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Posted on on May 29th, 2009
by Pincas Jawetz (

The Water’s Edge: Tigers’ Tail
Source: FPA Features
Author: Daniel Widome

The Water’s Edge is a monthly column examining the intersection of domestic and foreign policies, with a special focus on the challenges facing the new Obama administration.

May 28th, 2009

This month, one of the world’s longest and bloodiest wars drew to a close. After a massive months-long offensive, the Sri Lankan military cornered the remaining forces of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) into a small patch of territory in the northeast of the country, and on May 16, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa declared victory in the 26-year conflict. This was a remarkable and welcome achievement for many reasons. What was particularly notable however, was that the victory seems to contradict much of modern military history. Insurgencies, especially those as resilient and sophisticated as that orchestrated by the LTTE, are not supposed to be resolvable through brute military force alone. Yet in Sri Lanka, this is what seems to have happened. The defeat of the LTTE presents lessons and challenges for the evolving U.S. strategies in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Barack Obama has taken notice.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, also known as the Tamil Tigers, were founded by Vellupillai Prahhakaran in 1976. From 1983, they waged a separatist war in the north and east of Sri Lanka, claiming to represent the country’s ethnic Tamil minority against the majority Sinhalese government in a conflict that ultimately claimed over 80,000 lives. The LTTE was among the most sophisticated militant organizations in the world. For many years, they controlled much of northeastern Sri Lanka and operated as a ruling authority there, providing a full range of governmental services and effectively defending their territory through conventional military means. In addition to the land-based elements common to most insurgencies, the LTTE also had an air force and a navy, known as the “Air Tigers” and “Sea Tigers,” respectively. The LTTE had the dubious distinction of pioneering suicide bombing; their elite “Black Tigers” unit was responsible for the assassination of a former Indian prime minister and a Sri Lankan president. In short, the LTTE was among the most resilient and well-established insurgencies in the world.

Throughout the 26-year conflict, various attempts had been made to mediate between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE. In the late 1980s, India deployed an ill-fated peacekeeping force to the island, and Norway spearheaded a mediation effort early in this decade. These efforts eventually came to naught, and in 2008, the government launched a full-scale offensive against LTTE-held territory in the north of the country. In January of this year, the government intensified its campaign in an effort to deal the LTTE a final blow. As the LTTE retreated into densely populated regions, it made extensive use of civilians as human shields against government attack. But the government largely disregarded this tactic, as well as UN-mediated cease-fires and designated “safe zones” in which civilians could seek refuge. It pursued its offensive aggressively, inflicting severe civilian casualties. By April, the UN estimated that nearly 6,500 civilians had been killed in the offensive and about 14,000 had been injured.

In a sense, the Sri Lankan offensive created the first man-made humanitarian crisis of Barack Obama’s presidency. In April, as the LTTE was being squeezed into an ever-smaller plot of territory, Obama expressed his “deep concern” about the situation and called for an immediate cease-fire. He also “call[ed] upon the Government of Sri Lanka to stop shelling the ‘safe zone’ and blocking international aid groups and media from accessing those civilians who have managed to escape.” This month, just days before the LTTE’s final defeat, Obama prefaced a televised statement on his decision to withhold photographs of detainee abuse—arguably a far more salient issue to a U.S. audience—with further concerns about the situation in Sri Lanka. He specifically “urge[d] the Tamil Tigers to lay down their arms and let civilians go,” and he repeated his calls for government forces to stop indiscriminately shelling civilian areas and to give international aid groups access to civilian refugees. The president’s comments were amplified by similar statements from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton UN Ambassador Susan Rice.

Behind the proclamations, however, was something more remarkable: concrete action. The Obama administration acted to delay a $1.9 billion IMF loan to Sri Lanka due to the humanitarian crisis. According to one U.S. official, “the problem … [was] that the Sri Lankans have refused to engage on the humanitarian crisis as a priority,” and that delaying the loan was “an attempt to get [Sri Lankan] priorities back where they should be.” The administration acknowledged that the loan was only being delayed, not canceled, and that there was no particular expectation that the delay would compel the Sri Lankan government to change its behavior. Even so, the delay of the IMF loan—coupled with the administration’s strong, coordinated criticism of the Sri Lankan government—represented a far more robust response to a humanitarian crisis than had been made by previous administrations in similar circumstances. The Clinton administration’s tepid response to the 1994 Rwandan genocide, in particular, is known to have shaped the thinking of some Obama advisors; the president himself may have been similarly motivated.

