Small Wars Journal

Understanding Sri Lanka's Defeat of the Tamil Tigers

Understanding Sri Lanka's Defeat of the Tamil Tigers by Major Niel A. Smith, Joint Force Quarterly.

After three decades of conflict, Sri Lanka's government defeated the ethnic separatist insurgent group Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), popularly known as the Tamil Tigers, in May 2009. The violence and brutality employed by both sides in the final years of the conflict drew significant interest from the global civilian and military communities, especially when Sri Lanka credited its callousness to civilian casualties as a key to its success. The defeat of the LTTE added to the debates over U.S. counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine and the role of lethal force in counterinsurgency. Some have advocated that the United States consider employing such tactics as part of an effective COIN campaign, utilizing recent cases such as Sri Lanka and Chechnya to bolster their case...

Read the entire article at Joint Force Quarterly.


The LTTE was soundly defeated, and with it the Tamils hopes for a separate state. It also left them isolated, impoverished, and exhausted. My essay was an attempt to briefly capture what happened. Some writers imply that Sri Lanka won because they woke up one day and decided to use "at all costs" tactics and won the war because of it. Baloney. Both sides were using those from the start, by 2007 they simply got the upper hand in resources to win due to their own improvements and the LTTE's self inflicted wounds, and had extra political top-cover from their BFF China.

Bob is right, of course the Tamils can rise again, and they may. The LTTE's refusal to abandon its objectionable tactics (suicide bombing, chemical bombs, terror) deprived the Tamils of a crucial requirement - external political support. By 2005 the Tamils had no allies other than their expats, no champion in the international community because of the character of their campaign.

Ken White (not verified)

Mon, 09/06/2010 - 3:16pm

Quote of the Week nomination:<blockquote>"Unwilling to accept that war is, by its nature, a savage act and that defeat is immoral, influential officers are arguing for a kinder, gentler approach to our enemies. Much of this is not due to the military commanders but an omnipresent media and well meaning civilian advisors with nervous domestic political leaders who want to get re-elected."</blockquote>Jason Thomas, Blog comment on "Understanding Sri Lanka's Defeat of the Tamil Tigers" SWJ,9:01 PM Sep 5 2010.


Thanks for the quote from Ralph Peters. His point about government leaders being anxious to start wars and too timid to end them rings true based on my experience. All the talk about good governance, economic development, etc. is value added to the discussion and as part of the means to and end, BUT we can never forget this is warfare and we're ALSO required to first and foremost defeat the enemy in battle. During mop up and consolidation you work on good governance and economic development. What the gov of Sri Lanka should be doing now.

I'm not sure what a classical COIN approach is (seems to be the approach that frequently fails), but the conflict in Sri Lanka was closer to our Civil War than anything resembling an insurgency. The LTTE had its own Army (and an irregular navy and even a few planes), they controlled large swaths of territory where they waged conventional battles (in some battles during the 90s several hundred Sri Lankan soldiers were killed in a 2-3 day period), etc. This wasn't a war of infiltration and subversion, but a large scale separatist movement.

My comments about comparing the LTTE to the conventional wars of WWI and WWII were not out of place. The Sri Lankan army had to fight major battles to take and hold territory. Justas in WWI and WWII civilians were on the battlefield and they frequently became casualties. If the West or China provided sufficient assistance to the Gov of Sri Lanka years ago, they would have defeated LTTE years ago and saved the people on both sides much suffering. If you're going to fight, then fight to win.


Your point is a good one in that the insurgent relies on our abhorrent reaction to their tactics as much as the act itself. What the GOSL did was brutalise them back. The GOSL did not care for the politically correct approach to war we seem to have got ourselves into in the West.

So Bill M you are right. The GOSL was not cowardly; they just do not place the same constraints on waging war as we do. The LTTE are very lucky that the Muslim community has not rallied to form its own insurgency because the Tamil's committed atrocities on this community constantly.

From working with Coalition forces in Afghanistan many troops observed how Afghanistan had become a politically correct war. Ralph Peters hit the nail on the head in his 2006 New York Post article when he observed it is hard enough to bear the timidity of our civilian leaders - anxious to start wars but without the guts to finish them - but now military leaders have fallen prey to political correctness. Unwilling to accept that war is, by its nature, a savage act and that defeat is immoral, influential officers are arguing for a kinder, gentler approach to our enemies. Much of this is not due to the military commanders but an omnipresent media and well meaning civilian advisors with nervous domestic political leaders who want to get re-elected.

While I am a late student to COIN Im not convinced the GOSL actually implemented a classical COIN approach. They certainly did not care about hearts and minds. They waged a military campaign based on winning from a military perspective. Althought this did take almost 20 years.

