Archive for the ‘Sri Lanka’ Category

How did the Sri Lankan government finally prevail in the conflict with the Tamil Tigers after 28 years of failure? Easy — instead of trying to protect the population or offer a political solution, it proceeded to wage total war, dismissing international opinion and with little regard for civilian casualties.

The Indian Defence Review, in an article I predict will become hugely influential within the U.S. and European COIN community, summarises the “Eight Fundamentals of Victory” of the so-called “Rajapaksa Model of Fighting Terror”, named after Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa:

  1. Unwavering political will;
  2. Disregard for international opinion distracting from the goal;
  3. No negotiations with the forces of terror;
  4. Unidirectional floor of conflict information;
  5. Absence of political intervention to pull away from complete defeat of the LTTE;
  6. Complete operational freedom for the security forces — let the best men do the task;
  7. Accent on young commanders;
  8. Keep your neighbors in the loop.

Reading this, I remembered something that had stuck to my mind when listening to Josh Foust and Michael Cohen discuss Afghan strategy at Bloggingheads.tv. At one point, to Foust’s apparent astonishment, Cohen brings up the concept of total war and (apologies for paraphrasing from memory) wonders whether the reluctance of the U.S. and its allies to fight wars WWII-style impedes efforts to defeat adversaries like the Taliban.

Keeping this in mind, and lest we jump into conclusions about the applicability of the Rajapaksa Model to the war effort in Afghanistan, let me try to put the “Eight Fundamentals” in context:

  1. The precedent. This was not the first time in Sri Lankan history that the Colombo government used overwhelming conventional force to annihilate an insurgent enemy. In fact, this has been part of the Sri Lankan way of war for almost 40 years. Interestingly, the strategy was first tested on the majority Sinhala population, not on Tamils. In 1971, and again in 1989, the government crushed a rebellion by the Communist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, or JVP, with a combination of military force, political intimidation and extra-judicial violence. Thousands died but the JVP was wiped out, although it has since resurfaced as a political party that, in one of life’s small ironies, supported Rajapaksa in his drive against the Tamil Tigers.
  2. The Ninth Fundamental. An unstated prerequisite for the success of the Rajapaksa Model was the transformation of the Sri Lankan army into an efficient killing machine. This “Ninth Fundamental” would not have been possible without a massive infusion of Chinese arms, ammunition and equipment. The SLA that defeated the LTTE in 2009 was not the same army that fought it unsuccessfully through the 80s and 90s.
  3. The geography. Although Sri Lanka is a small piece of land surrounded by a large body of water, only a narrow stretch of sea separates it from India’s Tamil Nadu state, where the LTTE built its safe haven in the 80s. Once they lost it, though, and once the Sri Lankan government put its mind to it — and, as per “Fundamental #8”, brought neighbouring India “into the loop” — it was easily able to cut the rebels’ supply lines. From then on, thanks to the country’s small size, it was a matter of pushing the Tigers into an ever-shrinking corner until there was no one left to carry on the fight.
  4. The cost. This is perhaps the most important point to keep in mind: Victory for the government didn’t come without a price. Sri Lankan democracy, once among Asia’s sturdiest, lies in tatters after years of brutality. Human rights reports detail intimidation, torture, abductions, disappearances, and murder. As per “Fundamental #4”, press freedom is a thing of the past. The tragedy, of course, is that with Sri Lankans fed up with the war, and with public opinion overwhelmingly supporting a military solution, the government probably could’ve prosecuted the war successfully without resorting to abuse.

Finally, there is the question of peace. Sri Lanka certainly deserves it, as the LTTE deserved its fate. Who knows, maybe the war really is over, and maybe with time the enmity will subside. But it’s far too early to tell. Just as the jury is still out on whether the American counterinsurgency efforts really succeeded in ending the Iraq war, the Rajapaksa Model of Fighting Terror has yet to prove its worth.

[h/t Abu Muqawama.]

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The Times appears to have scored a scoop today, reporting that “more than 20,000” Tamil civilians were killed during the final weeks of the Sri Lankan Army’s push into the Jaffna Peninsula. I have my doubts; as often with the Times, the story is too vaguely sourced to be completely convincing. Still, let’s not forget there were 100,000 people packed onto a flat, sandy promontory, with no shelter from the fighting and no way to treat the wounded. Even if 1,000 civilians were not killed every day, the human toll is staggering.

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“The Tigers’ legacy remains intact”, warns Mia Bloom:

Their perfection of suicide bombings, their recruitment of women and children, their innovation in IEDs, have been emulated by other terrorist groups worldwide, from al-Qaeda to Hezbollah. Though they considered themselves superior to jihadi terrorists — who regularly target civilians — the Tigers opened the door to terrorism as a strategy of liberation and resistance to an unwanted government or occupying force. And they reached a standard of deadly efficiency envied by U.S. enemies and terrorists around the globe.

How true.

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I strongly advise anyone feeling giddy about the turn of events in Sri Lanka to hold on to the champagne a little longer — a few decades, to be more precise. The government may have crushed the LTTE, but that will not bring peace. It will simply silence the guns until a new generation of Tamil insurgents grows up to carry on the struggle.

