After three decades of conflict, Sri Lanka’s government defeated the ethnic separatist insurgent group Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), popularly known as the Tamil Tigers, in May 2009. The violence and brutality employed by both sides in the final years of the conflict drew significant interest from the global civilian and military communities, especially when Sri Lanka credited its callousness to civilian casualties as a key to its success. The defeat of the LTTE added to the debates over U.S. counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine and the role of lethal force in counterinsurgency. Some have advocated that the United States consider employing such tactics as part of an effective COIN campaign, utilizing recent cases such as Sri Lanka and Chechnya to bolster their case.
In October 2009, Indian Defense Review author V.K. Shashikumar listed eight principles, the so-called Rajapaksa Model, of Sri Lankan COIN.1 Sri Lankan military and civilian leaders believe the application of these principles enabled the government’s victory:
- political will
- go to hell (that is, ignore domestic and international criticism)
- no negotiations
- regulate media
- no ceasefire
- complete operational freedom
- accent on young commanders
- keep your neighbors in the loop.
These harsh principles stand in stark contrast to the population-centric approach articulated in U.S. military doctrine. Field Manual 3–24, Counterinsurgency, counsels an approach that attempts to influence and persuade the population to willingly side with the counterinsurgent by providing a superior alternative to the insurgent cause. Key to this philosophy is the concept of protecting civilians from insurgent influence and avoiding unnecessary collateral damage.2 The differences between the two approaches are significant and cut to the heart of ongoing doctrinal debates over the way ahead in Afghanistan and future counterinsurgency operations. Do Sri Lanka’s eight fundamentals account for the defeat of the LTTE and validate the effectiveness of ruthless counterinsurgency tactics? If so, what are the lessons for U.S. COIN operations?
The LTTE is the main insurgent group representing the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka.3 The British imported the Hindu Tamils from southern India in the 18th century as laborers for colonial plantations. Eventually, the Tamils multiplied to become 13 percent of the population of Sri Lanka.4 Most of the island’s population comprises the majority Buddhist Sinhalese, who due to their numbers controlled most major organs of civil society following independence in 1948. Since that time, the Sinhalese have implemented a series of laws imposing their culture on the Tamil minorities, isolating them and de facto rendering them a subclass. After years of political strife and unrest, the Tamils formed legitimate and illegitimate resistance movements in the 1970s. Small-scale attacks against government forces by Tamil rebels expanded during that decade and became widespread by the early 1980s.
Unrest culminated in full-scale guerrilla war beginning in 1983 in northern and eastern Sri Lanka, where significant Tamil populations lived. The Tamil insurgent groups united into the LTTE, or Tamil Tigers, and began a campaign of violence to overthrow the government and gain autonomy in Tamil areas. Led by the brilliant but ruthless Velupillai Prabhakaran, the LTTE embraced the widespread use of terror tactics in addition to standard guerrilla warfare. The Federal Bureau of Investigation credits the LTTE with mainstreaming suicide tactics as a terror tool globally.5 Throughout the conflict, the LTTE employed suicide tactics against military and civilian targets, causing hundreds of casualties. Armed with external funding from Tamil expatriates in India and the West, the conflict steadily escalated. Thanks to its superior tactics and Prabhakaran’s intellect, the LTTE achieved control of significant areas of Sri Lanka, winning decisively against poorly trained government forces.
