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The Sri Lanka Option: Brutal Dictatorships Learning Bad COIN Lessons

The Economist reports that military delegations from some of the world’s less savory regimes have been visiting Sri Lanka ever since it crushed the Tamil Tiger insurgency in search of a model they can reverse engineer and apply in their own countries.

Sri Lanka’s COIN approach is about as far from Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s population centric COIN as you’re likely to find, outside of maybe German counter-partisan operations during World War II.

“Louise Arbour, head of the International Crisis Group (ICG), says the Sri Lanka model consists of three parts: what she dubs “scorched-earth tactics” (full operational freedom for the army, no negotiations with terrorists, no ceasefires to let them regroup); next, ignoring differences between combatants and non-combatants (the new ICG report documents many such examples); lastly, the dismissal of international and media concerns.

A senior official in President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s office, quoted anonymously in a journal, Indian Defence Review, says “we had to ensure that we regulated the media. We didn’t want the international community to force peace negotiations on us.” The author of that article, V.K. Shashikumar, concludes that “in the final analysis the Rajapaksa model is based on a military precept…Terrorism has to be wiped out militarily and cannot be tackled politically.” This is the opposite of the strategy America is pursuing in Afghanistan. It is winning a widespread hearing.”

– Greg Grant

{ 35 comments… read them below or add one }

Nidi62 May 26, 2010 at 9:00 pm

I dont know if I would look to copy strategy from a state that took 25 years to end a civil war.


John Dere May 26, 2010 at 7:17 pm

In 25 years time they'll have to do it all over again. They've obviously learned nothing from history.


Tad May 26, 2010 at 11:27 pm

Well of course brutality works. Western culture currenlty believes the ends do not justify the means.


Dunst May 26, 2010 at 7:41 pm

This is a short term fix. When the next generation of young Tamils come of age the whole sorry affair will ignite again. Negotiation is the only long term solution.


Kristian M Lewis May 26, 2010 at 11:43 pm

I don't see that Sri Lanka had a lot of choices. The war had dragged on for decades, international mediation was not effective and in fact did prolong the conflict. How long would our Civil War lasted if outside powers had tried to mediate a settlement? More importantly, how Sri Lanka handles a domestic civil war has very little to do with how the US can and should fight a counter insurgency in a foreign country we occupy.

Also, it is not yet been seen whether Sri Lanka's tactics have been successful. They may have ended the civil war but if they do not reintegrate the Tamil population they will very likely face decades more of low level violence and acts of terrorism.


The_Hand May 27, 2010 at 12:47 am

It's also easier to fix and destroy your opponent when they can't slip across the border to Pakistan or Laos.

I have no sympathy for the Tamil rebels, but I do feel for the Tamil population, what's left of it anyway.


jack May 27, 2010 at 2:01 am

America hasn't fought a war for it's actual survival since the Civil War. Everything since then hasn't been a "real" war. When you''re fighting on your own land for the survival of your country, family, ect it's a totally different ballgame. Why do you think the West is having such a difficult time in Afgan? It's because those people are fighting for everything. The West is over there for some idea in a politicians mind. That is not a war.


WJS May 27, 2010 at 2:15 am

I think perhaps there are some WWII veterans that might argue with that statement. You go tell one of those combat veterans that they weren't fighting for their survival. I dare you.


fsj May 27, 2010 at 2:20 am



Bob May 27, 2010 at 6:33 am

Yes, individual soldiers were fighting for survival; however, our nation was not fighting for its very survival in WW II.


Nidi May 27, 2010 at 12:51 pm

Our nation wasn't fighting for survival? Really? It was the first time since the War of 1812 that a foreign state invaded the continental US.


citanon May 27, 2010 at 7:46 am

Good point. How many enemy civilians did we kill in WWII?


Tissa May 27, 2010 at 6:20 am

millions in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in addition to killings in Europe in WWII. You have to add what had been done in Nam


Project Thor May 27, 2010 at 12:28 pm

try a hundred thousand plus in Hiroshima and in Nagasaki… we killed more with the firebomb raids on Dressden & Tokyo. Pick up a history book and read it… don't wave it around.

