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When Counterinsurgency Wins: Sri Lanka's Defeat of the Tamil Tigers

When Counterinsurgency Wins: Sri Lanka's Defeat of the Tamil Tigers

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When Counterinsurgency Wins: Sri Lanka's Defeat of the Tamil Tigers

414 pages
6 hours
May 28, 2013


For twenty-six years, civil war tore Sri Lanka apart. Despite numerous peace talks, cease-fires, and external military and diplomatic pressure, war raged on between the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and the Sinhala-dominated Sri Lankan government. Then, in 2009, the Sri Lankan military defeated the insurgents. The win was unequivocal, but the terms of victory were not. The first successful counterinsurgency campaign of the twenty-first century left the world with many questions. How did Sri Lanka ultimately win this seemingly intractable war? Will other nations facing insurgencies be able to adopt Sri Lanka's methods without encountering accusations of human rights violations?

Ahmed S. Hashim—who teaches national security strategy and helped craft the U.S. counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq—investigates those questions in the first book to analyze the final stage of the Sri Lankan civil war. When Counterinsurgency Wins traces the development of the counterinsurgency campaign in Sri Lanka from the early stages of the war to the later adaptations of the Sri Lankan government, leading up to the final campaign. The campaign itself is analyzed in terms of military strategy but is also given political and historical context—critical to comprehending the conditions that give rise to insurgent violence.

The tactics of the Tamil Tigers have been emulated by militant groups in Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somalia. Whether or not the Sri Lankan counterinsurgency campaign can or should be emulated in kind, the comprehensive, insightful coverage of When Counterinsurgency Wins holds vital lessons for strategists and students of security and defense.

May 28, 2013

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When Counterinsurgency Wins - Ahmed S. Hashim



The Sri Lankan War in Context

The Nature of the Conflict

What kind of conflict was the war in Sri Lanka? On the surface the answer is quite simple: it was a conflict between two ethnic and religious communities separated by what appeared to be vastly different cultures. The conflict emerged in the wake of rising Tamil ethnic separatism that stemmed from discrimination and violence at the hands of the entrenched power of the Sinhalese majority.¹ German sociologist Max Weber wrote that ethnic groups are those human groups that maintain a subjective belief in their common descent because of similarities of physical type or shared customs or both, or because of common memories. The belief itself is important for the propagation and sustaining of group formation; in this sense, it does not matter whether or not an objective blood relationship exists.

Ethnicity has been and continues to be a powerful force in the politics of many countries around the world, with profound effects on political legitimacy. However, there is very little agreement among academics on the causes of ethnic conflict in plural societies. Essentially, two sets of theories purport to explain the onset of ethnic violence. The primordialists argue that conflict between two ethnic groups A and B is inevitable because of unchanging, essential characteristics of the members of these categories. In particular, the primordialists suggest that ethnic violence results from antipathies and antagonisms that are enduring properties of ethnic groups.² In this context, the Sinhalese and Tamils of Ceylon were destined to conflict with each other because of palpable and manifest differences between them. The constructivist position rejects the notion of unchanging and essential characteristics. It argues that even if members of A and B are hostile to each other now, this need not be and has not been an eternal condition. Constructivism argues that ethnic animosity is constructed by circumstances, events, and political conditions.³ Ethnic animosity can contribute to ethnic conflict, and such conflicts are exceedingly difficult to resolve because the parties to such a conflict will have backed themselves into their respective corners of mutually exclusive nationalisms.⁴