The conflict remained bloody throughout the 1980s and 1990s, with atrocities against civilians alleged by both sides resulting in mass migration and displacement of a quarter-million people. The LTTE continued to employ suicide bombing to destabilize the government and cause unrest. Eschewing international norms, the group recruited child soldiers in its campaign against the government. Despite the international outcry, the LTTE maintained funding and logistical support through its well-organized expatriate network, supplemented by arms trafficking and other criminal enterprises.6
The war attracted the involvement of numerous regional and global powers, which pressured both sides to negotiate an end to the conflict. A temporary ceasefire brokered by India in 1988 resulted in the brief deployment of Indian peacekeepers to the island. The Indian army soon found itself in violent conflict with the LTTE and distrusted by the majority Sinhalese. Frustrated and caught in a no-win position, the Indians withdrew in 1990 after sustaining over 1,200 casualties. In retaliation for the intervention, the LTTE targeted and assassinated Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991. This mistake cost the group significant support among Indian Tamils, alienated by the assassination of their prime minister and the ruthless terror tactics employed by the LTTE. Undeterred, the LTTE continued its violent strategy, refusing to renounce terrorism as a tool in its struggle. Although momentum shifted regularly in the conflict, by the late 1990s both sides reached a temporary stalemate.7 Negotiations resulted in a shaky ceasefire from 2001 to 2006. How each side used the ceasefire would prove decisive once hostilities resumed.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government came to power in 2005 promising to crush the LTTE.8 In late 2006, large-scale fighting resumed.9 Newly invigorated government forces launched an unrelenting—and stunningly successful—campaign to destroy the group at all costs. Over the next 2 years, a revitalized Sri Lankan military defeated the LTTE in numerous battles. The army liberated many population centers from rebel control. Prabhakaran was unable to stymie the assault into the LTTE heartland by government forces, who killed him in March 2009. The rebels, isolated and forced into a tiny corner of the island, were broken by a final government offensive. An LTTE representative conceded defeat on May 17, 2009, ending 26 years of open conflict.10
Reaction to Defeat
Contemporary news reporting on the defeat of the LTTE contributed to the idea that Sri Lanka’s victory stemmed from the employment of ruthless tactics. In the Los Angeles Times, reporter Mark Magnier characterized the government’s victory as a “rare success story for governments fighting insurgencies.” In the same article, the retired head of India’s Sri Lankan peacekeeping force characterized the defeat of the LTTE as having turned conventional COIN theory on its head.11 Other commentators and bloggers have echoed these sentiments or used them to criticize America’s approach to the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan. The subject of lethal force in COIN has been a recurring topic on counterinsurgency blogs and in recent articles.12
Sri Lanka’s own generals credit lethal tactics for defeating the LTTE. The government and military unquestionably strived to destroy the LTTE regardless of the outcry about civilian deaths. Sir Lanka’s defense minister, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, confirmed to the BBC that “there was a clear aim … to destroy the LTTE no matter what the cost.” The United Nations estimates the final LTTE offensive from January to May 2009 resulted in 7,000 civilian deaths and 16,700 wounded—a controversial figure that represents the high end of death estimates. In addition to the casualties incurred, the final fighting caused the displacement (and the problems inevitably accompanying it) of over 200,000 civilians.13
Numerous human rights groups criticized Sri Lanka’s lack of regard for civilian casualties and the summary justice meted out against suspected LTTE sympathizers by Sri Lankan soldiers during the offensive. Although the exact numbers of civilians killed is subject to much debate and question, the Sri Lankan government offensive made no special effort to avoid harming civilians when it suited the military need of destroying the LTTE. In addition, the LTTE displayed little regard for its own people, increasing the human toll by using civilians as shields from attack and executing those fleeing or defecting to Sri Lankan army lines.14 The relatively rapid and decisive results of Sri Lanka’s aggressive tactics and final offensive require further analysis to validate the effectiveness of brutality in counterinsurgency.
Decisive Years: 2004–2009
Evidence indicates Sri Lanka’s victory was the product of far more than simple changes in tactics and decisions to ignore the international outcry over civilian casualties. From 2001 to 2006, numerous seismic shifts occurred in the regional and global strategic environment that moved the balance of power decisively in favor of the Sri Lankan government. Taken together, these evolutionary changes hollowed the LTTE as an effective organization, enabling the decisive government victory. Critical factors included the defection of key personnel from the LTTE, significant reductions in LTTE external funding, an improved Sri Lanka Army and Navy, support from China, and fallout from the 2004 tsunami. The cumulative effect of these changes devastated the rebels’ ability to continue the conflict.
The LTTE loss of income to sustain its campaigns proved crucial to the outcome of the insurgency. Long a pariah of the international community because of its terror campaigns, the LTTE relied on expatriate support and smuggling to fund ongoing operations and governance in insurgent-held areas. To support its cause, the LTTE developed an extensive expatriate funding network across numerous Western countries that provided millions annually in assistance.15 This network began to unravel in the 1990s following the assassination of Gandhi. The LTTE’s suicide campaigns and attacks against civilians resulted in the United States declaring the LTTE a Foreign Terrorist Organization in 1997, and the group was upgraded to Specially Designated Global Terrorist status in 2001 following the 9/11 attacks due to its role in supplying global terror groups.16
Most decisively, Canada outlawed the LTTE’s funding networks in 2005. The loss of expatriate funding was devastating. The networks in Canada alone provided an estimated $12 million annually to support the LTTE.17The European Union undertook similar measures in 2006 to prevent expatriate remittances. In an extremely short period, the LTTE lost almost all financial support from expatriates in the West, at a time when the government was growing stronger even as the LTTE organization was under great stress on numerous fronts.
