Ilankai Tamil Sangam

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

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Drying Out the Insurgency

by A.C. Grayling, London, The New York Times op-ed

Based on the anti-insurgency strategy developed by the British, the Sri Lankan government has made several mistakes. The main one has been to indiscriminately target civilians, in bombing and shelling, round-ups, disappearances, etc. Second, once large segments of the population are moved away from their homes, they are not treated well, but left to moulder in 'welfare camps' in Vavuniya, ghettos in Colombo, the militarized limbo of Jaffna, etc. A blockade has been tried, but the area held was too big and agricultural (and sea access possible) for it to be truly effective.

These mistakes, in some ways, have to do with the essence of the war. At a deep level, the point of the war is to target and impoverish the civilians of the NorthEast and to make the Tamils marginalized and irrelevent. Because targeting the population has not reached the level of wiping out the whole people, a vigorous insurgency has been the result. -- Editor

AS we saw in the recent offensive by American and Iraqi forces against insurgents near Samarra, the term "air assault" has taken on a new meaning in military parlance. It now indicates taking troops into action by helicopter, rather than the widespread and often indiscriminately destructive firing of missiles or dropping of bombs from aircraft.

Still, anti-insurgent operations often take place in urban areas, whose residents are as much at risk from ground weapons as they would be from bombers at high altitude. Thus one question that a watchful press should be asking of the American-led forces in Iraq is how carefully, and how successfully, they are applying the "doctrine of distinction" laid down in the laws of war, which requires that combatants be distinguished from noncombatants so that the latter can be protected.

The doctrine was devised by the military powers and international groups over the last half-decade in response to the systematic bombing of civilians in World War II. The principals of that strategy, which was then called "area bombing," were of course the British and American air forces, who between them killed a million civilians by carpet-bombing German and Japanese cities.

It took decades after the war before the deliberate aerial bombing of civilians was designated a war crime. Part of the reason for this slow response was, understandably, that the atrocities committed by the Axis powers were so vast that they overshadowed everything else, and people on the Allied side comforted themselves with the belief that defeating Nazism justified all the means used.

But as memories of the war faded, the stark immorality of deliberately massacring civilians could no longer be denied. In 1977 a protocol requiring militaries to distinguish between civilians and combatants was added to the Geneva Conventions. Britain is among the signatories; the United States has never ratified it. Still, America is careful to state that its forces always try to avoid "collateral damage."

But protecting civilians is hard to do when fighting an insurgency like Iraq's, in which combatants hide behind and take support from the civilian population. The very nature of insurgency seems to offer an irresolvable problem: the horrific example of World War II area bombing unarguably shows that the doctrine of distinction must be observed, yet the insurgents cynically use it as a shield.

Paradoxically, the solution is not to abandon the doctrine of distinction but to apply it with a vengeance. To see how, simply look at the considerable experience Britain acquired in policing a restive empire which, at its height, included a third of the world's population. The British learned the hard way, making some bitter mistakes en route. But the lesson was clear: drain the pond in which the insurgents swim.

In its most literal application, this strategy involved physically moving a civilian population from troubled areas into camps, which deprived insurgents of cover and support. It exacted a shamefully high cost the first time it was tried, in the Boer War, when many of the women and children gathered into "concentration camps" died of disease.

By the 1950's, however, with the communist insurgency in Malaya and the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya, British forces learned to do the same thing better. The camps into which the civilian population was "drained" were usually comfortable villages with good amenities and became an element of the hearts-and-minds aspect of the campaigns.

Of course, separating the civilians from the fighters ran in tandem with unrelenting military pressure on the latter, until the insurgents' circumstances became precarious enough for them to accept a political solution.

In Malaya the strategy involved moving half a million people from insurgent areas. Whether a similar approach is viable for Iraq's Sunni Triangle is a question best left to military experts; but the idea behind it — making life better for those who otherwise would give support to insurgents — is clearly one route to ending the insurgency.

A different tactic based on the British experience would be to cordon off the most toxic part of the Sunni Triangle, letting nobody in or out except under stringent controls at the perimeter, across which only food and medicine could move.

This is what the British did in Nairobi and other urban areas of Kenya in the 50's; the security forces screened everyone and everything coming in or out. The advantages were that supplies of weapons and fighters were choked in both directions, and the population inside the quarantine zone had to work out a better destiny for itself than perpetual war. The disadvantages of such a quarantine are that it might backfire by fueling resentments and that it involves a manpower-intensive effort of perimeter policing.

In the end, British colonial solutions to insurgency tended to involve aspects of both strategies. Once combatants and noncombatants had been separated, the civilians had to be kept quarantined from the fighters so that the contrasting methods of dealing with both — seduction of the latter, coercion of the former — could proceed effectively. But the aim was always realistic: Britain recognized that an insurgency cannot be defeated, only damped down and eventually ended through a political settlement.

This hard truth has to guide efforts in Iraq, the sooner the better. And in the meantime, the more effectively the doctrine of distinction is upheld — that is, the fewer civilian casualties suffered — the quicker that reconciliation will come and the more effective it will be.

A. C. Grayling is the author, most recently, of "Among the Dead Cities: The History and Moral Legacy of the W.W. II Bombing of Civilians in Germany and Japan."

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