Understanding Sri Lanka’s Defeat of the Tamil Tigers

by Niel A. Smith, 'Joint Forces Quarterly,' Washington, DC, No. 59, 4th Quarter, 2010

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.
17 Bell.
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.
21 Magnier.
22 Shashikumar.
23 Tim Fish, “Sri Lanka Learns to Counter Sea Tigers’ Swarm Tactics,” Jane’s Navy International (March 2009), 20–25.
24 Sengupta.
25 Ibid.
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.



by Niel Smith (not verified) | September 7, 2010 – 1:35am

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.

by Ken White (not verified) | September 6, 2010 – 1:16pm
Quote of the Week nomination:

“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.

by Bill M. | September 6, 2010 – 12:10pm


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.

by JasonT | September 5, 2010 – 8:01pm


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)

by Bill M. | September 5, 2010 – 5:44pm

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.

by Bob’s World | September 5, 2010 – 8:36am

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.

by John Christopher (not verified) | September 5, 2010 – 7:32am

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.

by saintsimon (not verified) | September 5, 2010 – 7:31am

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.

by JasonT | September 5, 2010 – 5:15am

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.

by Niel Smith (not verified) | September 4, 2010 – 8:06pm

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.

by Jonny (not verified) | September 4, 2010 – 6:06pm

“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.

by Marzipan (not verified) | September 4, 2010 – 2:58pm

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.


 by carl | September 21, 2009 – 11:36pm

We’ll have to disagree about the term “small wars”. I like it because it avoids all the arguing about which label is correct, COIN, foreign internal defense, pacification and on. It is a war and it isn’t all that big and every one is a little different from the last, but maybe a little the same too. It was good enough for the Marines who wrote the book. I don’t see why the term precludes a determination to prevail. We wouldn’t get involved in these things if they didn’t seem to have some importance at the time.

What people where hate us?

I don’t think our involvement per se causes these conflicts to be long and frustrating. That is the nature of these small wars. They may seem to be “forever wars”, but they’re not. The one in El Salvador ended, as did the one in the Philippines as did the one in Nicaragua.

The poor Afghans have been at it for a long time but I would suggest that isn’t because of our being involved. It is primarily one more bit of poison thrown into the well of the world by the USSR. We are at fault because we didn’t stay involved as we should have after the Soviets left and because we didn’t get involved enough soon enough after 2001. The only chance they have is if we stay involved and get it right. If we left them to sort it out for themselves, it never would because the Pakistani Army doesn’t want it to.

The problem with giving “Nation-States fighting for their survival” a partial pass on complying with the laws of war is that if you formalize that exemption every minor frustration will turn into a fight for survival. It would be very bad.

by Anonymous | September 21, 2009 – 8:57pm


To set the record the straight, I’m not arguing that Americans should violate the laws of war, I’m arguing that these rules don’t apply equally to Nation-States fighting for their survival. I’m also arguing that we need to get out of the way sometimes and let the combatants bring the fight to a conclusion. What you see as kind and humane, I see as pure hypocrisy. First, I don’t like the term small wars because what it implies is that this is a secondary effort and we can muddle around in this type of conflict for years and it doesn’t matter that much if we achieve our objective in the end, because it is only a small war. I know some will react harshly to this statement, but I think history supports it. This leads to the hypocrisy in your argument, and that is your way of war leads to “forever wars”, and while “our” commitment as a nation may be relatively small, that isn’t true for the citizens of the countries where the fighting is taking place. It might be worth thinking about about why the people there hate us so much. Perhaps part of the reason is that we facilitate wars with no end, and as a result we in effect destroy cultures and in their stead create warrior cultures that know nothing but war. If they were left to their own to fight the war to a conclusion; then in many cases the conflict would be brought to a conclusion (but not in accordance with “our” rules).

Shifting gears slightly, the legitimacy argument made sense during the cold war when two foreign governments were fighting for influence over a select population, but that isn’t the war we’re fighting today. There is another dynamic at play, and if we continue to force others to fight by our rules, they will suffer conflict endlessly. This is obviously just an opinion, one that I think has much truth to it in some conflicts (it is not universally applicable, nor or our rules).