A major shift in the Sri Lankan balance of power occurred in 2004 when senior LTTE commander Vinayagamoorthi Muralitharan, so-called Colonel Karuna, defected from the LTTE after a disagreement with Prabhakaran. Karuna’s split and reconciliation with the Sri Lankan government deprived the LTTE of several hundred experienced fighters and significant support.18 In exchange for amnesty, Karuna provided assistance to the Sri Lanka army and advice on defeating the LTTE. The defection highlighted growing internal dissent within the hierarchy and also eroded popular legitimacy within the Tamil population. Over time, this weakened the LTTE’s grip in the eastern portion of the country, as Karuna formed a Tamil political party endorsed by the government.19 The opening of a sizeable Tamil party cooperative with the government reduced the LTTE’s support in some areas, providing a war-weary population an alternative to Prabhakaran’s iron-fisted rule and a potential future voice in Sri Lankan politics.
As the LTTE struggled with internal dissent and resource constraints, Sri Lanka embarked on a crash program to improve its military and economic capability to defeat the rebels. The most decisive factor enhancing Sri Lanka’s ability to combat the LTTE involved significant economic and military aid from China. Traditionally, the United States, European Union, Japan, and Canada provided the majority of military assistance for the Sri Lankan government. Beginning in 2005, China stepped in to provide an additional $1 billion of military and financial aid annually, allowing the LTTE to sever the strings attached to Western aid regarding the conduct of anti- LTTE operations. In exchange for the aid, China received development rights for port facilities and other investments. These actions enabled China to increase its influence in South Asia against its regional rival India and secure stability on its southern flank.20
China’s aid enabled the Sri Lankan government to attain the military superiority needed to defeat the LTTE. The Sri Lankan military budget rose by 40 percent between 2005 and 2008, and the army’s size increased by 70 percent, an addition of nearly 3,000 troops per month.21 Sri Lanka army professionalism grew as result of a decade of investment in professional military education. Increased funding and capable, aggressive leaders allowed the formation of elite counter-guerrilla units to combat the LTTE. These units were able to acquit themselves well in combat, demonstrating this capability repeatedly in the 2007–2009 offensives.22
In addition to the army expansion, the improvement of the Sri Lanka navy between 2002 and 2006 played a critical role in strangling the LTTE’s lucrative smuggling trade. Significant investments in small boat forces proved decisive. The navy invested in hundreds of 14-meter and 17-meter boats to complement its existing force of Israeli-built Super Dvora fast attack craft. With the breakdown of the ceasefire in 2006, the navy took the offensive with new equipment and better trained officers. Armed with light weapons on fast boats, the navy was able to swarm and overwhelm the LTTE’s limited naval forces. By fighting a series of small boat engagements, the navy isolated the northern coast of Sri Lanka in 2007, defeating the LTTE’s small boat force and sea-based warehouses used to support smuggling operations. These operations effectively shut down the LTTE’s ability to acquire revenue through illicit arms trade, further exacerbating its financial crisis.23
China provided more than simple financial support. It and several other states furnished the government with crucial political cover in the United Nations. Western countries long demanded that Sri Lanka respect human rights and avoid civilian casualties as a condition of continued aid. The government viewed these conditions as a hindrance to its ability to defeat the LTTE. The substitution of Western military aid with that from China enabled the government to disregard Western concerns about human rights and pursue its campaign of attrition unimpeded. China prevented introduction of resolutions at the United Nations critical of Sri Lanka’s renewed offensive, giving it a free hand in the conduct of its operations despite the protests of human rights groups and Western governments. Without this diplomatic coverage, Sri Lanka would have faced a much tougher time sustaining its military expansion and pursuing its ruthless campaign to defeat the LTTE.24 In exchange, China received several lucrative development contracts in Sri Lanka and greater influence against rival India in South Asia.25
The devastating tsunami in December 2004 also contributed to the collapse of the LTTE. The damage was most extensive in the LTTE-dominated northeast region. Political wrangling prevented large amounts of aid from reaching LTTE-controlled areas, contributing to the isolation and financial ruin of the Tamil population. The Sri Lankan high court blocked a tentative agreement in June 2005 to allow sharing of tsunami aid with the LTTE. Allegations of corruption tainted the limited aid that did arrive, undermining the credibility of LTTE leaders among the people. Shortly thereafter, the tenuous ceasefire began to break down, preventing further aid from reaching the LTTE. Under intense pressure, the United caved to the government’s demands.26Economic losses and the devastation of Tamil areas affected popular will to continue the struggle and support the LTTE.