The Sinhalese and Tamils clearly existed as distinct ethnic groups on the island in the past, but both crossed over from the Indian subcontinent centuries ago, and there has been intermarriage between the groups. Both groups recognized that they were different from each other: they worshipped differently, spoke different languages, and often looked different. And yet they have had periods of cooperation and of conflict. We should not impute too much to the ethnic factor in the past and conclude that the premodern period was one of either unalloyed conflict or cooperation.⁵ The evidence shows that sustained ethnic conflict was constructed over the course of modern history, as the two groups came into regular and sustained contact with each other and fought over scarce resources. With the spread of education and the mass media, both sides were able to effectively articulate their conflicting nationalist narratives. Colonial policies contributed enormously to the rise of ethnic discord. Four hundred years of colonial control of the island clearly had an impact on hitherto stable social structures. Two analysts who examined the various theories that purport to explain or account for ethnic violence in Sri Lanka summarize the arguments of those who blame colonialism as follows:

Colonialism’s divide and rule policies, census taking, and promotion of ethnic identities all enhanced (and sometimes even created) cultural and ethnic condition in colonial societies…. [P]roblems arose when colonial rulers favored and allied with a particular group, often a minority, to help in colonial administration.

One Sri Lankan academic, Asoka Bandarage, put much of the blame for the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka on the baleful impact of colonialism: divide and conquer was a key to conquest, consolidation and maintenance of colonial regimes.

Yet we cannot assign all the blame to the evils of colonialism. The dynamic of colonialism indeed often disrupted and unraveled static and traditional societies, setting in motion new social processes, creating new classes, and leading to the emergence of new institutions. In short, colonialism was a modernizing as well as a destructive process. Under British colonialism, in particular, Ceylon underwent phenomenal modernization and development. The introduction of modern Western education created new classes and a quest for upward mobility. Literacy also introduced communities to new ideologies. Modern communications and transportation allowed various communities to develop knowledge of one another. Such knowledge is not necessarily positive. This is almost invariably the case when distinct communities begin to see one another as rivals for resources and office. The Sinhalese and Tamils began to fight over allocation of resources within the state as well as over the nature of the state following independence. Tamil dissatisfaction grew in proportion to their diminishing role in the state, and the rise in militancy developed in the late 1970s as the Sinhalesedominated state repeatedly ignored or contributed further to Tamil grievances through its policies.

The Form of Warfare

The war in Sri Lanka defies simple categorization. One thing is apparent from the outset: the war was an internal rather than an interstate one, although, as we shall see, it had very important regional and international dimensions. Indeed, it is rare for an internal war not to affect or be affected by external factors, events, or interested third parties. The war started in the early 1980s as a low-key, desultory conflict between two poorly armed and ill-trained entities. By 2009 it had been transformed into industrialized warfare on a major scale, characterized by brutal and horrific combat at the front and widespread violence against civilians. The death and destruction that occurred in Sri Lanka was on an industrial scale as well because of the massive mobilization of people and resources by both sides. By the time the war ended in 2009, it spanned the spectrum of violence from terrorism (and counterterrorism by the state), insurgency (and counterinsurgency by the state), and conventional warfare by both sides.

Terrorism is a controversial term for many reasons. First, there is no one definition that is universally accepted.⁸ One of the best and most neutral definitions, in my view, is the following:

the deliberate creation and exploitation of fear through violence or the threat of violence in the pursuit of political change. All terrorist acts involve violence or the threat of violence. Terrorism is specifically designed to have far-reaching psychological effects beyond the immediate victim(s) or object of the terrorist attack. It is meant to instill fear within, and thereby intimidate, a wider target audience that might include a rival ethnic or religious group, an entire country, a national government or political party, or public opinion in general. Terrorism is designed to create power where there is none or to consolidate power where there is very little. Through the publicity generated by their violence, terrorists seek to obtain the leverage, influence and power they otherwise lack to effect political change on either a local or an international scale.

Second, no organization that uses violence for political goals refers to itself as a terror group, though many go out of their way to justify use of means others would classify as reprehensible. Terrorism is a pejorative term; nobody proudly says I am a terrorist. States in good standing do not engage in terrorism, even though some of the worst perpetrators of terrorism are and have been states. Because states define the norms of permissible and impermissible action in the international arena, it is believed that states do not and should not engage in terrorism. If they do they are practicing illegal violence, and quite often they come to be seen as rogue states. Terrorism is declared to be the weapon of the substate actor, whose legality, not surprisingly, is suspect.

