“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