Feature Article

UK author eulogising Sri Lanka COIN backfires exposing USA

[TamilNet, Friday, 10 May 2013, 20:02 GMT]
While Sri Lanka’s genocidal war on the Eezham Tamils architected by world powers, being reduced to only ‘human rights abuses’ in the criticism by political actors within the Establishments, it is studied by military experts within the same system to ‘learn lessons’ in counterinsurgency (COIN). The latest is a COIN literature on Sri Lanka, ‘Total Destruction of the Tamil Tigers’ by British analyst Paul Moorcraft, which adds to the myth of a ‘successful innovative Sri Lanka COIN’, while covering up the genocide executed by GoSL. But, it exposes the various measures taken by the US-led powers to break the Tamils’ struggle, including advise by the Pacific Command to the GoSL as early as in 2002 to use cluster bombs. When the US-led West's military mindset is such an approval to the SL model, its ‘rights abuses’ talk is just a strategic façade, realize Tamil activists.

Published by Pen & Sword Books and released on February 2013, the blurb to ‘Total Destruction of the Tamil Tigers: The Rare Victory of Sri Lanka’s Long War’ claims that the conclusions and findings of the book are “the most authoritative, objective and closely researched account of this savage civil war to date.”

The author, Dr. Paul Moorcraft, British military and foreign policy analyst, a war correspondent with considerable experience and a former senior instructor at the Royal Military Academy-Sandhurst and the UK Joint Services Command and Staff College, however does not hide on which side his ‘objectivity’ lies.

Be it citing from a CIA summary to show that the first Sinhalese arrived to the island in 6th Century BC while giving the image of Tamils as invaders, citing extensively from the Sinhala military and state’s reports while dismissing reports from Tamils’ side as “propaganda war fought in the media”, publishing self-taken photos of ‘rehabilitated’ former Tigers and ‘hearts and minds’ operations, or the tacit downplaying of GoSL massacres and bombings of Tamil civilians while taking care to cite GoSL sources on LTTE attacks, the author makes it clear where he stands.

Book cover
Thankfully, the author claims that “This analysis is not a moral tract.”

His obvious bias apart, his presentation of the Sri Lankan model of COIN should be an object of inquiry.

While he demonizes the LTTE leadership with analogies to Pol Pot, al-Qaeda and Nazis in passing commentary, in his military analyst mode, he studies the LTTE’s functioning by drawing parallels with the North Vietnamese/Maoist style insurgency.

Incidentally, prior to American involvement in the Afghanistan and the middle-east, Western military thinkers directed their greatest efforts to creating a COIN model to check the above insurgency styles.

The author states in the introduction that “it was the first time since the end of the Second World War that a large-scale indigenous insurgency had been defeated by force of arms,” and further that “If the peace is truly permanent, the conflict may well teach other nations how to end wars and bring peace.”

He concludes, after 168 pages of mostly praise for the GoSL’s military strategy, “Without getting involved in a semantic discussion about the precise nature of the conflict, the utility of examining how the government won should be apparent to all those who study wars and how they end.”

For a book whose unstated objective seems to be to give an obituary of the Eezham Tamils’ armed struggle, the author seems to forget the crucial lesson in COIN, as espoused by classical western COIN theorists like David Galula – that COIN is successful only if it wins on the military and the political fronts.

While the genocidal Sri Lankan state has successfully occupied the Tamil homeland post-2009, subjecting the Eezham Tamils to structural genocide through militarization, Sinhalization and routinization of physical and psychological abuse, the Tamil diaspora, especially the second generation youth are getting stronger on their identity and are challenging the Sri Lankan government and its abettors in several forums and protests.

Post-Mu’l’livaaykkaal has seen a phenomenal upsurge of pro-Tamil Eelam political activism in Tamil Nadu, largely involving students, but also IT professionals, lawyers, social activists, civil society and political parties. The recent student protests against the pro-LLRC US resolution have not just been the largest demonstration in Tamil Nadu after the anti-Hindi agitations in the 60s, they have also been the largest student protest in India in the recent times. These protests have not only strengthened the political discourse regarding Tamil Eelam in Tamil Nadu, they have also brought about a resolution in the Tamil Nadu assembly demanding a referendum among the Eezham Tamils.

The protests in Tamil Nadu are also unique for the fact that at no point in history have the symbolisms of the Eezham Tamils’ liberation struggle been so popular and so widely accepted among society, cutting across caste and class barriers.

Even as the GoSL brutally curbs protestors in the Eezham Tamils’ homeland through force and intimidation, Tamil mass demonstrations in Tamil Nadu and across the globe are gaining momentum on conceptual grounds, unwavering on the political solution of Tamil Eelam that the ‘Tamil insurgents’ stood for.