Bill M

by Major Scarlet (not verified) | September 18, 2009 – 4:38pm

yes.. SMJ.. we should ignore a tactic that is successful and continue our losing methodologies. let’s let our enemy drain our national treasure, degrade our military personnel, and draw out the conflict for years on end giving our enemies propaganda machine every chance to beat us down. what could possibly go wrong with that approach? Oh.. wait.. i think that was Vietnam. Let’s continue our losing approach. Let’s continue to not learn from our mistakes and ignoring working solutions. It’s a fine tradition.

by carl | September 5, 2009 – 10:36am


I don’t believe Americans are so naive as you think. I think ethical behavior and kindliness when possible REDUCE the level of hatred. They don’t eliminate it, they make it less strong. That is important. After the Civil War hatreds persisted, true. But they did fade and I think it took rather less than 100 years. In any case these hatreds did not result in widespread guerrilla warfare to the point that it threatened federal authority in the South as a whole. My take on Grant’s comment was that if the war had continued the hatreds never would have faded, ever.

War is indeed ugly, but it doesn’t have to make the people involved in it just as ugly. That is one of the points of the various rules of war, in addition to reducing the suffering of innocents to the extent possible. I think you are presenting a false alternative; on the one hand, violence unbridled and victory vs. civilized restraint and defeat. I don’t accept that and I think the military history of the English speaking peoples over the last 100 years or so bears that out.

Because a government is under siege is no excuse for “anything goes”. The Rwandan gov. felt itself under siege in 1994, the politburo felt itself threatened when it caused the Great Famine, etc. etc. In any event we, the Americans, are not under siege or immediate existential threat in any of our small war venues.

I just finished Brandon Friedman’s book and in it he tells of some Iraqi detainees who shivering with fright because they thought they were going to be shot. One of his Sergeants said “Execute you? Naw way, man,””We’re Americans.””We don’t do that s—.” I would like to keep it that way.

by Anonymous | September 5, 2009 – 2:25am
Carl, no disrespect intended, but I strongly disagree with your positions. Americans have this naive view on war that if they’re ethical and kind that somehow it will resolve all the hatred. I don’t think it stands up to the reality test, or to a historic review. Using your reference on our Civil War the hatred did continue for close to a 100 years, and there was substantial violence long after the war ended. If the nature of the conflict is based on hatred, or evolves to a conflict based on hatred, that will always be the case. I agree with Lugo, and will add that if it is “worth” going to war, then it is worth winning it. War is terribly ugly and that will never change, to pretend otherwise is a good way to lead your army to defeat.

It is also a matter of where you sit, and if you are the Government under seige and in grave danger you’ll take the necessary actions to win, or your nation (in it’s current state) will fail. Bill

by carl | September 5, 2009 – 12:02am

One of the problems with the “ruthless” approach, even when it works in the short term, is that it can create in the defeated people an anger so great that it goes on for generations; Chechnya and Ireland come to mind. In the case of our Civil War, Grant observed we were very lucky it ended when it did. He thought that if it had gone on for another year, the hatreds would have been so strong they never would have dissipated. A “ruthless” approach perpetrated by strangers from beyond the sea would exacerbate this.

Regarding Lugo’s comments:
Winning is of course one of our values, but how victory is achieved is, or should be, just as important. IF we could terrorize every Pathan in the world into submission by being ruthless, that in itself would compromise our values. We couldn’t do that unless we fundamentally changed our national character. I don’t want to do that.

“We don’t want to be like Stalin.” is a very convincing argument to me. Stalin is in the running for the greatest mass murderer in the history of the world. He really did kill them all and let God sort them out. It wasn’t pretty, it was hell for hundreds of millions. I don’t want to be like that.

The Israelis have had 3 generations to demonstrate that life as a subject in their little empire is superior to that in adjacent Arab police states. They haven’t been able to do it. I sometimes think a simple rule for some kinds of small wars is don’t do anything the Israelis do. In any event, the they can only brute up so far since we pay the bills and won’t stand for it.

by Lugo (not verified) | September 3, 2009 – 8:54am

Of course, acting like totalitarian regimes is completely inconsistent with our values,

So is winning one of our values? If not, why not? We may also observe that non-totalitarian regimes, including the US, have used ruthless methods in the past to quash insurgencies without compromising their values.