Obama’s response, however strong, did not stop the Sri Lankan government’s offensive or delay the LTTE’s ultimate demise. Humanitarian concerns aside, the conclusive endgame of Sri Lanka’s civil war presents unsettling questions for the United States’ own ongoing counter-insurgency operations. Recent military history suggests that the best (if not the only) way to defeat an ethnic- or religious-based insurgency is by protecting the civilian population, trying to win the “hearts and minds” of local noncombatants, and utilizing a “light” military footprint. Essentially, the goal is to deprive an insurgency of its base of support. An aggressive military response, on the other hand, plays into the insurgents’ plans. It increases local resentment of the dominant power in the region and drives supporters to the insurgent cause. And given the irregular and asymmetrical method of insurgent warfare, blunt military responses rarely achieve their objectives; tanks and bombers cannot kill insurgents hiding in an urban area without putting a much greater number of civilians at risk, which ultimately serves an insurgent’s political objectives. The evolution of the U.S. war in Iraq—from the 2003 invasion, to the bloody occupation period of 2004-2006, to the present “surge” strategy spearheaded by General David Petraeus—only reinforces these lessons.

In Sri Lanka, however, the government did not abide by these principles. It used an abundance of brute force to liquidate the LTTE insurgency. Tanks, planes, and artillery were utilized liberally, and little effort went into winning the “hearts and minds” of the local population. Instead of coaxing the LTTE to lay down its arms or persuading civilians to withdraw their support, the Sri Lankan government pummeled the insurgency mercilessly, along with anything or anyone in its immediate proximity. This strategy is not “supposed” to work. Yet it did. As President Obama oversees a large-scale reinvestment in the U.S. war in Afghanistan, the Sri Lankan experience raises some pertinent questions. Do the lessons that have been learned in Iraq and in previous insurgencies still hold? How and why did the Sri Lankan government succeed? Will the blatant humanitarian costs incurred by its approach eventually outweigh the military defeat of the LTTE, either in the short-term or in the long-term?

Although these are important questions, it is clear that each insurgency is different. Counter-insurgency campaigns must be tailored to local conditions and cannot be transposed or grafted from one dissimilar conflict to another. It is entirely possible, if not probable, that the Sri Lankan government’s aggressive approach may have planted the seeds for long-term resentment and instability that could temper the short-term success it has just achieved. The endgame of the Sri Lankan civil war certainly has been fraught with irony. The LTTE was a violent organization and the civil war was immensely destructive; the end of both is clearly a good thing. But the Sri Lankan government’s final offensive was indiscriminate in its brutality, and it created a genuine humanitarian crisis.

As if to reinforce the irony, the Sri Lankan government has actually credited President Obama with playing a major role in the success of their offensive. “It is undeniable that the LTTE effectively folded shortly after President Barack Obama told the world that the terrorists were holding innocent Tamil civilians as hostages. He was one of the few world leaders to note that fact so forcefully … I believe that the president’s statement had a great influence on the LTTE,” noted Jaliya Wickramasuriya, Sri Lanka’s ambassador to the United States. If such a sentiment is genuine, Obama faces a new opportunity. He could use his newfound clout with the Sri Lankan government to urge it to relieve the still-ongoing humanitarian crisis and to build the foundation for a sustainable peace.

Daniel Widome is a San Francisco-based foreign policy analyst and writer. He can be reached at  daniel.widome at


What above evaluation missed is the simple fact that except for a lukewarm Indian attempt, practically nobody had any interest in the Sri Lanka issue, except that is China that saw here the potential to gain a warm water port facility in Sri Lanka. As a result, the Sri Lanka government got arms and support from China while the Tamil Tigers got only very little help from India which saw in them potential troublemakers for India itself. Considering the above, much of the FPA suggestions may seem not thoroughly threshed out.

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