WJS May 27, 2010 at 2:20 am

What we call Afghans are a bunch of tribes thrown together not of their own choosing. The Pushtuns aren't exactly popular and the rest are apathetic about anything in general. You have to have an identity to fight for it. Our ability to finish or not leads right to the White House. End of discussion.


blight May 27, 2010 at 11:34 am

They may not have a strong national identity, but they know when a foreigner comes in and tries to tell them what to do that they ought to kick their asses out of the country. It's what we'd do if someone came in from across the sea…


Byron Skinner May 26, 2010 at 10:56 pm

Good Evening Folks,

The title of this piece, could be how to win. Yes it took 25 years but the Us has already been in Afghanistan nearly 10 years.

We have done catch and release with prisoners, made nice, have thrown $ billion at them, gotten US Soldiers and Marines killed in efforts to avoid collateral killings and we not only have not gained any ground we are losing ground in Afghanistan.

What about winning does the American Generals not understand? The people of Afghanistan clearly prefer the Taliban to the United States after all these years, we are not wanted in Afghanistan. We should either start kicking Taliban six and eradicate them and take what we want or stop the killing of Americans and get the he** out of Afghanistan.

I think US Generals Petraeus and Mc Crystal have been reading the wrong COIN book. They should find out what the Rajapaaksa’s are reading, go over to Amazon and order up some copies, next day.

Winning use to be an American tradition, now it’s been replaced by winning Generals who never have enough of what ever and when they get what the want they still lose.

To President Obama, get some Generals in Afghanistan who know how to and want to win. These two losers are not cutting it.

Byron Skinner


msufalcon May 27, 2010 at 3:16 am

The problem is that there isn't a successful historical COIN operation using current methods.

Many insurgencies were put down during the Cold War and colonial wars through brutality, much like in the modern case of Sri Lanka, but there isn't much evidence that the current methods work. There are ways to win these types of wars, but they require a level of brutality and callousness that will never be allowed to exist with current media conditions.


sam May 27, 2010 at 5:58 am
sam May 27, 2010 at 6:02 am

Sri Lanka could win militarily because the Tamils had their backs to the sea with no support from India. Such a situation is not the case in Afghanistan; the Taliban can move in and out of Pakistan much more freely.

But yes, generally speaking, NATO has to play dirty if it hopes to win in Afghanistan. The Brits won the Boer War using such people-friendly innovations like the concentration camp!


Bob May 27, 2010 at 6:31 am

What a bunch of claptrap. In a historic sense, winning means killing enough of the other side, that they cannot sustain continued operations, or they lose the will and means to contine the fight. It has worked that way since there were armies and nations to field armies.


siconik May 27, 2010 at 8:35 am

"Sri Lanka model consists of three parts: what she dubs “scorched-earth tactics” (full operational freedom for the army, no negotiations with terrorists, no ceasefires to let them regroup); next, ignoring differences between combatants and non-combatants (the new ICG report documents many such examples); lastly, the dismissal of international and media concerns."

That's pretty much to the tee what Soviets did during their Afghan go-around. Killed 1.5 million people, lost thousands of soldiers, gained nothing.


Tissa May 27, 2010 at 6:33 am

Lois Arbour has not seen the real situation and only read media who were interested only in making money by creating storeys.This is completely wrong as much as I know. Sri Lankan governments have been negotiating with the world’s number 1 terrorist, Prabhaharan for more than 3 decades starting with Thimpu talks they were having talks all over the world with the blessings of Norwey taking them nowhere. So they thought no-way for more talks while 100s of civilians were being killed, every month, by terrorists by blasting bus loads of men,women, children, and aged, going on killing sprees in un protected villages. Foreign forces have always used killer tactics in Vietnam and Afganistan


blight May 27, 2010 at 11:35 am

Well the Tamils held territory, so it was a matter of just taking that territory and flooding the north with troops. We can't achieve nearly that kind of manpower density, and I'm sure that Tamils can live with Sinhalese better than Pashtuns can tolerate Russians or Americans.


