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Rediff.com  » News » Sri Lanka changed the rules in counter-insurgency operations

Sri Lanka changed the rules in counter-insurgency operations

June 21, 2010 18:43 IST

The Sri Lankan model of fighting insurgency is finding favour with disparate nations for its apparent effectiveness in totally eliminating the internal security threat, says Nitin Gokhale

The Sri Lankan military is the new flavour of the season for security establishments across many nations.

From despots like General Than Shwe of Myanmar to top Pakistani generals and Israeli political leaders, everyone seems to be making a beeline to Sri Lanka in the past six to eight months, trying to find out what led to Sri Lanka's military success against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

In less than a year after it routed the powerful and brutal LTTE in a war that lasted 33 months, the Sri Lankan military is increasingly playing host to delegations from different countries, seeking to learn and understand the tactics that it adopted in taming and then completely decimating the quarter century-old insurgency.

The Sri Lankan model, as it is being described now, is finding favour with disparate nations for its apparent effectiveness in totally eliminating the internal security threat. The Sri Lankan tactics are being studied with great interest by security establishments since it did not conform to the well-known and widely practiced counter-insurgency tenets.

Classically, nation-states the world over have followed the pattern of militarily subjugating insurgencies to a point where the political process takes over. Political settlements or prolonged but peaceful negotiations have invariably followed successful or semi-successful military campaigns.

In India's north-east, there are at least three such examples -- the Mizo accord of 1986, the 13-year old ceasefire agreement with Naga separatist group NSCN-IM, and imminent political negotiations with the United Liberation Front of Asom.
Sri Lanka, which faced an all-out insurgency launched by the LTTE for over two decades, did attempt to follow first-the-military-campaign-then-the-negotiations route, but did not succeed. Instead, the LTTE, more popularly known as Tamil Tigers, grew progressively stronger and at one point, controlled at least half of Sri Lanka's landmass, putting in place its own quasi-government.

So when Mahinda Rajapaksa took over as president in November 2005, he had two choices before him: Follow the known, time-tested method of launching a military campaign aimed at weakening the LTTE just enough to force it to the negotiating table, or find his own way to deal with the problem that had plagued the island nation. He chose the latter and succeeded. So what was different?

The strategy was a mix of innovative use of brute military power backed by resolute political will aimed at crushing the well-entrenched insurgency. The third pillar of this strategy was the control and some times denial of access to media in the battle zone.   

But the cornerstone of Sri Lankan strategy was to give the armed forces, for the first time in decades, a clear objective: destroy the LTTE militarily.

During an interview, Sri Lanka's then army chief Sarath Fonseka explained the difference between earlier military campaigns and this one in one simple sentence, "This time we were playing for a win, not for a draw."

Secondly, Fonseka, a battle-hardened veteran, had correctly assessed that the Tamil Tigers had expanded greatly in numbers, but had perhaps lost the agility and stealth that had made the group such a formidable adversary.

So Fonseka converted his frontline assault units into a guerilla force by forming small, highly mobile, independent and lethal commando teams. These teams often infiltrated behind the enemy lines to isolate and then demolish LTTE defences.

The most fascinating aspect of Eelam War IV, as the conflict came to be known, however was not just the military strategy but the flawless execution of information warfare and information operations technique by the Sri Lankan State.

As a journalist, I found the Sri Lankan methods of managing the media to be both effective and offensive. It was effective purely as a warfare tool, and offensive to my sensibilities as a journalist.

The core strategy was to create a firewall around the battle zone. The objective was two-fold: control and denial. Control the flow of information and deny access to unpalatable foreign journalists.

Simultaneously, the government set up a one-stop shop for information from the battle zone. The Media Centre for National Security became the most important address for visiting and local media during the war. By putting in place this system, Sri Lanka virtually eliminated the possibility of any other source giving news to the information-hungry media.

Simultaneously, pro-LTTE blogs and websites such as Tamilnet.com were blocked inside Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan state thus won the media war hands down. The result: a one-dimensional coverage of Eelam War IV.

For someone who's also had the opportunity to report the subcontinent's other big war in Kargil a decade ago, I was not happy being part of the one-sided coverage. But to be fair to the Sri Lankan state, winning the information war was as imperative as gaining a military victory.

So what are the frequent visitors to Sri Lanka hoping to learn?

Perhaps they are trying to find out if the Sri Lankan template can be applied to their own situations and challenges or perhaps to take back some valuable lessons in actual combat situations. No matter what the Sri Lankans have to offer, every country will have to find its own answers.

For instance, in India, the brutal and at times excessive use of force applied by the Sri Lankans can never be contemplated. For over half a century, India's counter-insurgency doctrine has been based on the use of minimum force and avoiding collateral damage.

Israel, on the other hand, uses somewhat similar methods as the Sri Lankans in Gaza. Pakistan's current counter-insurgency operation in its north-western parts is more or less like the Sri Lankan tactic. The Myanmar government has dealt with the internal security situations in its own unique way, which is some times even more brutal than the Sri Lankan technique.

And yet, it is interesting that Sri Lanka is the new destination for learning military lessons in counter-insurgency.

Nitin Gokhale