The other key difference in Sri Lanka compared to Afghanistan is that it has had a well functioning system of government and democracy with entrench institutions and system. The GOSL wasnt setting up Government from scratch or having a system imposed on it from the outside (regardless of how worthy and right our system my be to us)

Some of these comments are remarkable. The poor LTTE separatist movement was brutalized by a cowardly government? Give us all a break, they were defeated in the field of battle. It was as much a war of movement as it was an insurgency, and not unlike WWI, WWII, Korea, or Vietnam a lot of civilians were killed on "both" sides. This politically correct rhetoric coming from sophmores in college is almost tolerable (they haven't seen the world yet), but coming from adults it is inexcusable, due to its excessive bias. The LTTE was one of many Tamil groups, the other groups were brutally put down by the LTTE. The LTTE brutalized their own people, and they employed brutal terrorist attacks that killed hundreds of innocent of civilians. War is brutal, it should be avoided whenever possible, but when it can't be avoided, any sane belligerent will fight to win. That is what the Gov of Sri Lanka did.

The LTTE was defeated, that doesn't mean they won't form again, or another group won't form again, but the liberal and judgmental West is making it very hard for the Gov of Sri Lanka to practice good governance when they are pushing instead for war crimes instead of assisting them reconciliate. This may be another episode where the extreme left manages to pull another defeat from the jaws of victory, which will only lead to more suffering for the people they claim to be helping.

Bob's World

Sun, 09/05/2010 - 10:36am

I suspect the conditions of insurgency in Sri Lanka and within the Tamil populace are alive and well, and quite possibly enhanced, by what is being touted as a COIN victory in the 'defeat' of the LTTE.

Counterinsurgent operations do not win insurgencies. Never have, never will. They will suppress insurgency, but that is a far different thing. Colonial powers could conduct such operations and merely suppress the insurgency and call it a victory back in the day, as they were just there to exploit the people and lands of others for their own profit. Suppression was good enough. Many have learned the wrong lessons from this history of military suppression of insurgency through the conduct of counterinsurgent operations.

There is, however, now a window of opportunity to actually focus on the conditions of insurgency that were the causation for the LTTE to form and emerge; and will be the causation for whatever group will emerge to replace them.

I suspect the LTTE made the common mistake of surging to Phase III operations to pursue their cause. This made them far more vulnerable to being defeated militarily. They will likely revert to Phase I or II tactics to avoid this from happening again.

We should be encouraging the Tamils to embrace non-violent insurgency to continue their campaign for good governance; while at the same time encouraging Sri Lanka and India to work on extending good governance to the Tamils. This is the path to "defeating" the conditions of insurgency; not the mere application of a military beatdown on the insurgent himself.

John Christopher (not verified)

Sun, 09/05/2010 - 9:32am

It is wrong to call it a defeat for the LTTE, and a victory for the Srilanka armed forces. It was not a conventional war but cowardly war with leathal mass destrctive weapons aimed at the thousands of civilians to smoke out the LTTE caders. All the while the International Community was a mute spectator especially the big powers, they failed to distiguish between terrorists and freedom fighters. What the 70 million Tamils feel now is very important? One must understand these people psychologically in the first place. They are very humble, simple and hardworking people, they are very emotional too. They can go to any extend to avenge their destruction (the genocide). For the time being they are lying low watching the global political games especially the games played by India which houses MPs who have criminal records, corrupt to the core. In short you can say they are buying time. I have had a lot of friends in the Tamil circle. I know them how they can react to the situation and I am surprised why they are slow to act this time. They will slowly but surely react to the determintal of the world because they have lost their own kith and kin in the battle. When every cadre of the LTTE was ready to sacrifice his or her own family, kids and kins, and willing to take away his/her own life, how could you call them a defeated organisation. Yassar Arafat called it "the most disciplined organisation", as long as there are some wolves in the sheep's cloth and the snakes in the grass are there amidst the noble race, there will be criticism and rumour hanging around. Let's all wait and see the fun, may be even after decades. Those of who, who are judgemental, fist wait and see, will you be slaves to anyone when you are much more intelligent, brave and harworking than your oppressors. Be logical and pass your verdict.

saintsimon (not verified)

Sun, 09/05/2010 - 9:31am

Questions - your argument is that the LTTE was vulnerable and in decline before the offensive and therefore the offensive was simply a rather brutal coup de grace - are you then implying the offensive was unnecessary? Clearly you indicate that the offensive sped up the process - but are you suggesting victory happens regardless? Or was 'time' a factor and therefore the offensive indeed was necessary? Certainly for China it was necessary since they were after a valuable strategic asset, but did Sri Lanka also see it as necessary? Were they aware of the LTTE's vulnerability and therefore trying to make a statement through the nature of the offensive - or did they sincerely believe brutality was necessary?

