Small Wars Journal

Sri Lanka's disconcerting COIN strategy for defeating the LTTE

Thu, 08/27/2009 - 2:48am
In the comments section of this SWJ post, Phil Ridderhof highlights a very interesting and disconcerting article in the Indian Defence Review containing lessons learned from Sri Lanka's defeat of the LTTE this year. The principles articulated in this article stand in almost complete opposition to the conceptualization of counterinsurgency articulated in FM 3-24. From the article:

"In the President's Office in Colombo officials talk about the 'Rajapaksa Model' (of fighting terror). "Broadly, win back the LTTE held areas, eliminate the top LTTE leadership and give the Tamils a political solution." Sunimal Fernando, one of Rajapaksa's advisors, says that the President demonstrated a basic resolve: "given the political will, the military can crush terrorism." This is not as simple as it sounds. Like most poll promises he did not have plans to fulfill his promise to militarily defeat the LTTE. Eelam I to III were miserable failures. So the 'Rajapaksa Model' evolved, it was not pre-planned."

The article lists the principles as:

• Unwavering political will

• Disregard for international opinion distracting from the goal

• No negotiations with the forces of terror

• Unidirectional floor of conflict information

• Absence of political intervention to pull away from complete defeat of the LTTE

• Complete operational freedom for the security forces -Let the best men do the task

• Accent on young commanders

• Keep your neighbors in the loop

Most western readers will find the lack of concern for civilian casualties in this strategy disconcerting. The article highlights the broad condemnation Sri Lanka received for its approach.

COL Gian Gentile and Ralph Peters have both criticized FM 3-24's unwillingness to consider alternate, more violent, and less population centric conceptualizations of counterinsurgency. Is the Sri Lanka model a valid option for western forces, if it ultimately solves the problem faster and potentially with less cost and casualties? After examining the subject the past few years, ruthless COIN approaches seem to work in a number of cases. The Sri Lankan approach resembles Russian efforts in Chechnya, which were similarly ruthless yet generally effective at suppressing the rebels. A similarly ruthless approach defeated and forced the submission of the US Native American tribes in the 19th century. However, an easy counterpoint to the "ruthless" method's effectiveness is its failure during the Soviet campaign in Afghanistan, which assisted in the creation of many of today's problems faced by ISAF.

On another forum, a respected colleague argued that the more violent approach to COIN might ultimately be more humanitarian. He suggested population centric COIN, while humanistic, takes longer, with uncertain probabilities of success, and often in the end creates more casualties among the population through inept execution than a ruthless enemy focused campaign.

This utilitarian view of force is tempting to those looking for a quick and alternate solution to the complex campaigns that trouble the US and its allies. Ultimately, neither the US or its allies are —to accept the high collateral damage cost and potential resulting excesses (war crimes) adopting such an approach would engender. Nor do I think we would do well to our standing as a society or nation to accept the ruthless targeting of the populations that support insurgents. Therefore, I believe that the operational strategy of population centric COIN continues to represent the only viable approach for the US military and its allies to wage counterinsurgent warfare.

Disagree? Sound off in the comments or at the Council.

UPDATE: Corrected name of individual who contributed the Indian Defence Review Article. - Niel



We'll have to disagree about the term "small wars". I like it because it avoids all the arguing about which label is correct, COIN, foreign internal defense, pacification and on. It is a war and it isn't all that big and every one is a little different from the last, but maybe a little the same too. It was good enough for the Marines who wrote the book. I don't see why the term precludes a determination to prevail. We wouldn't get involved in these things if they didn't seem to have some importance at the time.

What people where hate us?

I don't think our involvement per se causes these conflicts to be long and frustrating. That is the nature of these small wars. They may seem to be "forever wars", but they're not. The one in El Salvador ended, as did the one in the Philippines as did the one in Nicaragua.