It should be remembered that two of the most successful examples of the “ruthless” approach were led by the likes of Josef Stalin and Saddam Hussein, examples of which are not mentioned in this brief post.

So what? I don’t find the “we can’t do that because we’d be just like Stalin!” argument very convincing.

One more thing to take into consideration, many times the “ruthless” approach requires the forced resettlement of large populations,

So? What’s the problem? Forced resettlements are a proven method of prophylaxis against insurgency.

as well as the maintaining of a relatively large and brutal garrison for an indefinite period of time- perhaps best illustrated by the Israeli experience of the past six decades.

The Israelis have had to maintain a garrison for a long period not because they were too brutal, but because they were not brutal enough.

The current US doctrine is aimed at Kilcullen’s Accidental Guerillas; the doctrine of ruthless violence is aimed at those irreconcilably committed to violence.

This is a false dichotomy.

by PhilR | August 30, 2009 – 8:07pm

I certainly can’t speak with any authority or background on the Sri Lanka fight, the LTTE, or the Indian Defence publication. I would note that the actual link to this article is not from the publication itself, but the official Sri Lanka government website. I can only assume that, even if its not an accurate description of the operational design used, it is the a version that the Sri Lankan government and military want to publicize.

Phil Ridderhof USMC

by Sam Fernando (not verified) | August 30, 2009 – 12:50pm

I’m sorry but the Indian Defence publication is nothing to base your views on how the Tigers were defeated. I have read the publication in the past and most everything is based on hear-say and fabrication.

There are others who live in Sri Lanka and catlouged this war for a long time. Maybe you guys should read the following article:


To understand the significance of the military victory one must first try and grasp the fact that the LTTE was not a small rebel movement fighting against a huge sophisticated army.

The LTTE armoury exceeded $40 million USD. Two years ago it’s collective wealth and cash at hand was widely acknowledge to be over $900 Million USD.

The Tigers had in their possession a fleet of freight liners for international arms smuggling. It had a full fledged naval force terrorising the coast of Sri Lanka causing headaches to both the Indian Navy and the Sri Lankan.

Their ground force exceeded 40,000 battled hardened cadres and thousands of civilians who received weapons training. The Suicide squad of the Black Tigers exploited the minds of impoverished women to blow themselves up for the ’cause’.

The LTTE was also the first armed insurgency cum terrorist organisation with an Air Wing.

The Tigers’ intelligence wing had even infiltrated the Sri Lankan Army. There is a common understanding amongst Sri Lankans that politicians too had received large sums of money to make decisions in favour of the LTTE.

The Tigers had control of Sri Lanka, a firm grip on the country. But not it’s people.

Despite the high cost of living and other day to day hardships, the people of Sri Lanka united to vote for Rajapakse’s goal towards complete eradication of the terrorist group and rebuilding from ground up thereafter. Rarely does a government have the backing of it’s people when it comes to war.

With that kind of firm faith placed in him, Rajapakse placed similar faith in his armed forces. Military spending in the ’09 budget was $1.7 billion, 5% of GDP & 20% of the government’s budget. Politicians were not allowed to meddle with military decision making.

To keep the masses from over reacting and to prevent fuelling the Tigers’ propaganda flame, all military casualty figures were kept from the public eye. The Bush administration has drawn stark criticism to the move in the US. The American public was disheartened that their government did not give them the chance to honour the dead. In Sri Lanka people understood the move because they understood the power of the Tigers’ propaganda wing.

The Sri Lankans drew up a battle plan which involved dismantling the LTTE’s funding sources, researching LTTE’s deep sea arms smuggling channels, and then taking out their freight liners.

Karuna Amman’s defection led to the LTTE losing the eastern province, with it went a valuable recruiting base and an important coast line.

The Sri Lankan army’s recruitment drive and beefing up the man power was significant in maintaining law and order in areas captured from the Tigers. This essentially meant the LTTE couldn’t retreat and come back to carry out guerrilla style hit and run attacks in these areas.