An examination of Sri Lanka’s victory reveals the LTTE’s collapse was the result of cumulative external and internal forces, not simply the employment of ruthless new tactics. Indeed, there is little beside the ability to disregard Western criticism that distinguishes Sri Lankan tactics or brutality post-2005 from earlier eras, as the conflict was already one of the most violent and ruthless in the world. Critical blows from internal defections, loss of external funding, a global antiterrorist mindset after 9/11, and secondorder effects of the 2004 tsunami crippled the LTTE. At the same time, foreign aid, domestic politics, and external political cover from China enabled the Sri Lankan government to resume its COIN campaign from a position of strength. The combination of these factors proved decisive in the defeat of the LTTE.
Those who wish to use the LTTE’s defeat as a foil for criticizing U.S. COIN doctrine have adopted an overly simplistic narrative of the LTTE’s defeat. These critics have missed the larger picture of what occurred in Sri Lanka. Appropriate and legitimate debate continues as to the significance of populationcentric tactics practiced by the U.S. military during the surge to the successful reduction of violence. Without doubt, numerous changes in the wider internal and external dynamics of the conflict coincided with the tactical shift and accelerated the turnaround in Iraq. Likewise, by 2009, the LTTE was a shadow of its former self, bankrupt, isolated, illegitimate, divided, and unable to meet an invigorated government offensive of any kind. At almost every turn, the LTTE made profound strategic miscalculations in the post-9/11 environment by continuing its use of terror tactics despite a fundamentally changed global environment. Failing to realize this shift, Prabhakaran made poor strategic and tactical choices that doomed his movement long before the government began its final offensive. Taken together, these conditions proved essential to the collapse of the LTTE after nearly 30 years of conflict. JFQ
1 V.K. Shashikumar, “Lessons from the War in Sri Lanka,” Indian Defence Review (October 3, 2009), available at www.indiandefencereview.com/2009/10/lessons-from-the-war-in-sri-lanka.html.
2 Field Manual 3–24/Marine Corps Warfighting Publication 3–33.5, Counterinsurgency (Washington, DC: Headquarters Department of the Army, Headquarters U.S. Marine Corps, December 2006), para. 1–124—1–128.
3 Angela Rabasa et al., Beyond al-Qaeda, Part 2: The Outer Rings of the Terrorist Universe (Arlington, VA: RAND Corporation, 2006), 68–79.
4 John C. Thompson and Jon Turlej, Other People’s Wars: A Review of Overseas Terrorism in Canada(Toronto: The Mackenzie Institute, 2003), 40.
5 Federal Bureau of Investigation, “Taming the Tamil Tigers from Here in the U.S.,” January 10, 2008, available at www.fbi.gov/page2/jan08/tamil_tigers011008.html.
6 Thompson and Turlej, 34, 45.
7 Rabasa, 68–74; Thompson and Turlej, 34, 45.
8 Anbarasan Ethirajan, “How Sri Lanka’s Military Won,” BBC News, May 22, 2009, available athttp://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/8063409.stm.
9 “Government Ends Ceasefire with Tamil Tigers,” Agence France-Presse, January 2, 2008, available atwww.france24.com/france24Public/en/archives/news/world/20080102-sri-lanka-tamiltiger-cease-fire-end.php.
10 Emily Wax, “Sri Lankan Rebels Admit Defeat, Vow to Drop Guns,” The Washington Post, May 18, 2009, available at www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/05/17/AR2009051700086.html.
11 Mark Magnier, “Sri Lanka’s Victory May Offer Lessons,” Los Angeles Times, May 23, 2009, available at .
12 Patrick Porter, “Brutality. . . ,” June 24, 2009, accessed at http://kingsofwar.wordpress.com/2009/06/24/does-brutality-work/.
13 Bharatha Mallawarachi, “U.N. Envoy Heads to Sri Lanka; Civilians Flee War,” Chattanooga Free Press, May 15, 2009, available at www.timesfreepress.com/news/2009/may/15/un-envoy-heads-sri-lanka-civilians-flee-war/.
14 Human Rights Watch, “Sri Lanka: Events of 2009,” Human Rights Watch World Report (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2010), 347–354.
