if British troops eliminated Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams or the Indian army took out Syed Ali Shah Geelani. It’s not a good idea to destroy overground and political channels of communication, even when they are not engaged in talks.
That’s not all. Tamilchelvan was also an established member of LTTE’s second rung leadership, along with intelligence chief Pottu Amman, Sea Tiger chief Soosai and Charles Anthony, Prabhakaran’s son (yes, the LTTE may not yet have a real state, but it already has dynastic politics). In this line-up, Tamilchelvan was perhaps the one most likely to be able to break off from Prabhakaran’s line, were the LTTE chief himself to exit from the scene. Now, unless the Sri Lankan government believes it can wipe out the LTTE to the last man, it needs a partner to negotiate with in the endgame. In killing Tamilchelvan, it has gotten rid of a person who might have been a good interlocutor. He was, after all, the known devil.
Some reports contend that Tamilchelvan was betrayed to the Sri Lankan armed forces by a high-level insider, as part of the LTTE’s internal war of succession. Fingers are being pointed at Pottu Amman, either for failing to prevent intelligence on Tamilchelvan’s whereabouts from leaking out, or for eliminating a potential rival. Even so, did the Sri Lankan government knowingly commit a blunder? According to B Raman, not only was Tamilchelvan betrayed, but the Sri Lankan armed forces were tricked into taking responsibility for the kill. It’s not unreasonable to say that if the LTTE’s top leadership wanted to get rid of one of its most public faces without damaging its own reputation, this was a very good way.
Decapitation strikes are a double-edged sword: you need good intelligence, usually from a human source deep inside the adversary, to carry one out. But such intelligence is also very susceptible to manipulation.