Sri Lanka: COIN or Civil War?

by Ambassador (Ret.) Edward Marks, National Defense University Press blog, Washington, DC, October 28, 2010

Ambassador (Ret.) Edward Marks, a veteran of 40 years in the Foreign Service and currently a Distinguished Senior Fellow at George Mason University, contacted Joint Force Quarterly with comments about “Understanding Sri Lanka’s Defeat of the Tamil Tigers” by Niel A. Smith, which appeared in issue 59 (4th Quarter, 2010). Ambassador Marks believes that MAJ Smith misreads the context of the Sri Lankan government’s conflict with the Tamil Tigers.

“Understanding Sri Lanka’s Defeat of the Tamil Tigers” by Major Niel Smith contains much of interest but, unfortunately, can be misleading to readers not familiar with Sri Lanka and the conflict in question. Potentially the most serious misunderstanding is the author’s attempt to put the Sri Lankan conflict into a COIN context. As far as back mid-1980s, the LTTE controlled territory, administratively as well as militarily. Therefore, the central conflict—or center of gravity to use a term popular in American military circles—was much more of a civil war between two territorially defined combatants, not a “counterinsurgency” against guerrillas. The Sri Lankan government’s final victory was not a COIN success but a fairly classic kinetic campaign across clearly identified battlelines. There was no hearts and minds campaign, no reestablishment of government authority against night-time raiders. While the LTTE certainly used terrorist tactics and mounted numerous special operations across the frontlines, the essential conflict was at those battles. The government’s victory was due to having finally mustered the will and the conventional forces to conduct a successful offensive.

Clausewitz emphasized that the first requirement is to understand the character of the conflict in question. To call the Sri Lankan conflict an insurgency rather than a secession is to misclassify it. The LTTE was not trying to subvert or overthrow the Sri Lankan government but to secede from it—more like the American Civil War than anything else.

This misunderstanding, common enough among many observers, was and is due to several causes. First, by missing the fact that from the mid-1980s, the LTTE controlled territory and operated from it in a fairly classic way, although the battlelines shifted from time to time. Then the LTTE use of terrorism (in fact, they invented the suicide bomber) and other aggressive SOF-type activities in a global environment where such activities were the hallmark of true insurgent-terrorist organizations or movements.

The history of the political and cultural tension is centuries long, and came to a point after independence but Major Smith’s discussion of it is much too simplified, possibly because none of his references appear to date prior to 2005. For instance, the British did not import the “Hindu Tamils” into Sri Lanka in the 18th century; they have been resident there for millennia and claim, with some historical justice, to be residents on the island as long as the Sinhalese. The British did import in the 19th century a number of Tamils from India to work on the tea plantations in the central highlands of the country. These Tamils are not seen—by anyone including themselves—as part of the Tamil community out of which arose the LTTE. In fact, they stayed consciously out of the conflict and all through it maintained representation in Parliament. Apart from this Tamil community, a large number of resident Tamils continued to live in the central and southern part of the country, and especially in Colombo where they constitute a significant part of the professional and business community.

It should also be noted that Tamil insurgent groups did not “unite” into the LTTE or Tamil Tigers. The LTTE leader Prabhakaran “united” what remained of the other groups after he had killed their leaders and key cadres in a fairly short but very vicious intra-communal struggle in the Tamil north of the country.

Possibly more significant than these matters is another Clauswitzian concern, the political implications of the government’s victory. Like the legendary Holmesian dog which did not bark, there is a very significant name missing from the article—the commanding general of the Sri Lankan army which conducted the victorious final campaign. Shortly after the victory, Commander of the Army General Sarath Fonseka broke ranks, so to speak, with President Rajapaksa whose increasingly authoritarian behavior had become worrisome to many. General Fonseka decided to oppose Rajapaksa in a national election, was defeated, and for his pains has been charged with treason and placed under detention.

Who deserves the credit for the military victory is not my concern here, nor the rights and wrongs of the political debate between the president and the general. What is of interest and concern to many, and especially to many Sri Lankans, is the apparent effort of the government to use the military victory as the basis for serious encroachments on what had been a very robust democracy, much admired around the world.

