West Point: The Taming of the Tigers

Modern War InstituteAn MWI Contemporary Battlefield Assessment of the Counterinsurgency in Sri Lanka

by Lionel Beehner, Liam Collins, Steven Ferenzi, Mike Jackson, Modern War Institute at West Point, New York, USA, April 2017


Executive Summary
This report examines one of the few militarily successful counterinsurgencies of the modern era: The
1983–2009 war against the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka. We find that under select conditions, the application
of brute force to isolate and kill off the senior leadership of an insurgency can lead to a decisive military
victory and prevent a recidivism to violence. This report also argues that Sri Lanka’s military “learned”
over the course of the three-decade war, and that by the final phase from 2005 to 2009, it was successful
in updating its force structure, splitting the opposition, and using small-unit tactics to exploit the Tigers’
control of territory and decision to fight conventionally after 2005. The Tigers applied “hybrid-warfare”
techniques, at times fighting a guerrilla war, carrying out terrorism strikes including suicide bombs, and
deploying a conventional army, navy, and rudimentary air force. Over the course of two weeks in July–
August 2016, a team of cadets and faculty from the United States Military Academy at West Point toured
the battlefields of northern and eastern Sri Lanka, studying the terrain and tactics of fighters on both sides
of the conflict, and interviewing scores of military leaders, Tamil opposition figures, journalists, activists,
and victims of the civil war. The key findings of the report:

 Non-expeditionary counterinsurgency that brings overwhelming force to bear can decisively
defeat an insurgency, provided or one or more necessary conditions are met.
1. The presence of overwhelming public support for a military solution
2. The ability to minimize the influence of the international community
3. Terrain that favors such types of counterinsurgencies (e.g., an island or peninsula).

 Counterinsurgents must exploit ceasefires as brief pauses in fighting to provide space to update
their force structure, strategy, and doctrine. In the case of the Sri Lanka Army (SLA), forces
became smaller and more flexible, provided greater command at the field-officer level, and
acquired greater human intelligence, which allowed the SLA to effectively split the Tamil Tigers
in 2005.

 “Winning the peace” and preventing a return to war require greater attention to reconciliation,
rebuilding of war-ravaged areas, rehabilitation of ex-fighters, and resettlement of victims
displaced by war, among other items.

 In modern warfare it is difficult for countries to win a counterinsurgency if they follow
international norms.

Section VI: Conclusion
In this report, we explored the case of Sri Lanka’s violent conclusion to its decades-long civil war
against the Tamil Tigers. The purpose of this Contemporary Battlefield Assessment is to critically examine
how a foreign military successfully brought about war termination in a modern counterinsurgency as well
as to analyze the many layers of this conflict—including both side’s force structures, the role and utility of
ceasefires, the splitting of insurgent groups, the postwar effort (or lack thereof) at reconciliation and
rebuilding, and the decision to employ indiscriminate violence against non-combatants. We identify a
number of lessons from this war—tactical, operational, and strategic—on how to bring about successful
conflict resolution, as well as identify a set of conditions under which overwhelming military force can be
applied to defeat modern and more sophisticated insurgencies.

Observed from a purely operational military standpoint, the takeaway from this Contemporary
Battlefield Assessment is that under a very narrow and perhaps un-replicable set of conditions, the use of
overwhelming force can successfully defeat an insurgency. The violent crescendo of Sri Lanka’s war in
2009 supports the argument that counterinsurgency is fundamentally a form of state-building, brutal,
violent, and requiring unflinching public support, and the outcome of even a military victory can lead to
what some scholars call an “ugly stability.”

179 The GoSL “put military might over hearts and minds,” as one
expert we spoke to put it. Further, this case appears to uphold the argument that a decisive military victory
rather than a negotiated settlement can achieve a more durable peace. However, as this report and the
evidence we collected document, the war in Sri Lanka is a complex case, and the facts regarding the
conduct of the war’s final phase will be debated by international human rights lawyers for decades. It
should be re-emphasized that greater attention is required to “win the peace,” including more resources
and political capital devoted to transitional justice, postwar reconciliation, and power-sharing, or else
states risk a relapse into war. Again, this report is in no way a validation of the type of counterinsurgency
employed by the GoSL. Rather, the aim of this report is to provide a set of guidelines, lessons learned, and
pitfalls to avoid as US COIN doctrine and strategy continue to evolve in the twenty-first century.


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