The poor Afghans have been at it for a long time but I would suggest that isn't because of our being involved. It is primarily one more bit of poison thrown into the well of the world by the USSR. We are at fault because we didn't stay involved as we should have after the Soviets left and because we didn't get involved enough soon enough after 2001. The only chance they have is if we stay involved and get it right. If we left them to sort it out for themselves, it never would because the Pakistani Army doesn't want it to.

The problem with giving "Nation-States fighting for their survival" a partial pass on complying with the laws of war is that if you formalize that exemption every minor frustration will turn into a fight for survival. It would be very bad.

Anonymous (not verified)

Mon, 09/21/2009 - 10:57pm


To set the record the straight, I'm not arguing that Americans should violate the laws of war, I'm arguing that these rules don't apply equally to Nation-States fighting for their survival. I'm also arguing that we need to get out of the way sometimes and let the combatants bring the fight to a conclusion. What you see as kind and humane, I see as pure hypocrisy. First, I don't like the term small wars because what it implies is that this is a secondary effort and we can muddle around in this type of conflict for years and it doesn't matter that much if we achieve our objective in the end, because it is only a small war. I know some will react harshly to this statement, but I think history supports it. This leads to the hypocrisy in your argument, and that is your way of war leads to "forever wars", and while "our" commitment as a nation may be relatively small, that isn't true for the citizens of the countries where the fighting is taking place. It might be worth thinking about about why the people there hate us so much. Perhaps part of the reason is that we facilitate wars with no end, and as a result we in effect destroy cultures and in their stead create warrior cultures that know nothing but war. If they were left to their own to fight the war to a conclusion; then in many cases the conflict would be brought to a conclusion (but not in accordance with "our" rules).

Shifting gears slightly, the legitimacy argument made sense during the cold war when two foreign governments were fighting for influence over a select population, but that isn't the war we're fighting today. There is another dynamic at play, and if we continue to force others to fight by our rules, they will suffer conflict endlessly. This is obviously just an opinion, one that I think has much truth to it in some conflicts (it is not universally applicable, nor or our rules).

Bill M

Major Scarlet (not verified)

Fri, 09/18/2009 - 6:38pm

yes.. SMJ.. we should ignore a tactic that is successful and continue our losing methodologies. let's let our enemy drain our national treasure, degrade our military personnel, and draw out the conflict for years on end giving our enemies propaganda machine every chance to beat us down. what could possibly go wrong with that approach? Oh.. wait.. i think that was Vietnam. Let's continue our losing approach. Let's continue to not learn from our mistakes and ignoring working solutions. It's a fine tradition.


I don't believe Americans are so naive as you think. I think ethical behavior and kindliness when possible REDUCE the level of hatred. They don't eliminate it, they make it less strong. That is important. After the Civil War hatreds persisted, true. But they did fade and I think it took rather less than 100 years. In any case these hatreds did not result in widespread guerrilla warfare to the point that it threatened federal authority in the South as a whole. My take on Grant's comment was that if the war had continued the hatreds never would have faded, ever.

War is indeed ugly, but it doesn't have to make the people involved in it just as ugly. That is one of the points of the various rules of war, in addition to reducing the suffering of innocents to the extent possible. I think you are presenting a false alternative; on the one hand, violence unbridled and victory vs. civilized restraint and defeat. I don't accept that and I think the military history of the English speaking peoples over the last 100 years or so bears that out.

Because a government is under siege is no excuse for "anything goes". The Rwandan gov. felt itself under siege in 1994, the politburo felt itself threatened when it caused the Great Famine, etc. etc. In any event we, the Americans, are not under siege or immediate existential threat in any of our small war venues.

I just finished Brandon Friedman's book and in it he tells of some Iraqi detainees who shivering with fright because they thought they were going to be shot. One of his Sergeants said "Execute you? Naw way, man,""We're Americans.""We don't do that s---." I would like to keep it that way.

