Pages Menu
Categories Menu

Posted by on Apr 23, 2009 in War | 4 comments

The Lessons of Sri Lanka

Guest post by Peter S. Henne

Peter S. Henne is a Security Fellow with the Truman National Security Project and a doctoral candidate at Georgetown University.

On picturesque Sri Lanka, a brutal conflict has been raging for nearly three decades between the majority-Sinhalese government and the militant Tamil opposition group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The violence has been disastrous for the population, causing approximately 70,000 deaths; also, despite the obligatory Scandinavian peace efforts, it has gained little attention from world publics and leaders. With Sri Lankan military victory over the LTTE now likely, however, U.S. policymakers should watch the outcome of the conflict closely. As we attempt to formulate a counterinsurgency strategy that is in line with progressive principles, the government victory over the LTTE contains significant lessons, not all of which may be positive.

While the conflict began in the early 1980s, tension between the two ethnic groups is long-running. Sinhalese dominance after independence from Britain led eventually to a Tamil nationalist movement, with militant groups forming in the late 1970s and fighting breaking out soon after. The LTTE became the dominant Tamil group, conducting extremely violent attacks, including massacres of civilians, while the government responded in a like manner, often attacking civilians in conflict zones.

The government’s progress towards defeating the LTTE was not achieved through negotiations on Tamil autonomy, but through an outright military campaign against LTTE-controlled territories. When Mahinda Rajapaksa became president in 2005, he promised to eradicate Tamil militancy, launching a strong military offensive and eventually seizing the LTTE’s home region of the Northern Jaffna Peninsula. The campaign has generated a great deal of collateral damage, however, driving many Tamil civilians out of the conflict zone, creating a potential humanitarian crisis.

The apparent outcome of this conflict, then, is depressingly in line with the scholarly finding that the best way to secure peace in a civil war is often the complete victory of one side over the other. The government has made such headway against the LTTE because it abandoned attempts to find a mutually acceptable solution, instead attempting to eradicate the group.

If this strategy is more successful than ones focused on broad “hearts and minds” approaches, the fate of the LTTE may have less than promising prospects for U.S. counterinsurgency planning. The admirable move by General Petraeus towards a more constructive counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq was predicated on the assumption that winning over the population is more effective than trampling it in securing peace. If Sri Lanka demonstrates the supremacy of the latter approach, though, this suggests that maintaining our security may require abandoning our values, despite Obama’s inaugural pledge. Must progressives make a choice between the two?

The answer is yes, and no. Counterinsurgency is inevitably complicated; while the population may want peace, the insurgents are usually more intractable, as seen in LTTE resistance to previous peace overtures. A balanced strategy will lead to a prolonged conflict and higher casualties; this may sour the public on compromise with insurgents and increase demands for total victory, as occurred in Sri Lanka. If progressives are to eschew the all-out tactics used by the Sri Lankan government, we must be prepared to accept U.S. casualty levels and public discontent that may undermine the will to restrain our power.

Yet, the brutal conflict in Sri Lanka did not emerge automatically from the Tamils’ grievances. The Tamils attempted to change their situation peacefully for decades, and it was the futility of these efforts that precipitated the war. Early concessions to Tamils would thus have prevented some of the violence. Also, while the several ceasefires were short-lived, and did nothing to change the LTTE’s focus on violent struggle, they did create a space for potential government outreach to the Tamil population and support for moderate Tamil groups. Greater international support during these ceasefires may also have made a difference.

The United States, then, may be able to pursue a progressive approach to such insurgencies. First, we must pay persistent and proactive attention to minority grievances throughout the world, putting pressure on leaders who infringe on their citizens’ rights. Second, we must devote enough attention to conflict situations to create space for negotiation and reconciliation, as we so ably did under President Clinton; Obama’s appointment of special envoys to high-conflict areas — several of whom were responsible for the Clinton-era successes — is an encouraging step in this direction.

These efforts may not end all insurgencies, and our ideals and our interests are not always in line. Yet, realizing this disconnect will encourage us to avoid entering into conflict when our interests can be advanced in other ways, consequently avoiding some insurgencies, such as the one that arose in Iraq. Also, the use of U.S. power to engage the international community can address minority grievances and leverage ceasefire opportunities, preventing future conflicts. In such a way, the United States can learn from the lessons of Sri Lanka.