Byron Skinner May 27, 2010 at 2:19 pm

Good Morning Folks,

Oh Afghanistan, lets see the oblivious.

After eight years in country the Americans still have not won over the Afghanistan population.

The Afghans would rather have their traditional Tribal/Folks forms of Government over the a centralized/bureaucratic/corrupt US supported government in Kabul.

In spite of American best efforts the local population still supports the Taliban and after all the time it has to be assumed that their relationship is consensual.

The US as in Vietnam is caught up in believing its own web of twisted lies and propaganda regarding Afghanistan. This is in large part due to the “embed” system which has made the US media nothing more the a branch of the Defense Information Agency. Reporters who try and post a story aka David Ax that is not with in the propaganda guide lines is booted out of the country and fast.

American have been brained washed into thinking that every country wants to be a Christian centric Democratic Market based society. The fact that the Afghans are very happy with their Islamic based culture/economy/legal system and Islamic governance. Of course this is just unacceptable to arrogant and self righteous Americans and especially to our Christian centric infested Federal Government.

In short the single largest reason we are not winning in Afghanistan is because the people don’t want us. Short of turning the country into a paved parking lot there is no way we can win. In spite of half hearted, bull Sh** ideas of self serving COIN manuals combined with Generals who lack the fortitude to fight and are worthless as field commanders, even that doesn’t matter, in the final analysis it all means nothing if the people don’t want you, and in Afghanistan and the people of Afghanistan clearly don’t want us, there is no way to achieve any acceptable results.

It is ironic that the reason for going into Afghanistan in the first place, to find and destroy al Qaeda and bin Laden is no longer a military issue, the civilian CIA is doing all the fighting against al Qaeda and hunting for bin Laden.

I won’t end this post with what I think, if the US military had gone this far. it is doubtful that any of the senior command understand a word that I just posted, so why bother. One of the lesson we DIDN”T learn form Vietnam was to know when to leave a war we are going to lose.

The question now among the troops is simply who is going to be the last American Soldier/Marine to die in Afghanistan?

Byron Skinner


Dude May 27, 2010 at 6:44 pm

LOL, I think Sri Lanka watched the movie "Swordfish" with john travolta and paid close attention when his character laid out the mission objective (loosely quoted) "to make the idea of terrorism so heinous and unthinkable, that no one would dare to do it to americans" in that "they kill 1 citizen of ours we wipe out an entire village of theirs".

The greatest part about it is that it works, today there are too many people with mommy's teet still firmly attached to their faces that are unwilling to do what it takes to stop these extremists from hurting the innocent peoples of the world.

Continued …..


Dude May 27, 2010 at 6:45 pm

Saddam, knew this and did it. He had conclusive control over Iraq. We still dont. I do believe that in order to truly inhibit and have a total sense of security you have to make your enemies FEAR the repercussions of their actions, in that those repercussions will affect if not destroy the lives of his next of Kin and other close relatives. This is why all the wars of the past have been so brutal, and yet most of those wars of past are conclusive except for the smaller skirmishes like korea.

I realize that many of you will be offended by what I have said. Im sorry you feel that way, but understand mine is just one view point that isnt exclusive. Also we are a democracy so you dont have to worry.


Brian May 27, 2010 at 8:36 pm

The thing is, we aren't Saddam.

I don't disagree that we could end the wars tomorrow if we really wanted to be brutal about it. But honestly, we are over there to give their citizens a shot at a better life. We aren't facing a threat of a scope like we did in WWII. We don't *have* to be there. We could just as easily pack up and leave (those countries would fall apart, but we could do it). The only reason to stay at this point is to try to improve their countries. We don't do that with scorched earth policies.