It’s worth remembering that, incredible as it may sound, this all started over language in the 50s. That it spawned a 26-year war and one of the world’s most vicious terrorist groups and turned a fledgling democracy into a police state can be squarely blamed on politicians on both sides. Today, there is even less chance for a military solution to the problem than there was in th early 80s when the first bombs went off. The grievances of the 50s were but minor niggles compared to the bitterness felt by the Tamils after years of killing and neglect. And if you believe the Colombo government is about to waste its newly acquired political capital by addressing the losers’ issues, you’re in for a nasty surprise.

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I have nothing but respect for Andrew Exum and the inimitable Abu Muqawama, but today he has a misfire.

In a post titled “Sri Lanka: The Last Battle”, Exum describes the war between the Colombo government and the LTTE as an “increasingly successful counterinsurgency campaign”. If by “counterinsurgency” he simply means a war against insurgents, he’s of course right — the conflict indeed pits an army against a rebel force. But if he means classic COIN, as defined by Galula and his followers and spelled out in FM 3-24, then no — that is not what the Sri Lankan army is conducting. It is waging a conventional war, using air strikes and artillery to hit an enemy hiding among civilians, with inevitably high casualties. Population security? Not so much.

And just so we don’t get too carried away with the “successes” of the war, let’s keep in mind that the 28-year conflict has turned Sri Lanka into a police state, where “journalists, lawyers and human rights defenders are living in fear and need better protection from violence,” according to a recent UN investigation.

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I followed the conflict in Sri Lanka from the start all through the 80s and early 90s and was more aghast at what was happening on the island every time I went back, which was once or twice a year.

The slow unraveling of the country’s democracy and its descent into the lower depths of fratricidal hell was all the more tragic since, of all the meaningless civil wars I’ve covered, this ranked as probably the most mind-boggling. The roots of the Sinhalese-Tamil dustup were neither ethnic nor religious, which would have explained the ferocity, but linguistic; and even for the most passionate advocate of two-state solutions there was never any doubt that a viable Tamil state on this tiny clump of land was impossible simply because it wasn’t practical. Watching the mayhem, I was more often than not left wondering what the hell they were fighting over.

I was reminded of all this when an old friend emailed me a link to this editorial, titled “And Then They Came for Me”, by the editor of the Colombo newspaper The Sunday Leader, Lasantha Wickrematunge.

In what must be one of the most devastating pieces of journalism I’ve ever read, Wickrematunge, who was shot dead by two gunmen on January 8, not only executes a brilliant full-frontal assault on the presidency of his old friend Mahinda Rajapaksa but also predicts his own assassination — and names the culprits:

It is well known that I was on two occasions brutally assaulted, while on another my house was sprayed with machine-gun fire. Despite the government’s sanctimonious assurances, there was never a serious police inquiry into the perpetrators of these attacks, and the attackers were never apprehended. In all these cases, I have reason to believe the attacks were inspired by the government. When finally I am killed, it will be the government that kills me.

Wickrematunge then turns to address the president:

Sadly, for all the dreams you had for our country in your younger days, in just three years you have reduced it to rubble. In the name of patriotism you have trampled on human rights, nurtured unbridled corruption and squandered public money like no other President before you. Indeed, your conduct has been like a small child suddenly let loose in a toyshop. That analogy is perhaps inapt because no child could have caused so much blood to be spilled on this land as you have, or trampled on the rights of its citizens as you do. Although you are now so drunk with power that you cannot see it, you will come to regret your sons having so rich an inheritance of blood. It can only bring tragedy. As for me, it is with a clear conscience that I go to meet my Maker. I wish, when your time finally comes, you could do the same. I wish.

Breathtaking in its eloquence and tragic beyond words, Wickrematunge’s soliloquy offers no hope, even if the solution to the country’s ills is painfully obvious:

[…] A military occupation of the country’s north and east will require the Tamil people of those regions to live eternally as second-class citizens, deprived of all self respect. Do not imagine that you can placate them by showering ‘development’ and ‘reconstruction’ on them in the post-war era. The wounds of war will scar them forever, and you will also have an even more bitter and hateful Diaspora to contend with. A problem amenable to a political solution will thus become a festering wound that will yield strife for all eternity. If I seem angry and frustrated, it is only because most of my countrymen – and all of the government – cannot see this writing so plainly on the wall.

As for his own imminent demise, Wickrematunge takes solace in “knowing that I walked tall and bowed to no man”:

I want my murderer to know that I am not a coward like he is, hiding behind human shields while condemning thousands of innocents to death. What am I among so many? It has long been written that my life would be taken, and by whom. All that remains to be written is when.

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COIN may be all the rage in the West, but the Sri Lankan government is having none of it. After 27 years of bloodshed and failed ceasefires, the Colombo government has decided to, well, just wipe out the LTTE once and for all. My advice is: while you’re at it, why not wipe out the whole Tamil population? That way, you wouldn’t have to deal with those pesky issues like religion, language and economic equality. You could just resettle Jaffna with Sinhalese, or, better yet, leave it as it is. I mean, why not? After years of neglect, it’s a shithole anyway.

UPDATE: “Heavy fighting in Sri Lanka” — Reuters

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