The Global Context of Counterterrorism: Strategy, Ethics, and Sustainability in Sri Lanka’s COIN Experience
[Editors note: We were forwarded Dr. Kilcullen's speech by someone present at the on-going "Defeating Terrorism: The Sri Lankan Experience" seminar in Colombo. The person who sent us the email noted that "Australian counter-terrorism expert David Kilcullen speech today at def seminar. It was the best for the day where he insinuated that by giving strong political leadership to finish the war, the MR is indirectly responsible for war crimes. He got a very good ovation from the audience, which included the army commander and Rajiva Wijesinha. We were laughing, because the "government" folks missed the egg on their face lines." Emphasis ours.]
Defense Secretary Rajapaksa, Professor Peiris, General Jayasuriya, distinguished officials, officers, and delegations: Good morning. Thank you for organizing this important conference, and for your kind invitation to talk frankly with you about Sri Lanka’s experience in Eelam War IV. As I said when I accepted the invitation to attend, I believe your defeat of LTTE is a remarkable achievement that deserves to be studied. At the same time, the international community has legitimate questions about human rights and about the way operations were conducted, and it is in Sri Lanka’s interest to be as open as possible in answering those questions. I am not known for being diplomatic, so let me say from the outset that I do believe Sri Lanka has achieved a great success, but before you can put forward your approach as a model for others, it’s extremely important to address some important human rights critiques, and consider how to turn a military success into a sustainable peace. I don’t believe we are there yet.
Before I begin, let me also note that none of my comments today are or can be definitive. It would be arrogant and presumptuous for me to lecture you on “proper” tactics and strategy. All I can do is to provide an outsider’s perspective, and to share some of the lessons I’ve learned in the campaigns of the last decade: it is for you to decide how, and indeed whether, these insights apply to you.
I’d like to focus my remarks around three topic areas: strategy, human rights and sustainability.
The Eelam IV campaign was a remarkable achievement, with important lessons for other militaries facing capable irregular opponents. The Sri Lankan Armed Forces applied innovative tactics, combining guerilla and conventional tactics, joint operations, and constant organizational adaptation.
Most importantly, the SLA applied these tactics in the service of an effective strategic plan. This strategic plan took advantage of the Tiger’s main weaknesses: their hierarchical and conventional structure, and their reliance on international support. Eelam IV was the last major campaign in a protracted war, and the Tigers had over time gained very significant conventional capability. This had important implications for strategy, since LTTE was more a conventional opponent than a guerrilla adversary during Eelam IV.
One key innovation was the application of Special Infantry Operations training throughout the Army, which increased the capabilities of the regular Sri Lankan soldier and his unit, enabling them to carry out complex operations in and behind enemy lines. SIO training also developed the soldier himself, nurturing professionalism in the Sri Lankan Army and revitalizing confidence in the skills of conventional units. Because of these developments in ability and professionalism, ground forces maintained a high and constant attrition rate against LTTE. Even though a large part of the conflict was fought in a conventional manner, this shift in operational emphasis and training allowed the SLA to wage an effective counter-guerilla war in combination with conventional operations.
The Tri-Services, national and local police, the Civil Security Service, and special-forces and commando units all conducted combined operations in partnership. Combined (partnered) operations are a vital aspect of counterinsurgency; their successful application in Sri Lanka is an important lesson for other countries.
The adaptations of the Sri Lankan armed forces were not limited to tactics; Sri Lanka’s success also derived from the way it learned from, adapted to, and overcame operational obstacles as a learning organization. One of the hallmarks of Eelam IV was the attention given to nurturing tactical innovation from experienced soldiers. Training programs such as the Advanced Infantry Platoon Training (AIPT) devolved command from Platoon Commanders down to their soldiers in an open process of frank analysis and tactical discussion. By encouraging even the most junior soldier to think creatively about the conflict environment, AIPT had a force-wide effect, literally altering the organizational culture of the Sri Lankan Army. Unlike a traditional top-down command system, AIPT nurtured a sense of involvement and ownership, encouraging initiative and innovation throughout the ranks.
Though these tactical advances were important, their greatest advantage came from the strategy they supported. The government’s strategy accurately assessed and attacked the Tigers’ operational weaknesses.
The Tigers claimed to represent the political goals of Sri Lanka’s entire Tamil population. The schism within the LTTE and the split with Colonel Karuna in 2004 gave the lie to that claim, and led the Tigers to mistreat and alienate the population of Eastern Province. The Army was quick to exploit this divide, employing the local knowledge of Karuna’s troops in combination with conventional operations control the entire Eastern Province by August 2007.
