In Total Destruction of the Tamil Tigers: The Rare Victory of Sri Lanka’s Long War, Paul Moorcraft recalls a Buddhist saying: “What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the master calls a butterfly.” In Sri Lanka, if history is to be written by the victors – President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his followers – then the island has arrived at butterfly status. This book is less one that describes the price paid for this (though the bill is presented for inspection), more one about how it arrived at that status.
Wars of counter-insurgency (COIN), such as those (now) fought in Afghanistan and (previously) in Iraq, frequently get cast as battles which pit those with the watches against those with the time. Briefly, this amounts to the non-indigenous side leaving the theatre of war before defeating the indigenous side, simply because the pressures on them to do so are greater than the imperatives that caused them to become involved in the first place. Indigenous forces stay put.
In describing Sri Lanka, Moorcraft offers us a thought-provoking perspective when those with the time are pitted against those also with the time, bringing in to focus something so rarely achieved but dearly sought after by various powers: the absolute defeat of an insurgency, an uprising, a rebellion or whatever term is used to describe it.
Ultimately, Sri Lanka’s narrative is about the costs involved of defying the conventional wisdom that counter-insurgencies cannot be won militarily, set against the (Long) War on Terror discourse which offers little outside evidence that wars today are winnable.
The author quotes an Indian defence expert summarising the ‘Rajapaksa model’ of COIN:
- Political will
- ‘Go to hell’ (ignore international and domestic criticism)
- But keep important neighbors in the loop
- No negotiations
- Control the media
- No ceasefire
- Complete operational freedom
- Promote young and able commanders
Naturally, this neat wish list could never be quite so neat when being played out in a real scenario. But for the Sri Lankans prosecuting this war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Tigers (LTTE), certain elements came together at the right time, meaning that when final victory was sensed, the President felt secure enough to inform a very concerned Indian ‘top-level security troika’: “Even if you invade my country, I will not stop this.”
By this stage of the game, Sri Lankan leadership was tight and almost impenetrable: President Rajapaksa had one brother, Gotabaya, as Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Defence, and another one, Basil, as a senior and advisor and then Minister of Economic Development.
By contrast, the LTTE, despite being adept at using the media and Diaspora networks for support and funding, committed some serious strategic errors and was led by a dictatorial leader who believed his own hype. Using the fanatical Black Tigers, the suicide attack division, they assassinated Rajiv Ghandi of India, the regional powerhouse who through the state of Tamil Nadu had some constituent sympathy for their cause. While the Tamils alienated India, Sri Lanka kept good relations with Pakistan and China, through whom they had a friend on the UN Security Council. On the ground, profiting from armed peace during periods of supposed ceasefire bled the Tamils’ local support.
Matters reached a head in ‘The Cage’, an internationally-brokered no-fire zone which only really served to concentrate combatants and civilians into one area so that opening fire could most conveniently be undertaken. In fact, by this stage, the only shots fired in anger were fired in The Cage. No rear bases in neighbouring territory were possible. Despite the outcry resulting from the civilian loss of life, the Tamils were in effect pushed into the sea, a bellicose figure of speech used on the eve of battle that on this occasion was enacted.
Since then, peace seems to have paid dividends: the state of emergency has been lifted, the growth rate of the economy has been 7-8%, and the tourist industry is rebounding strongly. But this is the time when you find out just how ‘total’ the victory was. Given the dominant presence of the military in so much of Sri Lanka’s history, its peacetime politics are inevitably militarized.
Still, as Moorcraft muses, what would a political settlement have achieved? “Another North-South Sudan at worse or a divided Cyprus at best?” This is undoubtedly a difficult question, one which runs counter to the moral sensibilities with which we tend to view and discuss conflict today. Certainly, no outside observer or diplomat could be willing a total victory – but their influence was deflected at the crucial times.
In discussions about whether the ends justify the means, the formula rarely features an end quite so definitive as that experienced in Sri Lanka. The net result, which the author leads us to, is that when there are so few voices decrying what they see as the end of the world, observers, unaccustomed to victory, are left wondering quite how they arrived at the butterfly they are presented with, in places agonising over the costs – but nonetheless, it is still a butterfly.
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