The LRRP or the Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol (aka DPU- Deep Penetration Unit) did something the military had never done before. The unit was essentially the Sri Lankan’s version of the US Army Rangers.

The LRRP Rangers were air dropped deep into enemy territory, into thick jungle terrain, where they spent weeks at a time gathering Intel on Tiger bases, the movement of their leaders and the positions of their anti-aircraft guns and artillery guns.

The Defence Ministry even highlighted a rescue mission carried out to rescue a squad of LRRP rangers who had been detected. See video below…

Full article:

by Tim Starr (not verified) | August 28, 2009 – 4:56pm

Hamas wins elections because it kills dissenters, not because it does a good job of protecting its subjects/hostages.

I see the two approaches as complementary, not contradictory, as they’re aimed at different targets. The current US doctrine is aimed at Kilcullen’s Accidental Guerillas; the doctrine of ruthless violence is aimed at those irreconcilably committed to violence.

The LTTE conflict lasted about 25 years, and for most of that time much effort was put into splitting off the accidental guerillas from the irreconcilables (e.g., getting Indian Tamils to turn against the LTTE because of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi). Only towards the very end were conditions ripe for a kinetic campaign against the irreconcilable remnant of the LTTE.

by Rigs (not verified) | August 27, 2009 – 3:24pm

Gulliver, your statement is true, but beyond my oversimplified first sentence which failed to capture additional intangibles of legitimacy such as the notion of ‘consent to govern’, I believe the rest still stands.

by Gulliver | August 27, 2009 – 2:26pm

Legitimacy is the effective delivery of public services and security.

No, I don’t think it is. Maybe we’re talking past one another here, but I’d say that legitimacy involves not only the provision of public goods, but acceptance by the ruled. This can be tied to identity or other factors beyond simple security, grievance, and so on.

A lack of security can call into question the legitimacy of a government, but the converse is not necessarily true: just because a government provides security (and other public goods) does not mean that it is legitimate. An ethnic minority, for example, may feel that its parent government is not suitably sensitive to the needs of the minority and thus is illegitimate.

by Rigs (not verified) | August 27, 2009 – 2:14pm

Gulliver said: I don’t think you’re alone in this. Does “legitimacy” necessarily encompass effective delivery of public goods, specifically security?

I mentioned it before on Abu Muqawama, but Stathis Kalyvas would likely argue that the provision on security is far more important to outcomes in counterinsurgency (or more broadly, civil governance) than perceived legitimacy.

Legitimacy is the effective delivery of public services and security. This is why Hamas wins elections. From a Western perspective they are as illigitimate as any of the myriad politico-terrorist movements in history, but they win in elections because their delivery of public services and rhetoric confers legitimacy from their constituents. They bring a semblance of procedural justice to an area otherwise devoid of it. They are able to provide basic security in the sense that they provide for dispute resolution and basic order, so they enjoy a good deal of support notwithstanding the fact they cannot protect against the IDF.

Onto my take on legitimacy; If the government trying to quell an insurgency enjoyed widespread legitimacy they would not be quelling an insurgency. The fact of the matter is that legitimacy is necessary for the economical execution of the type of COIN that is palatable to our moral sensibilities.Our operational choices will always be limited (and rightly so) by politics. ‘War is an extension of politics by other means,’ so it is only natural to limit the military by what is deemed acceptable by the government. The LTTE was put down in a manner that would be unacceptable to our government, so the discussion about whether or not we should employ such tactics is irrelevant. The ratio of kinetic v. non-kinetic missions can certainly be debated as the situation merits, but a policy that is tantamount to scorched earth should not be pursued by a nation that sits as high on its horse as the US.

I’ll expand on this for the writing contest.

by Gulliver | August 27, 2009 – 11:27am

but at least initially, I have doubts about notion that at the core of all insurgencies rests a legitimacy gap.

I don’t think you’re alone in this. Does “legitimacy” necessarily encompass effective delivery of public goods, specifically security?

