Can the Sri Lanka Army be Described as a Counterinsurgency Force?

Homeby Rob Pinney, Small Wars Journal, Virginia, USA, June 23, 2014

SL military counterinsurgency force or not

As potentially the ‘first counterinsurgency victory of the twenty-first century’, the Sri Lankan experienceturns much of this conventional wisdom on its head.  The ‘Sri Lankan model’, as it has become known,demonstrated a new way of conducting counterinsurgency operations – one in which political solutionswere supplanted by absolute military victory. Although a firm advocate of the population-centric model, Kilcullen states that ‘our knowledge of counterinsurgency is never static, always evolving’ and it is in this vein that a serious assessment of the Sri Lanka Army (SLA) as a counterinsurgency force is warranted.  Significant scholarly attention has been paid to how Western  military powers wage counterinsurgency campaigns, but, as Hashim notes, ‘[the way in which] non -Western states learn irregular war is an under-researched area of study’.

 The implications of including the Sri Lankan model within the remit of counterinsurgency are significant. It would disprove the notion that counterinsurgency campaigns are necessarily drawn out over many years and undermine the importance of political solutions, instead showing that brute force
can achieve decisive victory. This carries real-world consequences: it was not without reason that Israel, Thailand, Pakistan and Myanmar approached the SLA for advice and trainingin dealing with their own domestic insurgencies.
This paper contends that although the SLA exhibited significant tactical innovation, which undoubtedly proved pivotal in securing the defeat of the LTTE in 2009, they cannot be described as a counterinsurgency force. Rather, the Sri Lankan civil war—Eelam War IV (2006-2009) in particular—is best thought of as a conventional war prosecuted by hybrid means…

Conclusion and Recommendations

This paper has argued that the SLA cannot be described as a counterinsurgency force for four reasons. The LTTE was not a typical insurgency and is better considered as a de facto quasi-state with institutions covering taxation, policing, judiciary and public services. Accompanying  this was a shift in the military strategy of the LTTE, away from the guerrilla-style tactics common to insurgency and towards a more conventional and rigid way of fighting akin to that of a state military. The SLA in turn adapted their military strategy, adopting a range of irregular techniques, demonstrating that counterinsurgency and conventional warfare are not mutually exclusive and can indeed be used in combination to create synergistic effects – an example of what Frank Hoffman terms ‘hybrid war’. The SLA cannot be separated from the wider political culture of entrenched Sinhala nationalism and militarism in which it exists, the contours of which for many make it a war not just against a separatist movement but in defence of the Sinhala-Buddhist homeland. This discourse considers any ceding of territory as an existential threat, irrespective of whether it topples the government. Finally, the GoSL and SLA’s failure to address the political grievances of the Tamil population is likely to imperil the prospect of a durable peace. ‘A military victory over a resilient insurgent group representing a large and mobilised ethnic community will not stand unless there is concerted and sustained political follow-through’ and ‘must be accomplished without depending or reinforcing an authoritarian political system.’[lii] The GoSL is failing on both of these fronts. Refusal to address political demands provides oxygen to residual Tamil militancy while the increasingly authoritarian structure of governance in Sri Lanka is stirring concern across the island. Moreover, although the GoSL was able to deflect international criticism by deftly aligning itself with China and keeping the Indian government continually abreast of developments during the war, it is now drawing the opprobrium of the international community.

The GoSL faces a dilemma.  Having lavishly funded the SLA during war, it now has a bloated military in peace. The ruthless manner in which Fonseka’s political ambitions were muted demonstrates the wariness felt by the government of the military assuming political power. The government should look to strengthen civilian oversight of the armed forces as a means to tackle this.[liii] Although to date very little headway has been made on addressing the political demands of the Tamil population, this door has not yet closed. While the political will among the diaspora to resume fighting still exists, their options are limited by circumstance. In the absence of infrastructure in the formerly-LTTE controlled North, renewed Tamil militancy would lack an organised structure forcing a likely recourse to terrorism. This would alienate the West, with whom the Tamil lobby are currently winning the moral argument. The victory of the TNA in the Northern Provincial Council election—whose manifesto clearly outlines the grievances which must be addressed—has provided a fresh opportunity for the GoSL to find a political solution to the conflict within a federal framework that does not threaten Sri Lanka’s unitary structure. Willingness to do so will test the sincerity of Rajapaksa’s public rhetoric, but how long this window will remain open remains to be seen.

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