The Tigers also relied on international funding and support. The post 9-11 crackdown on international terrorist financing severely reduced this source of funding. The military, especially the Navy, exploited this weakness by targeting Tiger supply ships, confident that lost materiel could no longer be replaced.
Another key element of the strategy focused on the Tigers’ hierarchical structure and conventional warfare approach. With a leadership based on a cult of personality, as well as a definite chain of command and organizational structure, the Tigers were susceptible to military collapse following defeat on the battlefield or loss of key leaders. Recognizing this, the government was able to confront the Tigers on a strictly military basis, making this more of a conventional war than a traditional counterinsurgency campaign, and yet with a high chance of success.
The Tigers chose to confront the Army symmetrically in open warfare; in response the Armed Forces fought and destroyed them through conventional operations that developed a tempo, mass, and operational capability they could not match. The Army’s combination of conventional and counter-guerilla tactics denied the Tigers a competitive advantage, while the tempo of operations prevented the Tigers from regrouping. Finally, the size of the Sri Lankan Army, which was recruiting nearly 3,000 soldiers a month by the end of 2008, gave it a decisive mass advantage over the dwindling LTTE.
Finally, most controversially, the strategy gave the Tigers no opening to surrender. It is normal in Counterinsurgency to provide an open avenue for reconciliation and surrender, but Sri Lanka appears to have decided that the special circumstances of the conflict with the LTTE made this inadvisable. In the past, the Tigers had repeatedly exploited international concern and cease-fires, using the breathing space to regroup and rearm. Recognizing this, the government ignored international calls for restraint and focused on completely destroying the Tigers. The government displayed unshakeable political, opposing all external and internal pressure for a ceasefire. This political cover provided the time, space, and support necessary for the free execution of the highly attritional military strategy.
Thus the government accurately assessed the Tigers’ strategic weaknesses, and aggressively sought to exploit them. The government attacked the bases of the Tigers’ material and political support, using conventional tactics to destroy their fighting capability. Importantly, the Tigers contributed to their own downfall by exploiting and abusing the Tamil population, destroying whatever local credibility may have remained after 25 years of war. In essence, the Sri Lankan government exploited its advantages to out-adapt and out-compete the LTTE.
Eelam IV has led some to question the basic precepts of classical COIN theory. This theory, as laid out by David Galula, Robert Thompson and others, advocates protecting the population and political primacy as ways to win over the population, isolate the insurgent and forge a lasting peace. Sri Lanka chose a different path, in direct contradiction to these prescriptions, which seems to have produced quick and dramatic results. I’d like to take a moment to address some of the issues this apparent contradiction raises.
Counterinsurgency is at heart an adaptation battle, a struggle to develop and apply new techniques in a fast-moving, high-threat environment. An effective counterinsurgency strategy depends on the nature of the counterinsurgent, the population, and the insurgency itself. COIN is not defined by any one set of techniques; what might work against one insurgent group may fail against another, and what might be effective today will not be tomorrow. A counterinsurgency strategy is literally any combination of actions to counter an insurgency.
Sri Lanka’s strategy embodied this principle. It recognized that the Tigers were operating in a conventional manner, were hierarchical and were actively alienating the Tamil population. Therefore, defeating them conventionally became possible.
The population-centric approach of classical COIN theory, as well as in Iraq and Afghanistan, is a response to a different type of insurgent threat. The Taliban, for instance, are not trying to defeat the Afghan Government in a conventional battle. Instead, they are using asymmetric threats and competitive governance to undermine the government and the International Community. Against this type of group, conventional military operations would be ineffective and counterproductive. A population centric approach that seeks to provide sustainable security, improve community resiliency and create a responsive government stands a higher chance of success.
Addressing Human Rights Concerns
The recent release of the United Nations Secretary General’s Panel of Experts’ report on accountability in Sri Lanka is the latest in a series of reports detailing potentially serious human rights abuses by both the LTTE and the government. Similar questions of abuse have been raised by organizations around the world.
Multiple accounts from these sources and others show a pattern of allegations against the Tigers and the government. These include alleged indiscriminate fire on civilians or refugees, extrajudicial killings of surrendering forces, denial of humanitarian assistance in conflict zones, and human rights violations outside the conflict zone, before, during, and after hostilities. Allegations against Tigers include using civilians as human shields, murdering civilians attempting to flee conflict areas, detention, torture and executions of civilians and unarmed prisoners of war, forced recruitment and use of child soldiers, forced enslavement of civilians in conflict zones, and the killing of civilians through suicide attacks and other acts of terrorism. The alleged shelling of the no-fire-zone in Mullaitivu District contributes to a view among some well-placed observers that the government too has engaged in abuses. Reports from NGO and UN staff detail the shelling of hospitals throughout Mullaitivu, injuring and killing scores of civilians.