I mentioned it before on Abu Muqawama, but Stathis Kalyvas would likely argue that the provision on security is far more important to outcomes in counterinsurgency (or more broadly, civil governance) than perceived legitimacy.

by Bernard Finel (not verified) | August 27, 2009 – 11:21am


Why just assume that the issue is purely semantic? Your example of “war” makes precisely my point. We don’t talk about “war” as a unified concept. It is always disaggregated — great power war, colonial war, limited war, etc. We further disaggregate it by time period — ancient war versus modern. We do this because their is little analytic value in the term “war.”

And I also don’t see the need for a slippery slope argument. Just because I wondered whether “insurgency” is a useful concept, doesn’t mean I think it impossible to typologize the various types of conflicts that we’ve chosen to put into that container.

I have to admit, I don’t have all the answers I’d like on any of this… but at least initially, I have doubts about notion that at the core of all insurgencies rests a legitimacy gap. And that is not a sematic issue, but a concern that cuts to the heart of the logic of 3-24.

by PhilR | August 27, 2009 – 10:49am

In the argument about “pop-centric COIN” and FM 3-24, I think we have to remember that military doctrine, like anything military, is based on a political foundations and carries political assumptions. While there may be many approaches to COIN, I believe that FM 3-24 expresses an approach that is well suited to who we are as a nation (or to gather together the western nations). This is not unique to COIN. Active Defense and Airland Battle doctrine were infused with the political limitation that we could not pull back to the Rhine and sacrifice West Germany in order to execute a mobile defense in depth.

If you go back to Galulas “Counterinsurgency Warfare” where the counter-insurgent needs to offer a “better idea” to the population than the insurgent, FM 3-24 is infused with our particular “better idea”-rule of law, some form or representative government, respect for human rights, etc. If you accept our assumptions of what a proper legitimate government is, then FM 3-24 is a COIN approach that appropriately translates our national values and character into military strategy and operations.

However, the problem, as has been pointed out, is that WE are not, or should not, be doing COIN. We are really supporting someone elses COIN fight. For better or worse, when we instruct/advise/partner with a host nation in terms of FM 3-24 (as exemplified in GEN McCrystals recent guidance:http://smallwarsjournal.com/blog/2009/08/isaf-counterinsurgency-guidanc/) , we are implicitly advising them to a certain political solution also–one that may or may not be in the nature of their culture or society. That is where I believe the real rub resides. There are two “objectives” in our current campaigns–we are trying to build and influence the host government to a certain point while simultaneously addressing that governments insurgent adversary.

As I stated in my comment on the ISAF guidance, left to their own devices, the Afghan government may prefer something closer to the Sri Lankan model, or some other model, because it better fits the ultimate political solution they will be left with.

by Gulliver | August 27, 2009 – 10:38am

Bernard — If the concept of “insurgency” did not already exist, I am not wholly sure that we would believe, for instance, that Vietnam and Malaya were comparable.

I take your point, but I’m not sure how useful it is if we’re just talking about semantic disambiguation. After all, if the concept of “war” did not already exist, would be believe that Afghanistan and Sri Lanka were comparable? Or Vietnam and WW II?

At a certain point, all this terminology generalizes the the point of abstraction and inutility. But you can’t write doctrine for each specific conflict — that defies the very meaning of “doctrine.”

by Bernard Finel (not verified) | August 27, 2009 – 10:30am

Gulliver: I must have misspoken (miswritten?). My point was not about the approaches that might be useful in different contexts. That is already part of the doctrine — the need to adapt to local conditions.

I am making a bigger point which is that “insurgency” is a flawed concept. Not a useless concept, but flawed. There myriad consequences of coming to that conclusions.

The logic of current doctrine forces one to lump together vastly dissimilar cases. In the social sciences, we refer to the problem as one of “concept misformation.”