15 Stewart Bell, “Canada a Key Source of Tamil Tiger Funding,” National Post, July 20, 2009, available atwww.nationalpost.com/news/story.html?id=1810040.
16 U.S. Department of the Treasury, “Treasury Targets U.S. Front for Sri Lankan Terrorist Organization,” press release, Washington, DC, 2009.
18 C. Bryson Hull, “Sri Lanka Can Defeat Tigers, Top Ex-Rebel Says,” Reuters India, November 13, 2008, available at http://in.reuters.com/article/southAsiaNews/idINIndia-36488720081113.
19 “Interview: ‘Colonel Karuna,'” Al Jazeera, April 29, 2009, available athttp://english.aljazeera.net/focus/2009/04/2009428165514786905.html.
20 Somini Sengupta, “Take Aid from China and Take a Pass on Human Rights,” The New York Times, March 9, 2008, available at www.nytimes.com/2008/03/09/weekinreview/09sengupta.html.
23 Tim Fish, “Sri Lanka Learns to Counter Sea Tigers’ Swarm Tactics,” Jane’s Navy International (March 2009), 20–25.
26 Nimmi Gowrnathan and Zachariah Mampilly, “Aid and Access in Sri Lanka,” Humanitarian Exchange Magazine (June 2009), available at www.odihpn.org/report.asp?id=3003.
The LTTE was soundly defeated, and with it the Tamils hopes for a separate state. It also left them isolated, impoverished, and exhausted. My essay was an attempt to briefly capture what happened. Some writers imply that Sri Lanka won because they woke up one day and decided to use “at all costs” tactics and won the war because of it. Baloney. Both sides were using those from the start, by 2007 they simply got the upper hand in resources to win due to their own improvements and the LTTE’s self inflicted wounds, and had extra political top-cover from their BFF China.
Bob is right, of course the Tamils can rise again, and they may. The LTTE’s refusal to abandon its objectionable tactics (suicide bombing, chemical bombs, terror) deprived the Tamils of a crucial requirement – external political support. By 2005 the Tamils had no allies other than their expats, no champion in the international community because of the character of their campaign.
“Unwilling to accept that war is, by its nature, a savage act and that defeat is immoral, influential officers are arguing for a kinder, gentler approach to our enemies. Much of this is not due to the military commanders but an omnipresent media and well meaning civilian advisors with nervous domestic political leaders who want to get re-elected.”
Jason Thomas, Blog comment on “Understanding Sri Lanka’s Defeat of the Tamil Tigers” SWJ,9:01 PM Sep 5 2010.
Thanks for the quote from Ralph Peters. His point about government leaders being anxious to start wars and too timid to end them rings true based on my experience. All the talk about good governance, economic development, etc. is value added to the discussion and as part of the means to and end, BUT we can never forget this is warfare and we’re ALSO required to first and foremost defeat the enemy in battle. During mop up and consolidation you work on good governance and economic development. What the gov of Sri Lanka should be doing now.
I’m not sure what a classical COIN approach is (seems to be the approach that frequently fails), but the conflict in Sri Lanka was closer to our Civil War than anything resembling an insurgency. The LTTE had its own Army (and an irregular navy and even a few planes), they controlled large swaths of territory where they waged conventional battles (in some battles during the 90s several hundred Sri Lankan soldiers were killed in a 2-3 day period), etc. This wasn’t a war of infiltration and subversion, but a large scale separatist movement.
My comments about comparing the LTTE to the conventional wars of WWI and WWII were not out of place. The Sri Lankan army had to fight major battles to take and hold territory. Justas in WWI and WWII civilians were on the battlefield and they frequently became casualties. If the West or China provided sufficient assistance to the Gov of Sri Lanka years ago, they would have defeated LTTE years ago and saved the people on both sides much suffering. If you’re going to fight, then fight to win.
Your point is a good one in that the insurgent relies on our abhorrent reaction to their tactics as much as the act itself. What the GOSL did was brutalise them back. The GOSL did not care for the politically correct approach to war we seem to have got ourselves into in the West.
So Bill M you are right. The GOSL was not cowardly; they just do not place the same constraints on waging war as we do. The LTTE are very lucky that the Muslim community has not rallied to form its own insurgency because the Tamil’s committed atrocities on this community constantly.
