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:
- 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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.]