Trent Telenko May 27, 2010 at 10:02 pm

Mr Grant,

I suggest both you and the Economist writers you are quoting read "Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism" by Robert Pape.

Suicide attack and defense as consistent patterns are self-defeating because those tactics eventually so enrage the victims that they resort to genocide.

There are historic examples of this close to home — Hint, America nuked Japan for a reason.

The past twenty year pattern of suicide bombing terrorism has lasted this long only because of the victims' restraint. IMO every victim has had the capability of inflicting genocide on the perpetrator's faction, including the Sinhalese majority of Sri Lanka vs. the Tamil rebels.

It is to the Sinhalese majority's credit that they avoided going that far.

Generally this restraint has been imposed externally by the so-called international community, with the notable exceptions of the United States and Israel where domestic moral factors are dominant.


Trent Telenko May 27, 2010 at 10:04 pm

Another recent and significant exception to the use of genocidal retaliation concerns Chechnya, where the conflict was used by Russian leaders as a means of securing/maintaining domestic political power.

To the point where some attacks on Russian civilians seem to have been perpetrated by Russian security forces acting to exacerbate the conflict. I.e., the Russian leadership's interests was in perpetuating the conflict, not terminating it on favorable terms for the Russian nation, let alone its people.

Genocide of the Chechnyans was piecemeal and possibly unintended.

A related issue here is that a suicide bombing tends to require mass support among the perpetrator's ethnic group/faction such that it cannot be easily turned off whether winning or losing.

Other commentators have noted based on Pape's research that suicidal resistance basically creates a zero-sum situation inhibiting termination of hostilities on terms less than mass slaughter of the loser.

The Palestinians are lucky.

The Japanese in WW2 were very, very, lucky.


Michael May 29, 2010 at 4:37 pm

"Genocide of the Chechnyans was piecemeal and possibly unintended". Unintended? Far from it. Male population of hundreds of villages just wiped out. Has been bad enough to change demography of this people. It is just that nobody gives a damn (compared, say, to Palestine or Iraq), not in Russia, not in the West.


blight May 29, 2010 at 8:28 pm

I doubt it was unintended and I doubt it was piecemeal. Nothing could ever approach the intentional and industrialized death industry of the Holocaust, but the Chechens didn't exactly get a slap on the wrist.


WarScientist June 1, 2010 at 12:52 pm

The slaying of chechnyans was done on a village by village basis in a (severely misguided) attempt to force the rebels out of the mountains. What ended up happening is that entire villages worth of women and children would be killed whilst the men were in the mountains, after which they would return only to find their families murdered.

Needless to say, in terms of motivating people to fight against you using any means neccessary including suicide attacks and hostage takings, this one was probably the most successfull ways of doing so.

But still when compared to WW2 and some of the african genocide campaigns this was piecemeal, although by no means was it any less brutal, just on a smaller scale.


Joe Katzman June 6, 2010 at 10:02 pm

You're missing the part about Chinese backing, which provided Sri Lanka with the weapons it needed, no strings attached.

And, you may not like it, but the bottom line is that Sri Lanka's government won. So did the Russians in Chechnya. And, for that matter, so did Guatemala's government. There is self-evidently more than one successful COIN doctrine in the world. That does't mean there aren't issues of morality, but pretending that other approaches don't work is an act of deception.

Especially when China's backing of this one, and its alignment with China's own methods, ensure that we're going to see a LOT more of it.

If we want more humane COIN doctrines to take root, there's only one way to do that over the long term. Have the countries that use them win, consistently. Iraq was a major step forward in that respect. Afghanistan could be another big step forward, because it's seen as such a difficult case, but instead it looks set to become an equally large step backward.

The more times humane approaches lose, the more countries will turn to the Chinese model instead.


citanon May 27, 2010 at 2:37 pm

Yep, Thor's right on the numbers.

In aggregate we probably killed millions of enemy civilians in WWII.

My point is that when faced with a threat to our national survival, our choice was to break the enemy irregardless of civilian losses.


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