David Brewster: ….. Review: Total Destruction of the Tamil Tigers: The Rare Victory of Sri Lanka’s Long War by Paul Moorcraft (Pen & Sword Military, 2012) in Journal of the Indian Ocean Region, Vol.9 No.2
Although the civil war in Sri Lanka ended some four years ago relatively little objective military or strategic analysis has been published on it. Memories of the war may now be receding, but it was one of the longest and bloodiest conflicts the Indian Ocean region has seen in modern times – spanning some three decades and taking an estimated 80-100,000 lives.
Paul Moorcraft’s book, Total Destruction of the Tamil Tigers, does not seek to provide a comprehensive account of the causes of the conflict or even of the conflict itself. Rather, it tries to answer the question: how did the Sri Lankan government so decisively and completely destroy a major insurgency that several times appeared on the brink of victory? What can the conflict teach governments battling insurgencies and, perhaps, insurgent groups themselves?
The Sri Lankan government’s 2009 victory, when it surrounded and destroyed the LTTE on the shores of the Nandikadal Lagoon, was certainly complete in military terms. As Moorcraft comments: “Since the final defeat Sri Lanka has not had to suffer any significant post-conflict insurgent violence (or ‘terrorism’) – no bombings at all; so far. This is unusual. If the peace is truly permanent, the conflict may well teach other nations how to end wars and bring peace.” Apart from the British experience in Malaya, there are no similar cases of such a complete destruction of an entrenched and well-organised insurgency.
Moorcraft’s book is a highly readable account of the war and he clearly had the benefit of considerable access to the Rajapaksa regime in writing it. As he demonstrates, although the LTTE regularly showed tactical brilliance in their fight against Government forces, they also made many strategic errors. Among these was the 1991 assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, scion of the Gandhi dynasty, in an attempt to teach India a lesson for its military intervention in Sri Lanka during the 1980s – an act which merely earned them the permanent enmity of their former backers. Other strategic mistakes included the assassination of Sinhalese leaders who demonstrated sympathy for the Tamils, and a failure to consider a negotiated solution as a way of achieving substantially all of their political goals of autonomy for the Tamils.
But it was the election of Mahinda Rajapaksa as Sri Lankan President in 2005 that decisively turned the tide. Rajapaksa was determined to win the war and reorganized Sri Lanka’s armed forces, and indeed much of the Sri Lankan State, to achieve this aim. One suspects that Moorcraft may have a sneaking admiration for Rajapaksa’s defiance of the international community to proceed with the ruthless destruction of the LTTE.
Let’s return to Moorcraft’s basic question: what can be learned from the total destruction of the Tamil Tigers? Moorcraft identifies several key factors in the decisive victory of Sri Lankan government forces. First, and foremost was the political will to win, combined with the efficiency trust in which President Rajapaksa worked with his inner circle, particularly his brother, Defence Minister Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The Rajapaksas also skillfully resisted humanitarian pressure from the international community which might have saved the LTTE leadership to fight another day. Crucial at the military level was the ability of government forces to reinvent themselves in 2006-7, and to adapt and mimic the successful tactics of the insurgents, particularly in small group operations on land and small boat operations at sea.
Moorcraft could have given more focus to the logistical defeat of the LTTE. From 1987, the Tamil insurgents received no assistance from foreign States and were forced to rely on Indian Tamils and Tamil exiles in the West. This meant that the LTTE was cashed up but did not have the crucial logistical, military and diplomatic support that a State backer can provide. The LTTE also had only a limited hinterland for logistics and retreat. This compares with the hinterlands available to say the Vietcong in Vietnam or the Taliban in Afghanistan. In the 1980s, the LTTE had use of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, which was a major contributor to its success during that period. But after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, the Sri Lankan and Indian Navies began to seriously cooperate to block the insurgents’ supply lines from India. The LTTE was ultimately forced to rely on so-called “floating warehouses”, unflagged merchant ships loitering offshore. The weakness of this arrangement was played out in 2006 and 2007 when Government forces, with the assistance of India and the United States, tracked down and destroyed these floating warehouses. This spelt the beginning of the end for the LTTE.
The book might have also benefited from more discussion of the role of other states in the conflict – Rajapaksa did not win the war by himself. India in particular played a key role in both the creation and destruction of the insurgency. In the 1980s New Delhi trained and armed the Tamil militants and then fought (and lost) a war against them, and later played an important (if largely secret) role in the victory of the Colombo regime. The United States also played an important role, particularly in the provision of imagery and intelligence to Sri Lankan government forces right up until the last days. It seems that it was in the interests of many powers to see the total destruction of the LTTE.
Moorcraft’s analysis of the Sri Lankan civil war makes an important contribution to our understanding of the conflict. In extracting the conflict from its underlying causes, Moorcraft helps us isolate the key factors behind the Sri Lankan government’s victory over the LTTE. These included an unshakeable political will, ruthlessness, and at a tactical level, a remarkable ability of government forces to adapt to and use insurgent tactics against the insurgents. Whether Rajapaksa can demonstrate the political will and flexibility to win the peace is another question.