As I noted earlier, I’m an outsider: but even I have no illusions about the extreme brutality of Tamil Tigers and their 25 years of atrocious violence against the Sri Lankan people. Again as an outsider, though, I must say that it is very difficult to see how the international community can accept the Sri Lankan model without a frank and honest discussion of these allegations of abuse.
The LTTE was well known for its ruthlessness and disregard for civilian life, never more so than when it employed civilians as human shields, or pressed children into battle. Understanding the trade-offs inherent in fighting such an implacable and abusive enemy is critical. Sri Lanka could argue that doing whatever it took to defeat such an enemy, and so ending the conflict, was morally justifiable in the special circumstances of the campaign. When an enemy repeatedly uses civilians as human shields, a government that gives in to this tactic may simply be prolonging the campaign, ultimately costing more lives. Opinions of course will vary on this, but having that discussion is critical.
It is obvious even to an outsider like me that Sri Lankan forces grappled with these issues during the Eelam IV campaign. The Sri Lankan Navy showed great restraint when facing Sea Tiger boats hiding among civilian refugee vessels, putting themselves at risk to positively identify Sea Tiger vessels before firing. The Sri Lankan Army faced a similar situation at Mullaitivu, and made significant attempts to evacuate noncombatants from the no-fire zone without allowing LTTE forces to escape.
On the other hand, the use of force against noncombatant civilians may help defeat a ruthless enemy who uses them as shields, but it can have very negative effects on long-term resolution of the conflict. Violence against civilians breeds resentment and hatred towards the government, and this will be exacerbated in the long run unless there is a public process of accountability and reconciliation. In this light, the provisions of international law can be seen not as restrictions that limit operational effectiveness, but rather as key tools that allow for long-term strategic success by helping to achieve a lasting peace.
Towards a Sustainable Peace
Even if a military strategy shows great respect for the local population, there are limits to its ability to solve counterinsurgency conflicts.
As I mentioned above, insurgencies are the outgrowth of political or economic grievances against the government on the part of the local population. Military strategy may reduce the effectiveness of an insurgent enemy, but an end to insurgent violence does not necessarily indicate an end to the conflict. A stark disparity in military power may prevent insurgent violence, but at the same time fail to promote long-term peace. If the original grievances driving the conflict remain ignored, the incentive for violence will remain.
I have seen this type of phenomenon first hand. In Afghanistan in 2001 the United States destroyed the Taliban regime in seven weeks. Key Taliban commanders laid down their arms and acknowledged the legitimacy of the newly formed central government. However, after two years with little effort at true reconciliation, accountability or peace-building, and with abuses against surrendered Taliban by their former enemies who were bent on settling scores, former Taliban reconstituted their government as the Quetta Shura and relaunched an insurgency. The insurgency we are facing in Afghanistan arises directly from a lack of effective peace-building after the military defeat of the Taliban in 2001.
Likewise, in East Timor, the Australian-led intervention force succeeded in nipping an insurgency in the bud, and in crushing the militias who had so violently abused the Timorese people and threatened to bring down the newly independent state. But we failed to conduct a fully transparent and accountable peace and reconciliation process, and the international community and the Timorese government excluded key players from the new government. By 2002 there were signs of unrest, and by 2006 these had broken out once more into violent conflict. Both these cases show that failure to fully engage in the difficult and painful process of fully accountable, transparent peace-building and reconciliation, can simply lead to a resumption of conflict.
The actions you have taken since the end of the conflict in 2009 have been impressive: over 200,000 Internally Displaced Persons have been released or resettled, and over 30 High Security Zones have been demobilized, allowing over 3,000 families to return home. Development and reintegration programs also seem to be in full swing. The DDR program has made impressive progress, and the Joint Plan for Assistance to the Northern Province looks set to bring economic investment to Jaffna and the surrounding areas.
But challenges still lie ahead. IDPs still require basic necessities and state services, and fully 15,000 Tamils still live in refugee camps. 70,000 refugees also remain in Tamil Nadu, India. The resolution of their situation will have a huge impact on future reintegration programs. The JPA focuses primarily on economic investment and development for the North in an attempt to return to a state of “normalcy.” Economic development can be a key aspect of counterinsurgency, but in my experience, by itself prosperity does little to address the drivers of conflict. A return to normalcy is important for the health and safety of the Tamil population, but the normal condition of Tamils within Sri Lanka state was what led to the rise of the Tigers in the first place, so if we want to avoid a repeat of the conflict, that is ultimately what needs to change.