What is an even more jarring truth is that the west-advised ‘hearts and minds’ strategy approach was also defeated by the Tamil civilians in the Vanni who moved with the LTTE instead of moving over to the government side, and who bore the brunt of the GoSL assaults both during and after the war.

* * *


Moorcraft’s integration of the international involvement in Sri Lanka’s war on the Tamils is an interesting patchwork. While playing down the full extent of military advice and assistance that Washington-New Delhi combine gave to Sri Lanka so as give the GoSL an image of an innovator in COIN, he inadvertently gives examples of how the war would not have been possible without the help of these powers, including of course, the extensive military and technical aid provided by Israel, Pakistan, Russia and China.

He quotes Gotabaya, “Unless we had won the support of the Indian government, we couldn’t have won this war”, giving examples of how New Delhi gave the green signal to Colombo to finish the war while playing image games to manipulate Tamil Nadu.

Citing Air Chief Marshal Roshan Goonetileke, he shows how the US stopping LTTE’s procurement of SAM-18s, a more advanced surface to air missile, assisted the Sri Lanka Air Force to conduct their operations more freely.

Moorcraft, deeply interested in the naval tactics of the Sea Tigers, also notes how joint Indian and US intelligence helped Sri Lanka destroy LTTE’s Pigeon ships and how America urged the EU to ban the LTTE.

Likewise, the author explicitly portrays the desire of the US to see the LTTE defeated and its concomitant assistance and advice to Sri Lanka.

Some relevant excerpts:

“Also, in 2002, the US Department of Defense had sent Colombo a lengthy report compiled by a US Pacific Command team. Its numerous recommendations impressed Gotabaya Rajapaksa. They included the need for a combined national security council operating a clear national strategy; before the armed services had tended to fight their own wars in their own ways.”

“The Americans, while praising the fighting spirit of the infantry, criticized the fact that many soldiers lacked even basics such as helmets and body armour.”

“Much equipment was needed for naval operations, too. The Americans had correctly identified the supply of arms by sea as the LTTE’s centre of gravity (although traditional COIN theory usually would select the population, the sea in which the fish swim).”

“The Sri Lankan forces needed better armed and bigger ships but, equally important, the equipment had to fit into a new combined arms strategy.”

“The security forces had to be prepared for conventional full manoeuvre warfare in places like Vanni, but also classic counter-insurgency operations in areas of mixed support, as well as conducting counter-terrorism in urban areas, particularly Colombo.”

“Americans also urged the Sri Lankans to improve their night fighting capability, especially the air force, which required upgraded avionics and guided weapons.”

“The Americans pointed out that instead of buying MiG-27s money could have been better spent upgrading the Kfir fighters.”

“The Pacific Command also recommended the use of cluster bombs.”

The Sri Lankan government used this advice and a lot more to the best of its genocidal abilities.

But in an irony only the US is capable of, Admiral Robert F. Willard, US Navy Commander of the US Pacific Command (USPACOM) said in a statement before the Senate Armed Services Committee on February 2012 that “USPACOM’s engagement with Sri Lanka will continue to be limited, until the Government of Sri Lanka demonstrates progress in addressing human rights allegations.”

In a report to the same Committee this year on April, Admiral Samuel J. Locklear, US Navy Commander of USPACOM from March 2012, said “Sri Lanka needs to work to move past its recent history and reconcile a nation divided by many years of civil war.”

In the same report however, he rather openly hinted at the US plans in the region.

“Pacific Air Force’s Operation PACIFIC ANGEL and Pacific Fleet’s PACIFIC PARTNERSHIP are two examples that bring joint, combined and nongovernmental organizations together to deliver cooperative health engagements, engineering civic action programs and subject matter expert exchanges to many nations, specifically in areas like Oceania, Sri Lanka, and Laos – opening doors that would otherwise be closed to a U.S. military presence.”

* * *


Paul Moorcraft’s approach to Sri Lanka seems to be indicative of a tendency among the military minds in the West, especially the US, on the lessons to be learnt for COIN at large from the ‘Sri Lanka solution’.

While state police forces and right-wing media in India, the local partner in the genocide, keep hailing the ‘Sri Lanka solution’ as appropriate to deal with the Maoist insurgency, influential military thinkers in the US appear to be doing a professional, scientific study of the Sri Lankan model and its applicability to other contexts.

Scheduled to be released in a few months from now is military expert Ahmed S. Hashim’s ‘When Counterinsurgency Wins: Sri Lanka’s Defeat of the Tamil Tigers’.

Besides having a profile of having taught subjects on military and strategic studies at the US Naval War College, and the Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, incidentally the same institution where Sri Lankan ‘military expert’ Rohan Gunaratna teaches, Dr. Hashim is considered to be the main expert advising Pentagon on COIN in Iraq.