If the concept of “insurgency” did not already exist, I am not wholly sure that we would believe, for instance, that Vietnam and Malaya were comparable.

by Gulliver | August 27, 2009 – 9:37am

Bernard — I don’t think there’s any question that the approaches that may be successful against an ethnic separatist movement (or largely ethnically-determined insurgency, which I would distinguish in the sense that the former intends to create a new polity while the latter wishes to control the current one) are quite different than those more suited to counterinsurgency in a more homogenous environment. A comparison of Malaya and Vietnam is probably useful here.

by Danny | August 27, 2009 – 9:28am
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True enough. These issues are complicated aren’t they – which means that it’s difficult to lift one element out of the mix and call it determinative?

by Bernard Finel (not verified) | August 27, 2009 – 9:27am

There is an important insight in noting that different insurgencies may require (or be susceptible) to different COIN concepts. But I think we need to apply that argument with some degree of consistency.

Pop-centric COIN is not perceived as a second best model — i.e. that we only do it because the more ruthless models go against our values. It is perceived as the most effective response to the problem of “insurgency” which is itself assumed to be a function of gaps in “legitimacy.”

If this the Sri Lankan model can work in the cases of domestic insurgencies with no safe havens and no concerns about international opinion, does that imply that under those conditions “legitimacy” is irrelevant? Is the nature of the insurgency different, or it is just different by virtue of its context and terrain?

What, in short, does this say about our underlying diagnosis of the problem? My suspicion is that the answer is that the conception of “insurgency” at the core of 3-24 is probably too narrow, and that the phenomena exists in more forms than we mostly believe. And that furthermore, these forms are not just epiphenomenal manifestations of different contextual variables, but rather reflect different pathways toward to establishment of insurgencies.

by SWJED (not verified) | August 27, 2009 – 9:14am

When looking at the Soviet experience in AF let’s not discount the effects of “Charlie Wilson’s War” and, then as now, the Pakistan safe-haven. External support is a bugaboo no matter how population- or enemy-centric you want to go.

by Danny | August 27, 2009 – 9:05am

Niel, I’m not commenting on the thesis of the article, but only one aspect of it. I’m not convinced that the ruthlessness of the Russian campaign in Afghanistan, for better or worse, is what lost it for them. Rather, I think their ruthlessness was more accidental to the loss rather than essential to it, to use an Aristotelian term.

I think that other things were essential to the loss, including [a] focus on the cities v. the countryside, [b] complete breakdown of the lines of logistics due to [a] above, [c] heavy losses because of Taliban control over the roads due to [a] above, [d] focus on mounted combat and mounted patrols as opposed to dismounted operations, [e] women in combat billets which led to a high number of lower extremity injuries and a high number of combat ineffective units, and a whole host of other things.

by Rob Thornton (not verified) | August 27, 2009 – 8:26am

Its a good question and raises the issue of tension between our efforts (ends, ways and means) to achieve a political objective and what the government of Xs (who we are supporting) efforts to achieve a political objective are. There are issues of what is tolerable, acceptable, feasible etc., but there are also issues of how this tension shapes our operational approach. Should it be the supported governments plan ultimately since they ultimately have to be the ones to carry it out and implement it if/when we reduce our support to more acceptable levels? Should this factor into our thinking on the “how” or even the “should we” if we cant reconcile the two?

If we build our operational approach and the C2 structures and organizations that come from it outside of the idea that the government facing the insurgency must ultimately be the one who carries it forward do we create a COIN plan that cannot be carried out by that government without us being there? Do we create a dependence that is so great it falls apart when we diminish our support and withdraw the bulk of our military forces? If our approach and all of its subordinate LOEs/LLOOs dont consider the political context of the environment in which the supported governments COIN efforts must be carried out are we really supporting their political objectives or just our own?

There is probably a balance to be struck just as there is with respect to tolerable outcomes, but its one that has to be managed closely for all the reasons you bring up.

Best, Rob

by SWJED (not verified) | August 27, 2009 – 7:48am

Here is a link to The SWORD Model of Counterinsurgency by John T. Fishel and Max G. Manwaring here at Small Wars Journal.