From working with Coalition forces in Afghanistan many troops observed how Afghanistan had become a politically correct war. Ralph Peters hit the nail on the head in his 2006 New York Post article when he observed it is hard enough to bear the timidity of our civilian leaders – anxious to start wars but without the guts to finish them – but now military leaders have fallen prey to political correctness. Unwilling to accept that war is, by its nature, a savage act and that defeat is immoral, influential officers are arguing for a kinder, gentler approach to our enemies. Much of this is not due to the military commanders but an omnipresent media and well meaning civilian advisors with nervous domestic political leaders who want to get re-elected.
While I am a late student to COIN Im not convinced the GOSL actually implemented a classical COIN approach. They certainly did not care about hearts and minds. They waged a military campaign based on winning from a military perspective. Althought this did take almost 20 years.
The other key difference in Sri Lanka compared to Afghanistan is that it has had a well functioning system of government and democracy with entrench institutions and system. The GOSL wasnt setting up Government from scratch or having a system imposed on it from the outside (regardless of how worthy and right our system my be to us)
Some of these comments are remarkable. The poor LTTE separatist movement was brutalized by a cowardly government? Give us all a break, they were defeated in the field of battle. It was as much a war of movement as it was an insurgency, and not unlike WWI, WWII, Korea, or Vietnam a lot of civilians were killed on “both” sides. This politically correct rhetoric coming from sophmores in college is almost tolerable (they haven’t seen the world yet), but coming from adults it is inexcusable, due to its excessive bias. The LTTE was one of many Tamil groups, the other groups were brutally put down by the LTTE. The LTTE brutalized their own people, and they employed brutal terrorist attacks that killed hundreds of innocent of civilians. War is brutal, it should be avoided whenever possible, but when it can’t be avoided, any sane belligerent will fight to win. That is what the Gov of Sri Lanka did.
The LTTE was defeated, that doesn’t mean they won’t form again, or another group won’t form again, but the liberal and judgmental West is making it very hard for the Gov of Sri Lanka to practice good governance when they are pushing instead for war crimes instead of assisting them reconciliate. This may be another episode where the extreme left manages to pull another defeat from the jaws of victory, which will only lead to more suffering for the people they claim to be helping.
I suspect the conditions of insurgency in Sri Lanka and within the Tamil populace are alive and well, and quite possibly enhanced, by what is being touted as a COIN victory in the ‘defeat’ of the LTTE.
Counterinsurgent operations do not win insurgencies. Never have, never will. They will suppress insurgency, but that is a far different thing. Colonial powers could conduct such operations and merely suppress the insurgency and call it a victory back in the day, as they were just there to exploit the people and lands of others for their own profit. Suppression was good enough. Many have learned the wrong lessons from this history of military suppression of insurgency through the conduct of counterinsurgent operations.
There is, however, now a window of opportunity to actually focus on the conditions of insurgency that were the causation for the LTTE to form and emerge; and will be the causation for whatever group will emerge to replace them.
I suspect the LTTE made the common mistake of surging to Phase III operations to pursue their cause. This made them far more vulnerable to being defeated militarily. They will likely revert to Phase I or II tactics to avoid this from happening again.
We should be encouraging the Tamils to embrace non-violent insurgency to continue their campaign for good governance; while at the same time encouraging Sri Lanka and India to work on extending good governance to the Tamils. This is the path to “defeating” the conditions of insurgency; not the mere application of a military beatdown on the insurgent himself.
It is wrong to call it a defeat for the LTTE, and a victory for the Srilanka armed forces. It was not a conventional war but cowardly war with leathal mass destrctive weapons aimed at the thousands of civilians to smoke out the LTTE caders. All the while the International Community was a mute spectator especially the big powers, they failed to distiguish between terrorists and freedom fighters. What the 70 million Tamils feel now is very important? One must understand these people psychologically in the first place. They are very humble, simple and hardworking people, they are very emotional too. They can go to any extend to avenge their destruction (the genocide). For the time being they are lying low watching the global political games especially the games played by India which houses MPs who have criminal records, corrupt to the core. In short you can say they are buying time. I have had a lot of friends in the Tamil circle. I know them how they can react to the situation and I am surprised why they are slow to act this time. They will slowly but surely react to the determintal of the world because they have lost their own kith and kin in the battle. When every cadre of the LTTE was ready to sacrifice his or her own family, kids and kins, and willing to take away his/her own life, how could you call them a defeated organisation. Yassar Arafat called it “the most disciplined organisation”, as long as there are some wolves in the sheep’s cloth and the snakes in the grass are there amidst the noble race, there will be criticism and rumour hanging around. Let’s all wait and see the fun, may be even after decades. Those of who, who are judgemental, fist wait and see, will you be slaves to anyone when you are much more intelligent, brave and harworking than your oppressors. Be logical and pass your verdict.
