How to Defeat Insurgencies: Sri Lanka's Bad Example

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Sri Lankan Ministry of Defense / AFP / Getty

Sri Lankan troops walk among debris inside a combat zone on May 17, 2009, while evacuating Tamil civilians from the area.

The conflict in Sri Lanka has long provided lessons for militant groups around the world. The Tamil Tigers taught terrorists everywhere the finer (or more savage) points of suicide bombing, the recruitment of child soldiers, arms trafficking, propaganda and the use of a global diaspora to collect resources. The Tigers "were the pioneers in many of the terrorist tactics we see worldwide today," says Jason Campbell, an Iraq and Afghanistan analyst at the Brookings Institution. (Read a story about the life and death of Tamil Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran.)

But now that the Tigers have been defeated, governments and security forces around the world may try to learn from the success of the Sri Lanka government. President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his army have turned the conventional wisdom on fighting insurgencies on its head, adopting strategies and tactics long discredited, both in the battlefield and in the military classroom. Since they appear to have worked against the Tigers, other countries wracked by insurgencies — from Pakistan to Sudan to Algeria — may be tempted to follow suit. But Rajapaksa's triumph has come at a high cost in civilian lives and a sharp decline in democratic values — and he is no closer to resolving the ethnic resentments that underpinned the insurgency for decades. Perhaps Sri Lanka's success should come with a warning label for political leaders and military commanders elsewhere: Do not try this at home. (See pictures of the territory once ruled by the Tamil Tigers.)

Rajapaksa's campaign has a bit in common with the one General David Petraeus deployed so successfully in Iraq, and is rolling out in Afghanistan. Just as the American general was able to use Sunni insurgents to fight al-Qaeda in Iraq, Sri Lanka's President turned a splinter group of Tigers into allies. Colombo and Washington (and other Western capitals) also cooperated in cutting off funding to the Tigers from a global network of sympathizers. Beyond that, however, the Rajapaksa counterinsurgency doctrine seems ripped from a bygone era. The main principles are:

Brute Force Works
Modern military wisdom says sheer force doesn't quell insurgencies, and that in the long run political and economic power-sharing along with social reconciliation are the only ways to end the fighting. But the Sri Lankan army eventually broke down the Tigers in an unrelenting military campaign, the final phase of which lasted more than two years. That sort of sustained offensive hasn't been tried anywhere, in decades.

Negotiations Don't
After numerous attempts at mediation — most notably by Norway — led to nothing, Rajapaksa basically abandoned the pursuit of a negotiated solution. Once the military had the upper hand, there was little effort to treaty with the Tigers.

Collateral Damage Is Acceptable
In the final months of fighting, the Sri Lankan military offensive hardly differentiated between civilian and Tiger targets. Refugees fleeing the fighting said thousands of innocents were being killed in the army's bombardments. Modern militaries typically halt hostilities when large numbers of civilians are killed. The Sri Lankan army barely paused. Reva Bhalla, director of analysis at Stratfor, a global intelligence firm, says Rajapaksa's "disregard for civilian casualties" was a key to the success of the military operation.

Critics Should Shut Up — Or Else
For a democracy, Sri Lanka's recent record on press freedom is an embarrassment. Journalists who dared question the government (and not just over the military campaign) have been threatened, roughed up, or worse. The Jan. 8 murder of Lasantha Wickrematunge, a crusading editor — and TIME contributor — was an especially low point. In recent months, as the fighting intensified, journalists and international observers were kept well away, ensuring very little reporting on the military's harsh tactics and the civilian casualties.

Lack of accurate reporting from the war front was one reason why the international outcry against the military's heavy-handedness was so muted — especially in the U.S. Rajapaksa also benefited from the post-9/11 global consensus that insurgent groups using terror tactics "can no longer call themselves freedom fighters," according to Daniel Markey, a South Asia expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. "The Tigers didn't understand this, and paid a significant price."

That may be one lesson insurgencies worldwide can learn from the Tigers' downfall.