Anonymous (not verified)

Sat, 09/05/2009 - 4:25am

Carl, no disrespect intended, but I strongly disagree with your positions. Americans have this naive view on war that if they're ethical and kind that somehow it will resolve all the hatred. I don't think it stands up to the reality test, or to a historic review. Using your reference on our Civil War the hatred did continue for close to a 100 years, and there was substantial violence long after the war ended. If the nature of the conflict is based on hatred, or evolves to a conflict based on hatred, that will always be the case. I agree with Lugo, and will add that if it is "worth" going to war, then it is worth winning it. War is terribly ugly and that will never change, to pretend otherwise is a good way to lead your army to defeat.

It is also a matter of where you sit, and if you are the Government under seige and in grave danger you'll take the necessary actions to win, or your nation (in it's current state) will fail. Bill

One of the problems with the "ruthless" approach, even when it works in the short term, is that it can create in the defeated people an anger so great that it goes on for generations; Chechnya and Ireland come to mind. In the case of our Civil War, Grant observed we were very lucky it ended when it did. He thought that if it had gone on for another year, the hatreds would have been so strong they never would have dissipated. A "ruthless" approach perpetrated by strangers from beyond the sea would exacerbate this.

Regarding Lugo's comments:
Winning is of course one of our values, but how victory is achieved is, or should be, just as important. IF we could terrorize every Pathan in the world into submission by being ruthless, that in itself would compromise our values. We couldn't do that unless we fundamentally changed our national character. I don't want to do that.

"We don't want to be like Stalin." is a very convincing argument to me. Stalin is in the running for the greatest mass murderer in the history of the world. He really did kill them all and let God sort them out. It wasn't pretty, it was hell for hundreds of millions. I don't want to be like that.

The Israelis have had 3 generations to demonstrate that life as a subject in their little empire is superior to that in adjacent Arab police states. They haven't been able to do it. I sometimes think a simple rule for some kinds of small wars is don't do anything the Israelis do. In any event, the they can only brute up so far since we pay the bills and won't stand for it.

Lugo (not verified)

Thu, 09/03/2009 - 10:54am

<i>Of course, acting like totalitarian regimes is completely inconsistent with our values,</i>

So is <b>winning</b> one of our values? If not, why not? We may also observe that non-totalitarian regimes, including the US, have used ruthless methods in the past to quash insurgencies without compromising their values.

<i>It should be remembered that two of the most successful examples of the "ruthless" approach were led by the likes of Josef Stalin and Saddam Hussein, examples of which are not mentioned in this brief post.</i>

So what? I don't find the "we can't do that because we'd be just like Stalin!" argument very convincing.

<i>One more thing to take into consideration, many times the "ruthless" approach requires the forced resettlement of large populations,</i>

So? What's the problem? Forced resettlements are a proven method of prophylaxis against insurgency.

<i>as well as the maintaining of a relatively large and brutal garrison for an indefinite period of time- perhaps best illustrated by the Israeli experience of the past six decades.</i>

The Israelis have had to maintain a garrison for a long period not because they were too brutal, but because they were not brutal enough.

<i>The current US doctrine is aimed at Kilcullen's Accidental Guerillas; the doctrine of ruthless violence is aimed at those irreconcilably committed to violence.</i>

This is a false dichotomy.

I certainly can't speak with any authority or background on the Sri Lanka fight, the LTTE, or the Indian Defence publication. I would note that the actual link to this article is not from the publication itself, but the official Sri Lanka government website. I can only assume that, even if its not an accurate description of the operational design used, it is the a version that the Sri Lankan government and military want to publicize.

Phil Ridderhof USMC

Sam Fernando (not verified)

Sun, 08/30/2009 - 2:50pm

I'm sorry but the Indian Defence publication is nothing to base your views on how the Tigers were defeated. I have read the publication in the past and most everything is based on hear-say and fabrication.

There are others who live in Sri Lanka and catlouged this war for a long time. Maybe you guys should read the following article:


To understand the significance of the military victory one must first try and grasp the fact that the LTTE was not a small rebel movement fighting against a huge sophisticated army.

The LTTE armoury exceeded $40 million USD. Two years ago it's collective wealth and cash at hand was widely acknowledge to be over $900 Million USD.

