Counterinsurgency Lessons From Sri Lanka

Can insurgencies be crushed by purely military means? Many counterinsurgency -theorists doubt it, arguing that guerrilla wars are won and lost primarily on the political front. It will be interesting, then, to see what conclusions they draw from the dramatic end of Sri Lanka's brutal civil war against the Tamil Tigers.

Last week the Tigers admitted defeat in their two-and-a-half-decade insurgency after the death of their leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, at the hands of the military. Sri Lanka's strategy relied on a few key tactics. First, the government created heavily armed village militias to protect civilians—mostly civilians who belonged to the majority ethnic Sinhalese population. Second, whenever it cleared an area of rebels, it quickly moved in enough professional soldiers to hold the ground. Third, Colombo used highly trained commandos to snoop out guerrilla bases deep in the jungle, where they used GPS to call in airstrikes. Many of these tactics are replicable elsewhere—in fact, they should sound especially familiar to Central Command chief Gen. David -Petraeus, whose military surge in Iraq relied on just such techniques.

But other parts of Sri Lanka's victory will prove harder to replicate. Tim Fish of Jane's Defence Weekly in London says that the government's naval blockade, which cut off the Tigers' seaborne supply lines, proved critically important. But in places like Afghanistan, choking reinforcements is proving impossible due to a notoriously -porous 2,575-kilometer border with Pakistan's lawless tribal areas. The Sri Lankan military also relied on a strong central government—a stark contrast to the weak authorities in Baghdad and -Kabul. What's more, as the war dragged on, Sri Lanka's people, of whom only 11 percent are Tamil, agreed to tolerate the suspension of some civil rights, such as placing Tamil refugees in temporary holding camps to screen fighters from civilians. Worse, critics claim that the government's indiscriminate use of artillery and air power in the final phases of the campaign likely led to huge civilian casualties. It's hard to imagine Washington blessing a similar approach in Baghdad or Kabul—nor should it.

If anything, Sri Lanka's hard-fought win probably underscores just how long it actually takes to win a counterinsurgency—the government needed 26 years to defeat the fanatical Tigers. By that measure, America's wars against its insurgent enemies have only just gotten started.