by John T. Fishel | August 27, 2009 – 7:27am

As others have pointed out, the success or failure of a “ruthless” approach depends on the type of insuregency the govt is facing. For the US, the classic success story of “ruthless COIN” is the US Civil War. Key charateristics were that it was a sectional conflict, no external sanctuary, and like the Tamil tigers, the Rebs had created a “state.” So, in cases like this, the ruthless approach to fighting a war ie the conventional American Way of War is largely appropriate.
However, even such population centric COIN theorist/practitioners as Sir Robert Thompson have recognized the utility of ruthlessness as when he argues that once the insurgents have established an effective organization it is essential for the counterinsurgents to build a better organization to seek out and destroy the insurgent organization.
In the classic case of Algeria – where Galula, Trinquier, and Ausuresses cut their teeth and developed their theories – the French successfully employed a ruthless strategy (with some important population centric components) that defeated the FLN in both their urban and rural strongholds. What the French could not do was successfully attack the FLN’s external sanctuaries or win the war in the international community and in France itself.
In short, no COIN effort is purely internal. Both a metropolitan and an international strategy must be followed along with one that addresses the insurgents themselves. To return to the Civil War example, the Union could only neutralize British and French realist sympathy for the confederacy by emanicipation and that could only be done when a significant majority of the Northern public was willing to accept it. As an aside, note that the traitorous Ohio congressman, Valandigham (sp?) was not tried for treason but rather shipped South unceremoniously – to have been “ruthless” would have cost Lincoln important support in the North. Finally, no effective COIN strategy is purely enemy or population centric. (Consider the table in Max Manwaring and my article, “The SWORD Model of Counterinsurgency” where we compare enemy centric and population centric strategies, published in the Journal last year.)

by PhilR | August 27, 2009 – 7:15am

Since I brought this up as a point of comparison, I’ll now back-track my thoughts somewhat. As Bill Moore indicates, the Sri Lanka conflict was very much a “war of movement”, as at least as it was described in its recent phase.

Taking Mao’s theory of moving from guerilla war into a war of movement–where the two sides begin looking very much alike (a governing mechanism, armed forces, defined territory, etc.), Does our COIN framework of analysis even fit here? Is FM 3-24/MCWP 3-33.5 the correct lens? Why aren’t we talking FM 3-0 Operations, or for Marines, MCDP 1 Warfighting, or MCDP 1-0 Marine Corps Operations (or I suppose JP 3-0 Joint Operations)? As I related in my comment on the “Remembering What We Mis-Learned in Bosnia”, if we make the comparison too quickly, we run the risk of applying the incorrect doctrine and thinking to the problem (http://smallwarsjournal.com/blog/2009/08/remembering-what-we-mislearned/…).

In terms of ruthlessness, I’m not sure if we’re reading too much into the Sri Lanka principles. What I see is political focus and determination. Obviously, the endgame of this phase was very bloody for civilians. However, I relate this more to a situation like the plight of civilians in any modern urban fight (Seoul, Manila, Arnhem) than the challenges of targeting individual compounds in Afghanistan. Ive been troubled by the popularization of Rupert Smiths “war among the peoples” as something wholly distinct from what we have done before in larger “conventional” wars. Its always been about politics and its always been among the people. An organized and uniformed army is as much an expression of popular will as an insurgent group is.

It seems that the main difference in approach is where we used to talk of breaking an enemys will to resist (people, armed force and government), we now talk of persuading them not to resist. There could be a fine line between these two. Im not sure that the “tribal revolt” in Iraq didnt have more to do with years of conflict that ultimately broke their will and made them open to our persuasion than pure “protection of the population”. Our own US Civil War gives a good framework of the “hard hand of war” approach.

by Bill Moore (not verified) | August 27, 2009 – 3:40am

Simply sharing some thoughts. I’m not taking a stand on Sri Lanka’s emerging doctrine, because you can’t weigh the pro’s and con’s generically, rather you have to apply it to a specific insurgency to assess whether or not we think it would be effective. However, it appears to have worked in Sri Lanka, but the jury is still out on whether they truly resolved the conflict or simply beat it back into a war of low level insurgency again (versus the war of movement that it had evolved to).

While Carl may be correct that Sri Lanka’s approach is not acceptable to Western powers based on our cultural values, that doesn’t mean the strategy is ineffective. We have to separate our thoughts about it morally from the actual effect. Carl pointed out that the LTTE didn’t have a safehaven that bordered Sri Lanka, but assuming they did, then in theory you would extend your operations into that safehaven with the same level of aggressiveness to crush the enemy, assuming you were prepared to take on the state providing that safehaven and you were prepared disregard international opinion.