Terrorism was a constant scourge throughout the conflict in Sri Lanka. On one side there was a terrorist organization, indeed a pioneer in terrorist methods and one of the foremost practitioners of this art during the course of its existence. On the other was a beleaguered state that flailed around for years before it succeeded in finding a solution to its terrorist problem. The LTTE was, without question, a terrorist organization. This was clear to the Sri Lankan government, and it frequently disseminated its views on this matter through various official publications and statements such as the following:

The LTTE is labeled as a terrorist organization because it does not have respect for human rights and because it does not adhere to the standards of conduct expected of a resistance movement or what might be called freedom fighters. The LTTE kills innocent civilians, recruits child soldiers, has been responsible for assassination of political figures and nonmilitary officials, and extensively uses suicide bombers.¹⁰

The Sri Lankan state denounced the violence as a challenge to its security, territorial integrity, and authority. Yet it is clear that, for many Tamils and their supporters, the LTTE was not a terrorist organization but a national liberation movement fighting for its people’s right to self-determination. It may be painful for the Sri Lankan state and its supporters to admit, but the LTTE at one point in time had considerable support among the Tamil population within the island, not just in the diaspora, whose knowledge of what was going on in their former homeland was through LTTE propaganda. Nonetheless, even among the Tamil population in Sri Lanka, much LTTE support was not really voluntary at all, particularly toward the end of the conflict, when people got fed up with LTTE brutality and exactions. People often supported the LTTE because they felt it was the only force that could protect them against the depredations of the Sri Lankan armed forces; they feared that if they did not, they would suffer terrible consequences. Moreover, the LTTE had wiped out other competitors. The decline in Tamil support toward the end of the conflict was reflected in the fact that people were pleading with or even attacking LTTE cadre who came to conscript their children to fight and die in the failing war effort. Furthermore, for the many Tamils who ran afoul of it because of differences over methods and goals, the LTTE was a terrorist organization. The same holds for the countless Sinhalese and Muslims who died brutally at LTTE hands in attacks by the group’s suicide bombers.

In his otherwise well-researched article on the Liberation Tigers, Syed Rifaat Hussein writes that the LTTE was a problematic case of a terrorist organization, because its violence was directed primarily at the coercive capacities of the Sri Lankan state.¹¹ This is simply not accurate. Yes, the LTTE did violently and successfully target the Sri Lankan military on many occasions. In this context, despite what states say—and one should remember that it is their representatives who define what terrorism is—the targeting of armed military personnel of the state by non-state actors in fair battle is a problematic issue. However, what about the frequent LTTE targeting of military personnel waiting to take buses home or back to duty stations? The LTTE killed hundreds of civilians in terrorist attacks as well (as I detail below). The October 15, 1997, attack on the Colombo World Trade Center, in the heart of the city’s financial district, which killed 18 people and injured 100, had nothing to do with military targets. It was as much a terrorist outrage as the attack on the World Trade Center in New York on September 11, 2001.

After 9/11, countries were less tolerant of the activities of many socalled national liberation organizations around the world. Their military activities were viewed in a less positive light than in the past and were increasingly equated with terrorism. Two of the most important non-state actors to suffer from the negative fallout of 9/11 were the Chechen national liberation movement and, of course, the LTTE. The latter had garnered significant de facto recognition of some of its goals after its 2002 ceasefire agreement with the Sri Lankan government. September 11 was catastrophic for its image; a situation its leadership was unable to reverse and of which Colombo took advantage, highlighting Sri Lanka’s struggle as part of the global war against terrorism. As American journalist Barbara Crossette put it, the Tigers were a heavily armed movement that never deserved the illinformed sympathy it got outside Sri Lanka. It was a totalitarian movement that instilled terror with mass indiscriminate killing of civilians, and introduced suicide bombing to assassinate a generation of leaders, both Tamil and Sinhala.¹² Nonetheless, after 9/11 the international community intimated it would be willing to stop categorizing the LTTE as a terrorist organization if it gave up terrorism and was genuine about its desire for negotiating an end to the conflict.