An interesting essay, but seems to me a number of important questions still need to be addressed and therefore the 'Sri Lankan model' should remain a focus for study. Certainly for me Sri Lanka continues to conjure up the essence of a fundamental problem, namely: the key to extremist tactics is that they make a calculated gamble that those opposing them will not resort to a similar [though certainly not identical] extremist approach which might tend to render that opponent's superiority in numbers and equipment 'decisive' - in other words the extremism of a given insurgency is how that insurgency compensates for diminished resources and is based on the assumption that that extremism, if not matched by a similar ruthlessness by a COIN, will trump the putative advantages inherent to the COIN. It follows that the only way to disabuse a given extremist insurgency of this belief - this faith, if you will - is by calling their bluff. To me that challenge is at the heart of what we attempted, with some success, in Iraq and are attempting, with the promise of decidedly less success, in Afghanistan.

Johnny and Neil you guys are correct.

Imagine the US and international forces employing the same tactics used by the GOSL!

And as with any defeat of insurgency it appears a combination of factors led to success. When you have zero care for human life and have shut out the eyes of the world - well you have leveled the playing field with the insurgents. No hearts and minds to care about here.

I witnessed first hand the breakaway by Karuna. Unfortunately the gunman stuck his AK in my face after the hijakcing of the van and assaninating the LTTE dudes who were taking Karuna to Kilinochi. (that was going to be a one way trip for Karuna)

Karuna established the TMVP that moved from being its GOSL back guerilla movement against the LTTE to being a political force along the Eastern Province.

It was a politically smart move of the then new Eastern Chief Minister in 2008 to visit the Kattakundy mosque to apologise for the massacre that occurred there 12 years ago(instigated by Karuna)

They then carried out systematic assaninations / Kiddnappings of Tamil business people and academics. A close friend of mine dissappeared in 2006.

The GOSL was very effective at putting the screws on the LTTE funding and resources at a multilateral level. They made top rate use of global tools and the Diaspora to lobby Western governments to slowly but surely close off support. Post 9/11 this became easier with the world wide legislative changes to cut off funding channels to organisations linked to insurgency groups. This seriously depleted the LTTE of funding to run their military campaign, deliver food and supplies to its cadres and population.

The increasing sophistication of the weapons and armour being used by the GOSL from around 2006 onwards it was obvious external parties had injected support in funding, equipment or both.

The nationalist Buddahist movement in Sri Lanka is enormously powerful and would never allow any negotiated peace. They applied significant political pressure on any member of the GOSL who was in favour of peace. In fact if you were a proponent of peace in Sri Lanka you were considered "unpatriotic". One of my favourite new words invented by the GOSL is "peacemonger" used to describe those who were publically calling for negotiations to peace.

The GOSL was effective at evicting anyone from Sri Lanka who even smelt like they were in favour of peace.

The GOSL effectively shut off development assistance to the North from international organisations. It was a test of Machiavellian tenacity with the GOSL to be able to continue operating in these areas.

I was one of the first Westerners allowed into the high security zone just north of Vavuniya within two weeks of the military offensive.
The humanitarian situation was unimaginable.

It was grotesque to see the 9ft high billboard of the GOSL President, in flowing white robes waving at the 85,000 IDPs in the Manik Farm detention facility.

The situation has barely changed on the ground for the population. Many of the military and police took land and houses vacated by the civilians when they were fleeing the offensive.

What the GOSL must be worried about is how it will deal with the mass of humanity seething in the north and in no better situation than before. While the GOSL may have crushed this generation of Tamil leadership Im not sure that the next generation will be happy to forgive and forget.

The irony is though the media and political leaders are unable to grasp or accept the time the current COIN approach takes, yet they would not accept the approach taken by the GOSL even if we were winning.

The standards for those of us who operate from the founding principles of freedom, respect for humanity and justice have the highest bar - and so they should have.

Thanks for the comments.

Jonny, I agree. Although the LTTE is defeated, it certainly remains to be seen whether another group will replace it.

That said, the physical and geographical isolation of the Tamils, along with an invigorated government, will make success an unlikely proposition, and likely visit further suffering on the Tamil populace.

Jonny (not verified)

Sat, 09/04/2010 - 8:06pm

"Defeat" is a premature diagnosis with regards to Sri Lanka's situation. The Tamil Tigers didn't lose politically and they are re-forming the leadership in exile and conducting huge fund raising campaigns among the Tamil diaspora in India and Canada. Its only a matter of time before civil war 2 starts thanks to the IDP situation and the Sinhalese government's unwillingness to address the situation of Tamil refugees.

Marzipan (not verified)

Sat, 09/04/2010 - 4:58pm

A much more balanced appreciation of the conflict in Sri Lanka. Political fragmentation of the enemy, Economic and military support over a multi-year period for the central government, development and improvement of armed forces over a multi-year period and the isolation of insurgents from funding.

Given that the Soviets killed hundreds of thousands of Afghans and treated most of the country as a free fire zone, why would you think a robust kinetic approach would be successful now?