Sri Lanka: US exploring military presence in Sri Lanka

Strategic Forecasting
The US and Sri Lanka have recently increased contacts between their military representatives. With chances improving for a more lasting peace between the Tamil Tiger rebels and government, the US is laying the groundwork to deploy military personnel.
Stratfor (Strategic Forecasting) reports that Christina Rocca, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for South Asia, and U.S. Marine Gen. Timothy Ghormley on March 15 visited the Sri Lankan peninsula of Jaffna, which has been ravaged by civil war between Tamil Tiger separatists and the government. During the visit the officials met with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and discussed military cooperation between the two countries.
The visit was the first by high-level U.S. civilian and military officials to Jaffna, and it points to efforts by the United States to use Sri Lankan territory for military purposes. New peace efforts between the government and rebels are helping to open the door for a semi-permanent U.S. military presence in Sri Lanka.

The country's location in the Indian Ocean makes Sri Lanka strategically important to Washington. Because it sits between the Middle East and Asia, access to Sri Lankan ports would ease the transport of U.S. military ships, troops and equipment. The fact that the country hugs the southern tip of India would also allow the United States to keep New Delhi's growing regional influence and naval reach in check.

Rocca indicated that Ghormley accompanied her to Sri Lanka to discuss military cooperation, including assistance in operating C-130 transport planes, as well as to address humanitarian matters such as the removal of land mines. But a U.S. Marine general would not likely visit a war-ravaged area in Sri Lanka while Washington is battling terrorism simply to discuss the removal of land mines. Ghormley is there to make decisions.

By visiting Jaffna he can more easily ascertain the status of Sri Lanka's civil war and the chances that the United States could park some ships on the island. The visit is part of a recent under-the-table effort by the United States to establish a military presence throughout Asia, including in Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam.

Sri Lanka has one of the world's deepest natural ports, Trincomalee, on its northeastern flank. The U.S. Embassy and the Defense Ministry in the country denied reports last September that Colombo offered Trincomalee as a refueling station for the U.S. military, the Financial Times reported Oct. 3, 2001. The Times story came a day after a team of U.S. naval experts surveyed security at the Colombo port. The Sri Lankan navy and U.S. Embassy officials also denied the survey was part of a plan to deploy U.S. troops there.

The outbreak of rebel attacks in Trincomalee during the civil war has endangered the stability of the area and represents a threat to any possible U.S. contingent stationed there. However, following Wickremesinghe's election last December, the Tamil Tigers agreed to a cease-fire Feb. 23 that might lead to future talks on a permanent peace agreement.

The Tigers have agreed to cease-fires in the past, only for the peace to end a few months later. But the rebel group openly supported the election of Wickremesinghe, who was seen as more willing to cooperate with the Tigers and whose visit to Jaffna last week was the first visit by a top government official in 20 years.

The new cease-fire has a better chance for success than those of the past because few on either side of the war want the current truce to end. The economy is in ruins -- a successful rebel attack on an airport in Colombo in July 2001 and security fears post-Sept. 11 quashed the tourism industry, one of Sri Lanka's main moneymakers. The business industry has grown extremely weary of the war's effect on investment. Poverty levels have also risen as a result of refugee flight from Tiger-controlled and disputed territories.

But no one wants the peace to continue more than the United States. U.S. officials -- including Secretary of State Colin Powell -- have issued a number of statements supporting the cease-fire, calling for the Tigers to honor the deal and encouraging mediation between the two sides. With a long-term cease-fire and a possible peace agreement would come stability at Trincomalee, and a foreign military contingent wouldn't have to face a serious threat of attacks from rebels.

In fact, the U.S. Embassy announced Feb. 8 that Vice Adm. James W. Metzger, commander of the U.S. 7th Fleet, was to visit Colombo Feb. 8 and 9. Such a visit could very well signify an increase in military cooperation between Washington and Colombo, with the next step being actual troops in Sri Lanka.

A U.S. deployment to Sri Lanka might anger India, which sees the country as part of its sphere of influence. But during this time of war, Washington will not pay much attention to political niceties. A military presence in the middle of the Indian Ocean that is closer to strategic areas than the U.S. naval base at Diego Garcia is far too valuable. And the United States is doing all it can to ensure it gains such a position.