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Learning the right lessons on the just concluded counter insurgency operations in Sri Lanka

P. K. Gautam was a Consultant at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • May 22, 2009

    The death of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eeelam (LTTE) leader Prabhakran closes a chapter in the first counter insurgency success of the 21st century by military means. A greater challenge in nation building now faces the Sri Lankan people - integrating the Tamils in their society dominated by Sinhala Buddhists.

    Purely from a military point of view some important lessons and some areas of further inquiry emerge. In brief they are:

    (a) Validation of Edward Luttwak’s thesis of allowing war to run to a logical conclusion, rather than interrupt it by foreign intervention. He floated this idea in a Foreign Affairs article “ Give War a Chance” in 1996. The analysis was basically to discourage US intervention in asymmetric wars. Nevertheless, as a theory it had a point. This then leads to weighing up on the idea of humanitarian crisis and genocide. The international community did not treat the conflict in Srilanka a genocide demonstrating the skillful diplomacy of the Sri Lankan leadership. Will this model be the good practice in the ongoing counter insurgency operations in South Asia? It is unlikely that the Indian state will ever resort to this model, since it sees the political process as an integral part of its overall strategy.

    (b) The Indian Peace Keeping Force fought the LTTE from 1987 to 1990. Admittedly this was a military and diplomatic failure. What needs to be studied is how the Sri Lankan military trained and performed in counter insurgency operations over two decades. It overcame a high rate of desertion and finally made the LTTE fight on its own terms. However, post the operations, the continued militarisation of society on chauvinistic Sinhala lines will lead to tensions. Thus a truth and reconciliation commission must be formed. Here the Buddhist concept of compassion or Karuna must be applied. International figures such as the Dalai Lama need to be proactive involved in peace building and reconciliation in Sri Lanka.

    (c) The Sri Lankan military must now mirror society. Just as India raised the Naga Regiment, Tamil troops can be enlisted in the military in a graduated manner. This will be a great challenge, but enlightened leadership must learn from the India example where minority communities such as Sikhs have a high proportion in the armed force. With a reformed military, the Sri Lankan Army can now get set to contribute to United Nations peace keeping missions and also earn the necessary foreign exchange and international goodwill. Ecological Task Forces of the Sri Lankan army can be raised on disbandment of the excess military manpower on lines of the Territorial Army in India. Ecological tasks are immense in Sri Lanka and disciplined soldiers can be re- employed en masse in an era of job losses and financial meltdown. Over the last century much of the forest cover in Srilanka has been destroyed. Deforestation has seriously diminished timber supplies, made soil less productive and affected natural water supply. A reforestation programme by incorporating ETF will be very useful. It will also help contain the widespread soil erosion. The country can also make a case for getting carbon credits via the clean development mechanism of the Kyoto protocol for afforestation.

    (d) Diaspora politics by way of ideology and funds indicates that long distance nationalism or support for the Tamil cause may continue from abroad. Srilankan leaders must also include these diaspora groups in the peace process and negotiations. Ignoring them will be counter productive.

    (e) Finally a historical analysis of raising or supporting ethnic and religious groups by foreign powers in South Asia needs to be revisited. Raising the Taliban at the behest of the US, or Bhindaranwale by India boomeranged, the idea of nurturing the LTTE by the Indian state in the initial phases must now be debated. It is obvious that it was not a good idea. It has taken over two decades to come to this conclusion. Good strategy is lasting peace and to that end it is time now that covert support must be consigned to 20th century history. Dialogue within South Asian countries must be initiated to end this baggage of the past.