Questions – your argument is that the LTTE was vulnerable and in decline before the offensive and therefore the offensive was simply a rather brutal coup de grace – are you then implying the offensive was unnecessary? Clearly you indicate that the offensive sped up the process – but are you suggesting victory happens regardless? Or was ‘time’ a factor and therefore the offensive indeed was necessary? Certainly for China it was necessary since they were after a valuable strategic asset, but did Sri Lanka also see it as necessary? Were they aware of the LTTE’s vulnerability and therefore trying to make a statement through the nature of the offensive – or did they sincerely believe brutality was necessary?
An interesting essay, but seems to me a number of important questions still need to be addressed and therefore the ‘Sri Lankan model’ should remain a focus for study. Certainly for me Sri Lanka continues to conjure up the essence of a fundamental problem, namely: the key to extremist tactics is that they make a calculated gamble that those opposing them will not resort to a similar [though certainly not identical] extremist approach which might tend to render that opponent’s superiority in numbers and equipment ‘decisive’ – in other words the extremism of a given insurgency is how that insurgency compensates for diminished resources and is based on the assumption that that extremism, if not matched by a similar ruthlessness by a COIN, will trump the putative advantages inherent to the COIN. It follows that the only way to disabuse a given extremist insurgency of this belief – this faith, if you will – is by calling their bluff. To me that challenge is at the heart of what we attempted, with some success, in Iraq and are attempting, with the promise of decidedly less success, in Afghanistan.
Johnny and Neil you guys are correct.
Imagine the US and international forces employing the same tactics used by the GOSL!
And as with any defeat of insurgency it appears a combination of factors led to success. When you have zero care for human life and have shut out the eyes of the world – well you have leveled the playing field with the insurgents. No hearts and minds to care about here.
I witnessed first hand the breakaway by Karuna. Unfortunately the gunman stuck his AK in my face after the hijakcing of the van and assaninating the LTTE dudes who were taking Karuna to Kilinochi. (that was going to be a one way trip for Karuna)
Karuna established the TMVP that moved from being its GOSL back guerilla movement against the LTTE to being a political force along the Eastern Province.
It was a politically smart move of the then new Eastern Chief Minister in 2008 to visit the Kattakundy mosque to apologise for the massacre that occurred there 12 years ago(instigated by Karuna)
They then carried out systematic assaninations / Kiddnappings of Tamil business people and academics. A close friend of mine dissappeared in 2006.
The GOSL was very effective at putting the screws on the LTTE funding and resources at a multilateral level. They made top rate use of global tools and the Diaspora to lobby Western governments to slowly but surely close off support. Post 9/11 this became easier with the world wide legislative changes to cut off funding channels to organisations linked to insurgency groups. This seriously depleted the LTTE of funding to run their military campaign, deliver food and supplies to its cadres and population.
The increasing sophistication of the weapons and armour being used by the GOSL from around 2006 onwards it was obvious external parties had injected support in funding, equipment or both.
The nationalist Buddahist movement in Sri Lanka is enormously powerful and would never allow any negotiated peace. They applied significant political pressure on any member of the GOSL who was in favour of peace. In fact if you were a proponent of peace in Sri Lanka you were considered “unpatriotic”. One of my favourite new words invented by the GOSL is “peacemonger” used to describe those who were publically calling for negotiations to peace.
The GOSL was effective at evicting anyone from Sri Lanka who even smelt like they were in favour of peace.
The GOSL effectively shut off development assistance to the North from international organisations. It was a test of Machiavellian tenacity with the GOSL to be able to continue operating in these areas.
I was one of the first Westerners allowed into the high security zone just north of Vavuniya within two weeks of the military offensive.
The humanitarian situation was unimaginable.
It was grotesque to see the 9ft high billboard of the GOSL President, in flowing white robes waving at the 85,000 IDPs in the Manik Farm detention facility.
The situation has barely changed on the ground for the population. Many of the military and police took land and houses vacated by the civilians when they were fleeing the offensive.
What the GOSL must be worried about is how it will deal with the mass of humanity seething in the north and in no better situation than before. While the GOSL may have crushed this generation of Tamil leadership Im not sure that the next generation will be happy to forgive and forget.