The Tigers had in their possession a fleet of freight liners for international arms smuggling. It had a full fledged naval force terrorising the coast of Sri Lanka causing headaches to both the Indian Navy and the Sri Lankan.

Their ground force exceeded 40,000 battled hardened cadres and thousands of civilians who received weapons training. The Suicide squad of the Black Tigers exploited the minds of impoverished women to blow themselves up for the 'cause'.

The LTTE was also the first armed insurgency cum terrorist organisation with an Air Wing.

The Tigers' intelligence wing had even infiltrated the Sri Lankan Army. There is a common understanding amongst Sri Lankans that politicians too had received large sums of money to make decisions in favour of the LTTE.

The Tigers had control of Sri Lanka, a firm grip on the country. But not it's people.

Despite the high cost of living and other day to day hardships, the people of Sri Lanka united to vote for Rajapakse's goal towards complete eradication of the terrorist group and rebuilding from ground up thereafter. Rarely does a government have the backing of it's people when it comes to war.

With that kind of firm faith placed in him, Rajapakse placed similar faith in his armed forces. Military spending in the '09 budget was $1.7 billion, 5% of GDP & 20% of the government's budget. Politicians were not allowed to meddle with military decision making.

To keep the masses from over reacting and to prevent fuelling the Tigers' propaganda flame, all military casualty figures were kept from the public eye. The Bush administration has drawn stark criticism to the move in the US. The American public was disheartened that their government did not give them the chance to honour the dead. In Sri Lanka people understood the move because they understood the power of the Tigers' propaganda wing.

The Sri Lankans drew up a battle plan which involved dismantling the LTTE's funding sources, researching LTTE's deep sea arms smuggling channels, and then taking out their freight liners.

Karuna Amman's defection led to the LTTE losing the eastern province, with it went a valuable recruiting base and an important coast line.

The Sri Lankan army's recruitment drive and beefing up the man power was significant in maintaining law and order in areas captured from the Tigers. This essentially meant the LTTE couldn't retreat and come back to carry out guerrilla style hit and run attacks in these areas.

The LRRP or the Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol (aka DPU- Deep Penetration Unit) did something the military had never done before. The unit was essentially the Sri Lankan's version of the US Army Rangers.

The LRRP Rangers were air dropped deep into enemy territory, into thick jungle terrain, where they spent weeks at a time gathering Intel on Tiger bases, the movement of their leaders and the positions of their anti-aircraft guns and artillery guns.

The Defence Ministry even highlighted a rescue mission carried out to rescue a squad of LRRP rangers who had been detected. See video below...

Full article:…

Hamas wins elections because it kills dissenters, not because it does a good job of protecting its subjects/hostages.

I see the two approaches as complementary, not contradictory, as they're aimed at different targets. The current US doctrine is aimed at Kilcullen's Accidental Guerillas; the doctrine of ruthless violence is aimed at those irreconcilably committed to violence.

The LTTE conflict lasted about 25 years, and for most of that time much effort was put into splitting off the accidental guerillas from the irreconcilables (e.g., getting Indian Tamils to turn against the LTTE because of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi). Only towards the very end were conditions ripe for a kinetic campaign against the irreconcilable remnant of the LTTE.

Rigs (not verified)

Thu, 08/27/2009 - 5:24pm

Gulliver, your statement is true, but beyond my oversimplified first sentence which failed to capture additional intangibles of legitimacy such as the notion of 'consent to govern', I believe the rest still stands.


Thu, 08/27/2009 - 4:26pm

<em>Legitimacy is the effective delivery of public services and security.</em>

No, I don't think it is. Maybe we're talking past one another here, but I'd say that legitimacy involves not only the provision of public goods, but acceptance by the ruled. This can be tied to identity or other factors beyond simple security, grievance, and so on.

A lack of security can call into question the legitimacy of a government, but the converse is not necessarily true: just because a government provides security (and other public goods) does not mean that it is legitimate. An ethnic minority, for example, may feel that its parent government is not suitably sensitive to the needs of the minority and thus is illegitimate.