It’s easy to talk about political reconciliation, but of course carrying it out is extremely difficult. Paul Collier has found that countries affected by conflict are much less likely to revert to violence if they engage in an all-encompassing peace and reconciliation process. Unfortunately, best practices for such a process are unclear and require a long-term investment of resources and effort. One cannot artificially accelerate the resolution of complicated economic, social and political problems. Given this context, I’d like to provide some thoughts on the ways in which governments can be effective in addressing the needs of their local population.
An essential area in which government can help ensure long-term peace is the way in which it carries out reconstruction and redevelopment initiatives. Redevelopment efforts that are executed from the bottom up, with a strong focus on improving community resiliency, have proven especially effective at achieving long-term stability; the design and execution of reform initiatives is as important as the content of peace-building measures.
Just as the Sri Lankan Army underwent a grassroots, bottom-up redevelopment of its core operational strategy and organizational culture in order to win the war, so must political and civil redevelopment of former insurgent areas start with bottom-up solutions to governance reform, community resilience and sustainable security. Community-focused reintegration is particularly effective in increasing the impact of DDR and redevelopment plans. Institutionalization of governance at the local level to foster linkages between government and communities is also vital.
In this context, I see promise in the Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commision. Provided the commission honestly and openly examines the events that took place from the breakdown of the Cease-Fire Agreement (CFA) to the end of hostilities in May of 2009, detailing causes of the conflict and ways to move forward on reconciliation, it has important potential to help move towards meaningful reconciliation. The recent statement from Minister of External Affairs Professor G.L. Peiris, affirming the government’s commitment to work towards a genuine reconciliation by working with all parties on a compromise devolution package, is an extremely important first step.
It seems to me that the best hope for long-term peace, following the remarkably successful defeat of the Tigers in Eelam IV, lies in robust political and economic reform at the local, community-level in all former insurgent-controlled areas. A government that brings peace, justice, and reconciliation to its people will be defended by its people, regardless of ethnic group.
Thank you again for the opportunity to be here today. I have not shied away from raising some difficult questions with you, and I hope you will understand the importance of engaging openly with international criticism, while in no way minimizing Sri Lanka’s achievement in destroying such a violent and ruthless enemy, and the importance of seeking lasting peace through justice. I look forward to learning more from you, both during this conference and in the field.
[Editors note: Dr. David Kilcullen is an Australian author and consultant on counterinsurgency and counterterrorism who is the founder and CEO of Caerus Associates, a Washington D.C. based consultancy firm. He is a former Australian Army Royal Australian Infantry Corps Lieutenant Colonel and Analyst with the Australian Office of National Assessments. Kilcullen was seconded to the United States Department of State Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism as Chief Counterterrorism Strategist and then was the Special Advisor for Counterinsurgency to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. In 2007 he served as the Senior Counterinsurgency Adviser to the Commander of the Multi-National Force - Iraq General David Petraeus as a civilian position on his personal staff responsible for planning and executing the 2007-08 Joint Campaign Plan which drove the Iraq War troop surge of 2007. Source: Wikipedia]
In response to this article, we were sent this email by Rajiva Wijesinha on 2 June 2011 and publish it in full.
I was bemused by the piece in Groundviews about David Kilcullen’s speech. It was sent to me since I was also, gratuitously it seemed, mentioned, so I thought I should check with Mr Kilcullen, who has sent the following response. I trust that you will carry it in full. Regards, Rajiva (Wijesinha)
the Groundviews report is a total mischaracterization of my remarks. I never mentioned war crimes, nor suggested in the slightest possible way that any senior official encouraged or condoned them.
What I did say is that the international community has some serious questions about human rights issues in the way the final campaigns were conducted, and that Sri Lanka (from what I can see) has nothing to hide, and therefore nothing to lose by engaging in an open discussion about these issues.
I also pointed to the need for full accountability and reconciliation going forward, and mentioned our experience in Afghanistan as a cautionary tale: military victory over the enemy is the start, not the end, of a process of peacemaking and it’s incredibly important to get this process right, otherwise the conflict will simply come back.
As the chairman of the session correctly pointed out, I made these remarks from a position of strong solidarity with the people of Sri Lanka — Tamils and others — who have suffered so egregiously from the predations of the LTTE over 30 years, and after fully half of the speech where I talked in detail about the achievements and innovations of the Sri Lankan Armed Forces.
As I said, I’m stunned that anyone could misinterpret my remarks in such a way and would urge anyone to simply read the speech or listen to what I said — anyone who does that can judge for themselves.