—Ambassador (Ret.) Edward Marks



  1. I’d like to thank Amb. Marks for his thoughtful and enlightening commentary on my article, and I will attempt to respond/explain some of my reasoning below.

    I plead guilty to simplifying the complex history of Sri Lanka, and I make no pretensions to be an expert on the country. The article’s purpose was to expound on the myriad of factors behind the collapse of the LTTE within an article-length framework. Amb. Marks’ context is crucial for those wishing to understand the deeper political-social interactions and drawing larger conclusions about the conflict’s end.

    Addressing the central issue, I agree with Amb. Marks that Sri Lanka was involved in a civil war, but this does not preclude it from being considered in an insurgency context. Neither the military or academic community, has, to my knowledge, provided a clear definition that separates intra-state warfare between terrorism, insurgency, and civil war. This is largely because all encompass the use of violence to political ends; the difference is one of scale and organization, as well as the response required by the regime. Indeed, one could claim that by definition all civil wars are insurgencies but not every insurgency is a civil war. The U.S. Government COIN Guide, published in January 2009, defines insurgency as, “the organized use of subversion and violence to seize, nullify or challenge political control of a region … in which both sides use armed force to create space for their political, economic and influence activities to be effective.” The Department of Defense definition similarly defines insurgency as “an organized movement aimed at the overthrow of a constituted government through use of subversion and armed conflict.” Clearly, Sri Lanka’s conflict is in line with both definitions of insurgency. Alternately, one can use Mackinlay’s definition, where insurgency is defined by the type of government response required, i.e. police/law enforcement or whole of government interaction. In the political science field, civil wars are usually defined by sustained intra-state conflict with more than 1000 battle deaths. In either context, Sri Lanka can be categorized as an insurgency and a civil war. Indeed, one of the common criticisms leveled at the LTTE’s strategy was that it tried to wage Mao’s Phase III (war of movement) insurgency/civil war without the resources or support to sustain it.

    Discussing conflict labels does not change that the anti-population centric COIN crowd are regularly citing Sri Lanka as an example of successful counterinsurgency. The origins and purpose of this paper was to respond an overly simplified narrative being repeated – that Sri Lanka’s victory was a model of successful COIN that undercut our population centric counterinsurgency model. Far from only appearing in Indian Defense review, articles have appeared regularly in print, blogs, and sites such as Small Wars Journal citing Sri Lanka as a “COIN success” we should learn from. In some ways, Amb. Marks makes my point when he argues the nature of the conflict as a conventional civil war limits the COIN lessons that can or should be drawn regarding COIN doctrine. I would agree. My desire was to illustrate the role of the strategic miscalculations of the LTTE, combined with governmental and international changes that set the conditions for the LTTE’s rapid collapse.

    Finally, while the LTTE is defeated and the civil war has ceased, there is little assurance that the insurgency has ended due to the lack of political progress and reconciliation in Sri Lanka. It is quite possible, even likely, that another Tamil group will rise from the ashes of the LTTE and resume the conflict. Amb. Marks is right to highlight the suffering of the population that resulted from three decades of conflict, and to caution us on the future direction of Sri Lanka.

  2. Ambassador Marks (no relation, though we are acquaintances) has hit the nail on the head in both large and small terms.

    Errors in the article are numerous, right down to mis-statement of just who the Sri Lanka Tamils are (the Ambassador is correct). Not only are Sri Lanka Tamils a different community altogether from the Indian Tamils who work the tea plantations (Sri Lanka’s leading source of foreign exchange), but intra-Sri Lanka Tamil divisions proved a game-changer, when disgruntled Batticaloa Tamils broke with the Jaffna-Tamil dominated LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) and enlisted on the government side. There followed the clearing first of the Eastern Province, then the systematic reduction of the North.