Rigs (not verified)

Thu, 08/27/2009 - 4:14pm

Gulliver said: <i>I don't think you're alone in this. Does "legitimacy" necessarily encompass effective delivery of public goods, specifically security?

I mentioned it before on Abu Muqawama, but Stathis Kalyvas would likely argue that the provision on security is far more important to outcomes in counterinsurgency (or more broadly, civil governance) than perceived legitimacy.</i>

Legitimacy <i>is</i> the effective delivery of public services and security. This is why Hamas wins elections. From a Western perspective they are as illigitimate as any of the myriad politico-terrorist movements in history, but they win in elections because their delivery of public services and rhetoric confers legitimacy from their constituents. They bring a semblance of procedural justice to an area otherwise devoid of it. They are able to provide basic security in the sense that they provide for dispute resolution and basic order, so they enjoy a good deal of support notwithstanding the fact they cannot protect against the IDF.

Onto my take on legitimacy; If the government trying to quell an insurgency enjoyed widespread legitimacy they would not be quelling an insurgency. The fact of the matter is that <i>legitimacy is necessary for the economical execution of the type of COIN that is palatable to our moral sensibilities.</i> Our operational choices will always be limited (and rightly so) by politics. 'War is an extension of politics by other means,' so it is only natural to limit the military by what is deemed acceptable by the government. The LTTE was put down in a manner that would be unacceptable to our government, so the discussion about whether or not we should employ such tactics is irrelevant. The ratio of kinetic v. non-kinetic missions can certainly be debated as the situation merits, but a policy that is tantamount to scorched earth should not be pursued by a nation that sits as high on its horse as the US.

I'll expand on this for the writing contest.


Thu, 08/27/2009 - 1:27pm

<em>but at least initially, I have doubts about notion that at the core of all insurgencies rests a legitimacy gap.</em>

I don't think you're alone in this. Does "legitimacy" necessarily encompass effective delivery of public goods, specifically security?

I mentioned it before on Abu Muqawama, but Stathis Kalyvas would likely argue that the provision on security is far more important to outcomes in counterinsurgency (or more broadly, civil governance) than perceived legitimacy.


Why just assume that the issue is purely semantic? Your example of "war" makes precisely my point. We don't talk about "war" as a unified concept. It is always disaggregated -- great power war, colonial war, limited war, etc. We further disaggregate it by time period -- ancient war versus modern. We do this because their is little analytic value in the term "war."

And I also don't see the need for a slippery slope argument. Just because I wondered whether "insurgency" is a useful concept, doesn't mean I think it impossible to typologize the various types of conflicts that we've chosen to put into that container.

I have to admit, I don't have all the answers I'd like on any of this... but at least initially, I have doubts about notion that at the core of all insurgencies rests a legitimacy gap. And that is not a sematic issue, but a concern that cuts to the heart of the logic of 3-24.

In the argument about "pop-centric COIN" and FM 3-24, I think we have to remember that military doctrine, like anything military, is based on a political foundations and carries political assumptions. While there may be many approaches to COIN, I believe that FM 3-24 expresses an approach that is well suited to who we are as a nation (or to gather together the western nations). This is not unique to COIN. Active Defense and Airland Battle doctrine were infused with the political limitation that we could not pull back to the Rhine and sacrifice West Germany in order to execute a mobile defense in depth.

If you go back to Galulas "Counterinsurgency Warfare" where the counter-insurgent needs to offer a "better idea" to the population than the insurgent, FM 3-24 is infused with our particular "better idea"-rule of law, some form or representative government, respect for human rights, etc. If you accept our assumptions of what a proper legitimate government is, then FM 3-24 is a COIN approach that appropriately translates our national values and character into military strategy and operations.