The irony is though the media and political leaders are unable to grasp or accept the time the current COIN approach takes, yet they would not accept the approach taken by the GOSL even if we were winning.
The standards for those of us who operate from the founding principles of freedom, respect for humanity and justice have the highest bar – and so they should have.
Thanks for the comments.
Jonny, I agree. Although the LTTE is defeated, it certainly remains to be seen whether another group will replace it.
That said, the physical and geographical isolation of the Tamils, along with an invigorated government, will make success an unlikely proposition, and likely visit further suffering on the Tamil populace.
“Defeat” is a premature diagnosis with regards to Sri Lanka’s situation. The Tamil Tigers didn’t lose politically and they are re-forming the leadership in exile and conducting huge fund raising campaigns among the Tamil diaspora in India and Canada. Its only a matter of time before civil war 2 starts thanks to the IDP situation and the Sinhalese government’s unwillingness to address the situation of Tamil refugees.
A much more balanced appreciation of the conflict in Sri Lanka. Political fragmentation of the enemy, Economic and military support over a multi-year period for the central government, development and improvement of armed forces over a multi-year period and the isolation of insurgents from funding.
Given that the Soviets killed hundreds of thousands of Afghans and treated most of the country as a free fire zone, why would you think a robust kinetic approach would be successful now?
Sri Lanka’s disconcerting COIN strategy for defeating the LTTE
by Niel Smith
SWJ Blog Post |
In the comments section of this SWJ post, Phil Ridderhof highlights a very interesting and disconcerting article in the Indian Defence Review containing lessons learned from Sri Lanka’s defeat of the LTTE this year. The principles articulated in this article stand in almost complete opposition to the conceptualization of counterinsurgency articulated in FM 3-24. From the article:
“In the President’s Office in Colombo officials talk about the ‘Rajapaksa Model’ (of fighting terror). “Broadly, win back the LTTE held areas, eliminate the top LTTE leadership and give the Tamils a political solution.” Sunimal Fernando, one of Rajapaksa’s advisors, says that the President demonstrated a basic resolve: “given the political will, the military can crush terrorism.” This is not as simple as it sounds. Like most poll promises he did not have plans to fulfill his promise to militarily defeat the LTTE. Eelam I to III were miserable failures. So the ‘Rajapaksa Model’ evolved, it was not pre-planned.”
The article lists the principles as:
• Unwavering political will
• Disregard for international opinion distracting from the goal
• No negotiations with the forces of terror
• Unidirectional floor of conflict information
• Absence of political intervention to pull away from complete defeat of the LTTE
• Complete operational freedom for the security forces -Let the best men do the task
• Accent on young commanders
• Keep your neighbors in the loop
Most western readers will find the lack of concern for civilian casualties in this strategy disconcerting. The article highlights the broad condemnation Sri Lanka received for its approach.
COL Gian Gentile and Ralph Peters have both criticized FM 3-24’s unwillingness to consider alternate, more violent, and less population centric conceptualizations of counterinsurgency. Is the Sri Lanka model a valid option for western forces, if it ultimately solves the problem faster and potentially with less cost and casualties? After examining the subject the past few years, ruthless COIN approaches seem to work in a number of cases. The Sri Lankan approach resembles Russian efforts in Chechnya, which were similarly ruthless yet generally effective at suppressing the rebels. A similarly ruthless approach defeated and forced the submission of the US Native American tribes in the 19th century. However, an easy counterpoint to the “ruthless” method’s effectiveness is its failure during the Soviet campaign in Afghanistan, which assisted in the creation of many of today’s problems faced by ISAF.
On another forum, a respected colleague argued that the more violent approach to COIN might ultimately be more humanitarian. He suggested population centric COIN, while humanistic, takes longer, with uncertain probabilities of success, and often in the end creates more casualties among the population through inept execution than a ruthless enemy focused campaign.
This utilitarian view of force is tempting to those looking for a quick and alternate solution to the complex campaigns that trouble the US and its allies. Ultimately, neither the US or its allies are —to accept the high collateral damage cost and potential resulting excesses (war crimes) adopting such an approach would engender. Nor do I think we would do well to our standing as a society or nation to accept the ruthless targeting of the populations that support insurgents. Therefore, I believe that the operational strategy of population centric COIN continues to represent the only viable approach for the US military and its allies to wage counterinsurgent warfare.
Disagree? Sound off in the comments or at the Council.