Despite the tendency of states the world over to label even large, violent political movements backed by real popular support terrorists (or bandits or miscreants—the latter the favored Pakistani government term for Baluch insurgents in western Pakistan), the LTTE was not simply a terrorist organization. No mere terrorist organization could have created havoc and destruction to which the LTTE subjected the island for thirty years. No terrorist organization could have undertaken the well-organized attacks on military installations by LTTE cadres. The conflict was a fullfledged insurgency; that is, a war between a government with a conventional force fighting a non-state actor that used guerrilla or irregular tactics.

Insurgency is a form of warfare by a weaker side—often a non-state actor or a state defeated in conventional war—against a stronger side. The stronger responds with counterinsurgency. The two together can be referred to as irregular, or better, small war as distinct from conventional war between states, big war. Massive conventional wars like World Wars I and II may have overshadowed small wars, but the latter returned with a vengeance in the post-World War II era. Moreover, as British general Frank Kitson, well versed in fighting insurgencies, put it: the advent of nuclear weapons has done nothing to reduce the incidence of it.¹³ In the 1960s and 1970s in particular, policymakers and strategists were heavily focused on preventing humanity from collective suicide through use of nuclear weapons. Some of the brightest minds in science and strategic studies focused their efforts on making sure nuclear weapons stayed sheathed. In the meantime, the world continued to witness a large number of wars between states and between states and non-state actors. Small wars caught the attention of policy makers and strategists once in a while; the Kennedy administration wished to make combating the outbreak of small wars a priority of American global strategy in the 1960s but faced fierce bureaucratic resistance.

It is incontrovertible that small wars have had a profound impact on human society, the evolution of international law, interracial relations, state formation, spatial configuration of states, and contours of international relations. Small wars are anything but. They are, with apologies to political philosopher Thomas Hobbes, nasty, brutish, and long.¹⁴ Small wars continue to be a vexing problem in international relations. The Correlates of War Project points out that, in its database of 464 wars between 1816 and the end of the twentieth century, only 17 percent (79) were purely conventional interstate wars; the rest (385) were intrastate.¹⁵ Put another way, between 1945 and 1999 about 3.3 million battle deaths occurred in 25 interstate wars around the world; in that same period, about 16.2 million people died in about 127 civil/intrastate wars (of which 13 were decolonization wars), a death rate nearly five times that of interstate wars.¹⁶

Again, as with terrorism, there is no one standard, universal definition of insurgency. The task of deriving a single such definition has been rendered more difficult by the wide range of descriptors applied to this kind of war, themselves never precisely defined: irregular, partisan, guerrilla, low-intensity conflict, insurrection, rebellion, small war, fifth generation war.¹⁷ We will never succeed in getting rid of the deep-seated desire of strategic analysts and academics to invent new terms for this kind of war. It is a form of leaving one’s mark on the field. For the purposes of this study, the word insurgency will suffice as the general term, while the phrase guerrilla tactics will be used to describe the methods of this type of warfare.¹⁸ Bard O’Neill, a noted expert on irregular war at the United States National Defense University, defined insurgency as a struggle between a non-ruling group and the authorities in which the non-ruling group consciously uses political resources and violence to destroy, reformulate or sustain the basis of legitimacy of one or more aspects of politics.¹⁹ The well-known U.S. Field Manual 3-24: Counterinsurgency, written for the U.S. army and marine corps in consultation with leading thinkers and practitioners in the field of irregular war, defines insurgency as "an organized, protracted politico-military struggle designed to weaken the control and legitimacy of an established government, occupying power, or other political authority while increasing insurgent

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