However, the problem, as has been pointed out, is that WE are not, or should not, be doing COIN. We are really supporting someone elses COIN fight. For better or worse, when we instruct/advise/partner with a host nation in terms of FM 3-24 (as exemplified in GEN McCrystals recent guidance: , we are implicitly advising them to a certain political solution also--one that may or may not be in the nature of their culture or society. That is where I believe the real rub resides. There are two "objectives" in our current campaigns--we are trying to build and influence the host government to a certain point while simultaneously addressing that governments insurgent adversary.

As I stated in my comment on the ISAF guidance, left to their own devices, the Afghan government may prefer something closer to the Sri Lankan model, or some other model, because it better fits the ultimate political solution they will be left with.


Thu, 08/27/2009 - 12:38pm

Bernard -- <em>If the concept of "insurgency" did not already exist, I am not wholly sure that we would believe, for instance, that Vietnam and Malaya were comparable.</em>

I take your point, but I'm not sure how useful it is if we're just talking about semantic disambiguation. After all, if the concept of "war" did not already exist, would be believe that Afghanistan and Sri Lanka were comparable? Or Vietnam and WW II?

At a certain point, all this terminology generalizes the the point of abstraction and inutility. But you can't write doctrine for each specific conflict -- that defies the very meaning of "doctrine."

Gulliver: I must have misspoken (miswritten?). My point was not about the approaches that might be useful in different contexts. That is already part of the doctrine -- the need to adapt to local conditions.

I am making a bigger point which is that "insurgency" is a flawed concept. Not a useless concept, but flawed. There myriad consequences of coming to that conclusions.

The logic of current doctrine forces one to lump together vastly dissimilar cases. In the social sciences, we refer to the problem as one of "concept misformation."

If the concept of "insurgency" did not already exist, I am not wholly sure that we would believe, for instance, that Vietnam and Malaya were comparable.


Thu, 08/27/2009 - 11:37am

Bernard -- I don't think there's any question that the approaches that may be successful against an ethnic separatist movement (or largely ethnically-determined insurgency, which I would distinguish in the sense that the former intends to create a new polity while the latter wishes to control the current one) are quite different than those more suited to counterinsurgency in a more homogenous environment. A comparison of Malaya and Vietnam is probably useful here.


True enough. These issues are complicated aren't they - which means that it's difficult to lift one element out of the mix and call it determinative?

There is an important insight in noting that different insurgencies may require (or be susceptible) to different COIN concepts. But I think we need to apply that argument with some degree of consistency.

Pop-centric COIN is not perceived as a second best model -- i.e. that we only do it because the more ruthless models go against our values. It is perceived as the most effective response to the problem of "insurgency" which is itself assumed to be a function of gaps in "legitimacy."

If this the Sri Lankan model can work in the cases of domestic insurgencies with no safe havens and no concerns about international opinion, does that imply that under those conditions "legitimacy" is irrelevant? Is the nature of the insurgency different, or it is just different by virtue of its context and terrain?

What, in short, does this say about our underlying diagnosis of the problem? My suspicion is that the answer is that the conception of "insurgency" at the core of 3-24 is probably too narrow, and that the phenomena exists in more forms than we mostly believe. And that furthermore, these forms are not just epiphenomenal manifestations of different contextual variables, but rather reflect different pathways toward to establishment of insurgencies.

SWJED (not verified)

Thu, 08/27/2009 - 11:14am

When looking at the Soviet experience in AF let's not discount the effects of "Charlie Wilson's War" and, then as now, the Pakistan safe-haven. External support is a bugaboo no matter how population- or enemy-centric you want to go.

Niel, I'm not commenting on the thesis of the article, but only one aspect of it. I'm not convinced that the ruthlessness of the Russian campaign in Afghanistan, for better or worse, is what lost it for them. Rather, I think their ruthlessness was more accidental to the loss rather than essential to it, to use an Aristotelian term.

I think that other things were essential to the loss, including [a] focus on the cities v. the countryside, [b] complete breakdown of the lines of logistics due to [a] above, [c] heavy losses because of Taliban control over the roads due to [a] above, [d] focus on mounted combat and mounted patrols as opposed to dismounted operations, [e] women in combat billets which led to a high number of lower extremity injuries and a high number of combat ineffective units, and a whole host of other things.

