June 28, 2009

Learning to Eat Soup with a Spork: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Sri Lanka?

As I sort through my pile of vacation emails, I found this op-ed that my colleague MZ passed along last week.  I don't know much about Sri Lanka, but I remember some of our readers clamoring for more coverage of the end of the long-running war between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers and its lessons for counterinsurgency.

A couple things strike me about this piece, though:

--Its key point, "Perhaps the most important lesson is the debunking of the widely held belief that terrorism cannot be quelled militarily...All too often, the greatest obstacle to military success is the starry-eyed interference by third parties insisting that only diplomacy and negotiation can bring a true end to terror-based conflicts," puts this piece squarely in the Edward Luttwak school of thought.  Luttwak also derides the brand of population-centric counterinsurgency found in FM 3-24 as essentially too wimpy for the task at hand and prescribes the use of force without much regard for collateral damage as the only real way to victory.  That's all well and good, but I don't think that this "Real Men Do Civilian Casualties" line offers (or should offer) a compelling lesson for Western strategists dealing with insurgencies today and in the future.  I don't think emulating the approach of Romans, Germans, or Sri Lankans is really an option that is open to us.

--The LTTE seems to have been centrally directed by its leader Velupillai Prabhakaran in a way that the insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan are not.  The Iraqi and Afghan insurgences appear to be more cellular in structure and not impacted very much by the killing of individual leaders (though maybe we just haven't gotten the guys high enough on the food chain yet).  Perhaps one explanation for why the Sri Lankan approach worked was because they had one obvious head of the snake to cut off, while the different enemy factions in Iraq and Afghanistan are a bit more amorphous.

--The authors caveat themselves at the end after starting their column by lauding the sweeping Sri Lankan victory.  They warn that the LTTE's overseas supporters may well resort to terrorism to carry on the Tigers' torch.  So maybe this military triumph hasn't solved everything after all.