    One could quibble with terminology and take a position that insurgency and separatism are not mutually exclusive categories, but the Ambassador’s comparison of the Sri Lanka fight to the American Civil War is appropriate in highlighting that counterinsurgency should not be the subject of the analysis so much as simply “warfighting.” In Sri Lanka, tactical innovation under competent military leadership, increasingly able to comprehend operational and strategic imperatives, was enabled by national mobilization under determined civil authorities. “Ruthless” is not a particularly useful term for examining this process.

    More appropriate is the “civil war” framework. For some years, as the Ambassador correctly highlights, LTTE controlled a liberated “Eelam” (essentially, the north and east of the island) and then chose to defend it against a revitalized, re-equipped Sri Lankan military and state. What followed was major combat with all the inevitable collateral damage that one associates with any regular fight occurring in populated areas. There was no “counterinsurgency” but an Anaconda Plan, to use the American Civil War comparison. The “brown water” innovation discussed in the article was complemented by a blockade, complete with a “blue water” effort that destroyed the LTTE merchant fleet on the high seas. An air defense grid secured critical infrastructure even as an air campaign sought out and destroyed LTTE air arm facilities and planes. An increasingly formidable ground component was officered by a cadre promoted consequent to battlefield competence.

    At the end of several years, compressed to its “Stalingrad,” LTTE sought to use human shields and Diaspora/advocacy-group mobilization (particularly in the EU and Canada, but also in the US) to create a situation that would demand international intervention as per Bosnia or Kosovo. Framing the final battle as “genocide” and constructing a narrative of slaughter (illustrated by images of human suffering) was central to this campaign. It was unsuccessful in redeeming a tactically hopeless situation, but the “collateral damage” remains at the heart of the critique of Sri Lankan victory and continues to poison EU and American relations with Colombo.

    If what occurred has (as the Ambassador and I agree) little to do with COIN, it does have a great deal to do with how irregular warfare is to be conducted in the human and geographic spaces of the 21st Century.

    At the heart of any analysis of the Sri Lankan conflict are the same issues dealt with so poorly in the flawed Goldstone Report (which purports to demonstrate Israeli disregard of international law and attendant war crimes in Gaza): how can a state defend itself strategically in the face of tactical assault tangibly, on the ground by armed groups, and intangibly, on the virtual fields of legitimacy and the mind? Have we reached a point where tactical and non-contextual application of an increasingly anachronistic and dysfunctional “laws of war” regime denies to the state the right of self-defense?

    Dr Thomas A. Marks is head of the War and Conflict Studies Department at CISA/NDU and reported extensively on the Sri Lankan conflict as a journalist.

  3. Thanks to Dr. Marks for his comments. I apologize for any misrepresentations or inaccuracies in the historical background of the article – I socialized it heavily with people who had direct experience in Sri Lanka both from personal contacts and on the Warlord Loop, and those comments did not appear. The errors are obviously mine.

    To the central point, I think we are in violent agreement and/or talking past each other. I concur that the conflict has limited COIN lessons, and is problematic to be characterized as an insurgency.

    The larger point is that Sri Lanka’s government itself has characterized its efforts as COIN, and more importantly the “cointra” crowd have seized on the conflict as a foil for our counterinsurgency doctrine, employing it whenever needed to show that “brutality works”. The point of my article was simply to show the multifaceted (mostly conventional)reasons for the LTTE’s collapse in article-length form for the non-Sri Lankan expert crowd, which no one had done to present. To any errors I apologize and plead guilty, but I do not shy from the central premise of the article, which was that the campaign was far more complex than the arguments the “cointras” use it for.

    Expanding, the larger lesson is that to defeat an irregular enemy you must isolate him militarily, physically, and morally, which was relatively easy for the island nation of Sri Lanka. Doing so in land-locked Iraq (mostly) and Afghanistan is a far more daunting challenge.

    I thank the above for their comments, and appreciate their insight. Hopefully they can expand upon my writing and improve our picture of what actually occurred in Sri Lanka, of which there is little written in the west outside of think tank and human rights reports.