His book ‘Insurgency and Counter-Insurgency in Iraq’ is a popular among both US military personnel and experts dealing with the conflict.

The advertising blurb of Hashim’s to be released book on Sri Lanka and the LTTE claims to be an analysis of “The first successful counterinsurgency campaign of the twenty-first century.”

The advertisement claims that the book “investigates those questions in the first book to analyze the final stage of the Sri Lankan civil war. When Counterinsurgency Wins traces the development of the counterinsurgency campaign in Sri Lanka from the early stages of the war to the later adaptations of the Sri Lankan government, leading up to the final campaign. The campaign itself is analyzed in terms of military strategy but is also given political and historical context—critical to comprehending the conditions that give rise to insurgent violence.”

Further, “The tactics of the Tamil Tigers have been emulated by militant groups in Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somalia. Whether or not the Sri Lankan counterinsurgency campaign can or should be emulated in kind, the comprehensive, insightful coverage of When Counterinsurgency Wins holds vital lessons for strategists and students of security and defense.”

Dr. Hashim was also a participant at Sri Lanka Army’s Defence Seminar on ‘Defeating Terrorism: Sri Lankan Experience’ held from 31 May to 2 June, 2011, where, after congratulating the Sri Lankan state for its “remarkable achievement” for winning “the first counter insurgency victory of the 21st century”, he gave the GoSL advice “to counter the non-state actor with their own media narrative, prior to the conflict, during the conflict and particularly after the conflict,” using terms like reconstruction and reconciliation.

This ‘development’, ‘reconstruction’ and ‘reconciliation’ approach, interestingly, is still the approach taken by US-Indian establishments at Geneva.

* * *


Speaking at the same seminar was Dr. David Kilcullen, Australian born COIN expert.

Dr. Kilcullen, a former Chief Strategist at the Office of Counterterrorism at the US State department, is one of the biggest names in the modern Western COIN industry, whose 28 articles on ‘Fundamentals of Company-Level Counterinsurgency’ are found as an appendix to the US Field Manual 3-24.2, ‘Tactics in Counterinsurgency’ released in April 2009.

Speaking at the Seminar, Kilcullen was of the opinion that “The defeat of the Tamil Tigers represents an extremely important achievement that needs to be discussed and studied in detail.”

The laudatory remarks on GoSL’s ‘resettlement’ of IDPs, the LLRC and dismissive comments on HR violations allegations apart, Dr. Kilcullen’s crucial point is the lesson that he picks from Sri Lanka and presents to the world of COIN.

He argues that Sri Lanka’s victory “has led some people in the counterinsurgency community to question the basic precepts of classical counterinsurgency as understood in the West which advocates protecting the population and focusing on political primacy as a means to win over the population and isolate the insurgent and forge a lasting peace.”

Further, “Sri Lanka in this case shows a different path, somewhat in contradiction to these prescriptions and produced both quick and decisive results. Firstly, counterinsurgency is at its heart - a counter adaptation level - a struggle to develop and apply new techniques in a fast moving high threat environment against an enemy that's continually updating and developing. Counterinsurgency isn't defined by a single, specific set of techniques rather a combination of techniques used for a particular insurgency under particular circumstances. Sri Lanka's approach embodied that principle.”

Most ironically, in his book ‘Counterinsurgency’ published in 2010, Dr. Kilcullen had advocated that “Scrupulously moral conduct, alongside political legitimacy and respect for the rule of law, are thus operational imperatives: they enable victory, and in their absence no amount of killing—not even genocidal brutality, as in the case of Nazi antipartisan warfare, described below—can avert defeat.”

That Sri Lanka flouted all of the above and engaged in one of the worst genocidal brutalities of the 21st Century is fact well known to Kilcullen and the establishment that he is part of.

But yet, when influential COIN and military experts in the establishments like Kilcullen and Hashim praise the successes of Sri Lanka’s war on the Tamil people, overlooking the genocide and the concomitant political fallout in Tamil Nadu and the diaspora, and while the various HR reports produced by those NGOs and State Departments in the same establishments only engage in counting the trees without addressing the question of genocide, nationhood, and sovereignty of the Eezham Tamil nation, it is hard not to think that they are two sides of the same coin.

Likewise, criticism of Sri Lanka’s model as a deviation from classical COIN and as one that should not be ever admired, let alone emulated elsewhere has been made by some COIN writers in journals like Small Wars. But these writers are not of the profile or rank of a Kilcullen or a Hashim, who suggest that positive lessons can be taken from the Sri Lankan experience for COIN in general. If this is going to continue to be the case, then Tamils as a whole can arrive at no other conclusion but that the global COIN game played by the US led establishments that caused the genocide in May 2009 is still working against them.


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