Magazine article Joint Force Quarterly

Understanding Sri Lanka's Defeat of the Tamil Tigers

Magazine article Joint Force Quarterly

Understanding Sri Lanka's Defeat of the Tamil Tigers

Article excerpt

After three decades of conflict, Sri Lanka's government defeated the ethnic separatist insurgent group Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), popularly known as the Tamil Tigers, in May 2009. The violence and brutality employed by both sides in the final years of the conflict drew significant interest from the global civilian and military communities, especially when Sri Lanka credited its callousness to civilian casualties as a key to its success. The defeat of the LTTE added to the debates over U.S. counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine and the role of lethal force in counterinsurgency. Some have advocated that the United States consider employing such tactics as part of an effective COIN campaign, utilizing recent cases such as Sri Lanka and Chechnya to bolster their case.

In October 2009, Indian Defense Review author V.K. Shashikumar listed eight principles, the so-called Rajapaksa Model, of Sri Lankan COIN. (1) Sri Lankan military and civilian leaders believe the application of these principles enabled the government's victory:

* political will

* go to hell (that is, ignore domestic and international criticism)

* no negotiations

* regulate media

* no ceasefire

* complete operational freedom

* accent on young commanders

* keep your neighbors in the loop.

These harsh principles stand in stark contrast to the population-centric approach articulated in U.S. military doctrine. Field Manual 3-24, Counterinsurgency, counsels an approach that attempts to influence and persuade the population to willingly side with the counterinsurgent by providing a superior alternative to the insurgent cause. Key to this philosophy is the concept of protecting civilians from insurgent influence and avoiding unnecessary collateral damage. (2) The differences between the two approaches are significant and cut to the heart of ongoing doctrinal debates over the way ahead in Afghanistan and future counterinsurgency operations. Do Sri Lanka's eight fundamentals account for the defeat of the LTTE and validate the effectiveness of ruthless counterinsurgency tactics? If so, what are the lessons for U.S. COIN operations?


The LTTE is the main insurgent group representing the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka. (3) The British imported the Hindu Tamils from southern India in the 18th century as laborers for colonial plantations. Eventually, the Tamils multiplied to become 13 percent of the population of Sri Lanka. (4) Most of the island's population comprises the majority Buddhist Sinhalese, who due to their numbers controlled most major organs of civil society following independence in 1948. Since that time, the Sinhalese have implemented a series of laws imposing their culture on the Tamil minorities, isolating them and de facto rendering them a subclass. After years of political strife and unrest, the Tamils formed legitimate and illegitimate resistance movements in the 1970s. Small-scale attacks against government forces by Tamil rebels expanded during that decade and became widespread by the early 1980s.

Unrest culminated in full-scale guerrilla war beginning in 1983 in northern and eastern Sri Lanka, where significant Tamil populations lived. The Tamil insurgent groups united into the LTTE, or Tamil Tigers, and began a campaign of violence to overthrow the government and gain autonomy in Tamil areas. Led by the brilliant but ruthless Velupillai Prabhakaran, the LTTE embraced the widespread use of terror tactics in addition to standard guerrilla warfare. The Federal Bureau of Investigation credits the LTTE with mainstreaming suicide tactics as a terror tool globally. (5) Throughout the conflict, the LTTE employed suicide tactics against military and civilian targets, causing hundreds of casualties. Armed with external funding from Tamil expatriates in India and the West, the conflict steadily escalated. Thanks to its superior tactics and Prabhakaran's intellect, the LTTE achieved control of significant areas of Sri Lanka, winning decisively against poorly trained government forces. …

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