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Lessons of war from Tigers' defeat

By Paul Reynolds
World affairs correspondent BBC News website

Sri Lankan troops being taken to the front line, 24 April 2009
Sri Lanka pursued a military offensive up until the end

The defeat of the Tamil Tigers might encourage other governments to put more emphasis on fighting insurgents by military means.

This would go against the modern theory of counter insurgency, which tries to win over populations as the key to long-term peace.

The modern theory has been enshrined in the US manual of counter insurgency. This was written by General David Petraeus, the man who led the surge in Iraq and brought a greater degree of stability. He is now trying to do the same thing in Afghanistan.

"Counter-insurgents should prepare for a long-term commitment" is one sentence from the manual. "Offensive operations are only the beginning" is another.

In Sri Lanka it was certainly a long-term counter-insurgency commitment. But offensive operations were the end as well as the beginning.

The Tigers' war

It can be argued that the Tigers themselves defined what war they would find themselves in and that therefore this was a special case.

Aftermath of a suicide bombing at Colombo station blamed on Tamil Tigers, February 2008
The Tamil Tigers were blamed for suicide bombings targetting civilians

The Tigers armed and drilled like a regular army and their tactics, which included suicide bombings, were part of an all-or-nothing mentality.

The Sri Lankan government developed a strategy of siege and attack - isolating the Tigers in a smaller and smaller area and using a modern army to crush them slowly but surely.

The basis of the plan can be seen in the dominance of artillery in the government's arsenal.

It has 157 heavy guns, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

These are led by 40 massive 152mm artillery pieces, called the Type 66, a Chinese copy of a Soviet weapon.

More weapons?

So one lesson that other armies might examine is whether they too need heavier weaponry.

File picture of Turkish soldiers on the Turkey Iraq border
Countries such as Turkey might look to see what more they can do

The Russians never needed such a lesson. They overwhelmed the rebels in Chechnya in 1999-2000 using much the same kind of fire power.

But other governments fighting rebel movements in Africa, South East Asia and elsewhere might be tempted to go down this route.

The Turkish army, fighting the PKK in the mountains of south east Turkey and northern Iraq, and the Colombians, in combat with the Farc in the remote jungle, are no strangers to the use of force.

But even they might be looking again to see what more they could do.

And the temptation to abandon the political approach and promise a military win will be more enticing for political leaders looking for a popular boost.

Each war different

More cautious military thinkers will take each case separately.

Other insurgent movements have not been so inflexible as the Tigers.

US counter-insurgency thinking is continuing to evolve

The Provisional IRA in Northern Ireland eventually decided to call a halt and develop political goals.

The Northern Ireland experience and its concept of the long war in which political, social and economic factors count as much as military ones, moulded British army thinking on counter insurgency to such an extent that it based its tactics in Basra on them, with mixed results.

When the moment came to apply force to the militias in Basra, the Brits were ignored by the Iraqis - who called in the Americans to help.

It shows that no one theory can hold sway.

Counter-insurgency tactics

The Sri Lankan victory comes as US counter-insurgency thinking is continuing to evolve.

In an article in the Small Wars Journal, in which such issues are discussed in detail, James A Gavrilis, who fought in Iraq as a Green Beret, wrote this month: "One of the most profound changes the US military must make to be effective at countering insurgency is to shift strategic centers of gravity from the physical to the human aspects of warfare."

He notes with approval that the US now uses more civil affairs units and said: "Our military has a predisposition to focus on enemy forces and capabilities and the confrontation between friendly and enemy forces, with little emphasis on the social or political context within which the confrontation takes place."

The events in Sri Lanka will not bring a decisive shift in thinking back to the old days of might means right, but they will have an effect in this kind of debate.

Paul.Reynolds-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk



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