July 6, 2009

WHO LED THEM, GRANT AND SHERMAN?:

To Catch a Tiger: Sri Lanka's brutal suppression of the Tamil Tigers offers an object lesson in how to defeat an insurgency. Or does it? (Robert D. Kaplan, 7/01/09, The Atlantic)

The war was won using techniques like the following, which the United States could and should never employ.

The insurgents are using human shields? No problem. Just keep killing the innocent bystanders until you get to the fighters themselves. There is no comparison between the few civilians that have been killed by American Predator drones in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region, and the many that were killed by the Sri Lankan government. The Americans have carefully targeted select al-Qaeda members and, in the process, killed a few—at the most, dozens—of civilians among whom the fighters were surrounded. By contrast, the Sri Lankan military indiscriminately killed large numbers of civilians—as many as 20,000 in the final months of fighting, according to the United Nations.

Bad media coverage is hurting morale and giving succor to the enemy? Just kill the journalists. That's what the Sri Lankan authorities did. Precisely because insurgencies are unconventional, there are no easy-to-follow infantry advances and retreats, so the media holds the power to shape a narrative for the public. Aware of the need for a compliant media to aid the war effort, the Sri Lankan government struck fear into the ranks of journalists. There were hundreds of disappearances of top opinion leaders.

“Murder has become the primary tool whereby the state seeks to control the organs of liberty,” wrote journalist Lasantha Wickramatunga in a self-penned obituary that anticipated his own assassination in early 2009. Sources told me that he was killed by having iron rods with sharp points driven through his skull. “If Lasantha, with all of his connections, could be killed in broad daylight, then they could do this to anybody,” one journalist in the capital of Colombo told me. This journalist told me stories about reporters being beaten black and blue, leading to an atmosphere of extreme self-censorship—“the worst and most insidious kind.” Another journalist told me: “Lasantha’s fate really scared us. People like me decided it was more important to stay alive than to report the news.” No journalist I met in Colombo was willing to cross the line and publicly attack the government.

The international community disapproves of your methods and cuts off military aid because of the human rights violations you've committed? Again, no problem. Get aid from China, whose assistance comes without moral lectures. That’s just what the Sri Lankan Government did. In return, the Chinese got the right to help construct a deep water port in Sri Lanka, close to world shipping lanes.

So is there any lesson here? Only a chilling one. The ruthlessness and brutality to which the Sri Lankan government was reduced in order to defeat the Tigers points up just how nasty and intractable the problem of insurgency is. The Sri Lankan government made no progress against the insurgents for nearly a quarter century, until they turned to extreme and unsavory methods.

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 6, 2009 3:53 PM
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