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  1. Dr.Easwaran

    “but intra-Sri Lanka Tamil divisions proved a game-changer, when disgruntled Batticaloa Tamils broke with the Jaffna-Tamil dominated LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) and enlisted on the government side. There followed the clearing first of the Eastern Province, then the systematic reduction of the North”

    The game change was not due to the [disgruntled ….] But the LTTE commander for Batticaloa was made to become Selfish &Greedy by Indian Intelligence(RAW) aided and abetted by Mr.RW with very large sum of cash and to live in a foreign land. wine and women offered lavishly during the peace talks held in various cities he was representing the Batticaloa Tamils. He made his unit to fall into the Trap laid by Mr. Ranil Wickramasinghe then PM. ( Divide and Rule).
    In honesty LTTE declared a cease fire in December 2000, But President Chandrika-B and then her SLFP government did not accept, But again in December 2001; once again Cease fire was called by LTTE asking the new parliament to negotiate for a political settlement, Mr.RW agreed with his ‘cunning plan’, outwardly he wanted to build the shattered economy of the country. His first mission, Soon after CFA was seeking the help from USA for guarantee of a ‘safety net zone’ around the Island. this was made to happen by USA, by getting India to endorse it. India readily obliged USA, as India had a hidden agenda to finish off the LTTE to prevent separatism, second revenge for the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991.As the Peace talks under went the rug was pulled under LTTE’S feet by USA. Norway was passive onlooker as the mediator for peace. Batticaloa unit of LTTE broke away in 2004, leader was given a safe haven in Colombo. Mr.RW lost his ministers and then his position as PM. new elections and by December 2005 New President. This president bought his position by Paying LTTE a large sum of money to keep Tamils to stayed away from voting at this election. Mr.RW lost Mr.MR won by a small margin. The West blamed the LTTE to this result where their blue eyed boy lost. This was an ‘Unfortunate gamble by LTTE’ for its own demise.
    Much Misinformation’s and maliciously powerful propaganda by GoSL using the big PR companies in UK&USA. and used the ‘new world order after 9/11’ was able to use the West, Israel, India, Pakistan and China to help to demolish the weakened LTTE( many Combatants were decommissioned soon after the CFA-Peace talks.2002-2005, genuinely thinking war was over, break away of Batticaloa unit). & ( Funds for LTTE cut off by banning it in the West, 7 shipments for LTTE was blown within the safety net zone, man power reduction in final stages of war with few trained combatants rest were made up of ‘ragtag men and women’]. Against 20 odd countries who helped GoSL with money, mercenaries from west, radar equipment’s from India, Phosphorous cluster bombs and Pilots from Pakistan, Heavy weapons from USA, China, UK. Thus, winning the war with SL 230,000 forces against 10,000 LTTE trained and untrained carders was of no match. The West with the paranoia on ‘war on terror’, planned and experimented the ‘counter insurgency tactics’. The present state is due to the ‘Mind set’ of the majoritarian Sinhala people based on Mahavamsa chronicle. A calculated genocide on Tamils to eliminate the Tamil history, Identity to help create a mono ethnic mono religious country. the myth behind is based on the three visit by Buddha asking the people to preserve the Island as a Sinhala Buddhist. There was no Buddhism as a religion till 200 years after death of Buddha. He was a Hindu. Secondly there was no Sinhala language before 8th century AD. Buddha had supposed to have lived before 2600 years ago. Sinhala language was made up of Pali, Elu and Tamil. Grammer for the language was written by a Tamil. Buddhism as a religion was spread in the East Asia by King Asoka of India around 142 BC. Most Sinhalese have similar DNA as Tamils. Their ancestors and the Tamils are same. If we accept the story of Vijeya and his followers of 700 men and they marrying the women from Madurai in South India. Tamils in Srilanka want back their sovereignty lost to Portuguese in 1621. British who amalgamated the three kingdoms for their administrative ease and made Tamils a minority in the Island as a whole but majority in the North east. The present land grab, colonisation schemes and Sinhalisation with militarisation is to change the demography and eliminate the Tamils. West USA & UK should understand that this war was not counter insurgency but a GENOCIDAL war to which this 20 countries had been complicit,