We tend to interpret population centric as winning the hearts of the local populace, but tend to forget the insurgency is part of the populace, so isolating the insurgents in many cases is a major challenge, and if you’re dealing with a hostile populace, then you may have to use coercion to establish your position. This is still population centric, since the objective/focus of your operations is still the populace. We sometimes forget this is not a humanitarian operation but warfare. Of course those of us with western values are generally repulsed at the thought of this, but again that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work.

Any comparison between the success and failure of other conflicts is unfair due to numerous variables that shape the context of any particular war or warfare scenario, but if you view WWII as “total war”, where we waged war against each others’ militaries, economic capacity, civilian populations, etc., then the same principles apply. We waged war against Germany and Japan, not just their militaries. We didn’t drop the bomb surgically on a military base, and the fire bombing campaigns in both Germany and Japan was aimed at breaking the targeted nations’ will.

While our COIN doctrine may be appropriate to our western sensibilities, it is still largely theory with little grounding in the historical record. Furthermore, just because it is appropriate to our values does not mean it is an appropriate strategy to defeat an insurgency.

If I was a national leader in a developing nation struggling with a serious insurgency and I was looking for a model to ensure national survival I’m not so sure I wouldn’t lean toward Sri Lanka’s model instead of adopting U.S. doctrine.

Carl, I disagree with your comments on the 101st and 4th ID, because what you’re discussing is an episodic events versus a comprehensive strategy focused on using the stick on the populace. Additionally, the high value target (head hunting) approach isn’t population centric or enemy centric, it is individual centric, in other words it is too weak to have a real effect, you have to kill the leaders and foot soldiers with equal zeal to break their will collectively.

If there were easy answers we would have solved this problem a long time ago. Bottom line concur that Sri Lanka’s approach can’t be our approach, but that doesn’t mean it can’t work.

by Mark Pyruz | August 27, 2009 – 3:09am

Carl, I would just point out that probably the majority of Native American wars were actually expansionist in nature, rather than counterinsurgencies. As such, they represented a “ruthless” approach more comparable to that which was later adopted by the Germans, in their expansion east into Poland and later the Soviet Union. (At the Nuremberg Trials, certain German defendants admitted that aspects of their war policy were derived from the American westward experience.)

It should be remembered that two of the most successful examples of the “ruthless” approach were led by the likes of Josef Stalin and Saddam Hussein, examples of which are not mentioned in this brief post.

One more thing to take into consideration, many times the “ruthless” approach requires the forced resettlement of large populations, as well as the maintaining of a relatively large and brutal garrison for an indefinite period of time- perhaps best illustrated by the Israeli experience of the past six decades.

by Starbuck (not verified) | August 27, 2009 – 3:00am

I examined this a few months back after Kings of War tackled this very issue.

Even Galula doesn’t disagree with the brute force approach to counterinsurgency in certain situations. Particularly when insurgencies are nascent, totalitarian regimes can easily suppress them through mass arrests.

Of course, acting like totalitarian regimes is completely inconsistent with our values, and can have a penchant to backfire in the strategic sense if we practiced it. No one protests when the Russians use brute fore to suppress insurgency in Chechnya because, let’s face it, they’re the Russians.

by carl | August 27, 2009 – 1:21am

It is interesting that all the successful “ruthless” campaigns cited were conducted by countries suppressing internal insurgencies with their own armed forces. These insurgencies didn’t have any real sanctuaries either. The unsuccessful “ruthless” campaign was a foreign force helping a weak government opposed by insurgents who had a sanctuary.

We are presently involved in small wars as foreign forces helping weak governments. Almost all of the small wars we have been in for the past 100 years have fit this pattern. In Afghanistan the insurgents still have their sanctuary.

So apart from the extremely, fundamentally important humanitarian considerations, the “ruthless” method just doesn’t appear to work in the types of conflicts we are involved in. It seems to me also that we, in essence, ran some small scale experiments confirming this with the approaches of the 101st Air Assault and 4th Infantry Divisions during their initial deployments to Iraq.

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