Rob Thornton (not verified)

Thu, 08/27/2009 - 10:26am

Its a good question and raises the issue of tension between our efforts (ends, ways and means) to achieve a political objective and what the government of Xs (who we are supporting) efforts to achieve a political objective are. There are issues of what is tolerable, acceptable, feasible etc., but there are also issues of how this tension shapes our operational approach. Should it be the supported governments plan ultimately since they ultimately have to be the ones to carry it out and implement it if/when we reduce our support to more acceptable levels? Should this factor into our thinking on the "how" or even the "should we" if we cant reconcile the two?

If we build our operational approach and the C2 structures and organizations that come from it outside of the idea that the government facing the insurgency must ultimately be the one who carries it forward do we create a COIN plan that cannot be carried out by that government without us being there? Do we create a dependence that is so great it falls apart when we diminish our support and withdraw the bulk of our military forces? If our approach and all of its subordinate LOEs/LLOOs dont consider the political context of the environment in which the supported governments COIN efforts must be carried out are we really supporting their political objectives or just our own?

There is probably a balance to be struck just as there is with respect to tolerable outcomes, but its one that has to be managed closely for all the reasons you bring up.

Best, Rob

John T. Fishel

Thu, 08/27/2009 - 9:27am

As others have pointed out, the success or failure of a "ruthless" approach depends on the type of insuregency the govt is facing. For the US, the classic success story of "ruthless COIN" is the US Civil War. Key charateristics were that it was a sectional conflict, no external sanctuary, and like the Tamil tigers, the Rebs had created a "state." So, in cases like this, the ruthless approach to fighting a war ie the conventional American Way of War is largely appropriate.
However, even such population centric COIN theorist/practitioners as Sir Robert Thompson have recognized the utility of ruthlessness as when he argues that once the insurgents have established an effective organization it is essential for the counterinsurgents to build a better organization to seek out and destroy the insurgent organization.
In the classic case of Algeria - where Galula, Trinquier, and Ausuresses cut their teeth and developed their theories - the French successfully employed a ruthless strategy (with some important population centric components) that defeated the FLN in both their urban and rural strongholds. What the French could not do was successfully attack the FLN's external sanctuaries or win the war in the international community and in France itself.
In short, no COIN effort is purely internal. Both a metropolitan and an international strategy must be followed along with one that addresses the insurgents themselves. To return to the Civil War example, the Union could only neutralize British and French realist sympathy for the confederacy by emanicipation and that could only be done when a significant majority of the Northern public was willing to accept it. As an aside, note that the traitorous Ohio congressman, Valandigham (sp?) was not tried for treason but rather shipped South unceremoniously - to have been "ruthless" would have cost Lincoln important support in the North. Finally, no effective COIN strategy is purely enemy or population centric. (Consider the table in Max Manwaring and my article, "The SWORD Model of Counterinsurgency" where we compare enemy centric and population centric strategies, published in the Journal last year.)

Since I brought this up as a point of comparison, I'll now back-track my thoughts somewhat. As Bill Moore indicates, the Sri Lanka conflict was very much a "war of movement", as at least as it was described in its recent phase.

Taking Mao's theory of moving from guerilla war into a war of movement--where the two sides begin looking very much alike (a governing mechanism, armed forces, defined territory, etc.), Does our COIN framework of analysis even fit here? Is FM 3-24/MCWP 3-33.5 the correct lens? Why aren't we talking FM 3-0 Operations, or for Marines, MCDP 1 Warfighting, or MCDP 1-0 Marine Corps Operations (or I suppose JP 3-0 Joint Operations)? As I related in my comment on the "Remembering What We Mis-Learned in Bosnia", if we make the comparison too quickly, we run the risk of applying the incorrect doctrine and thinking to the problem (…).

In terms of ruthlessness, I'm not sure if we're reading too much into the Sri Lanka principles. What I see is political focus and determination. Obviously, the endgame of this phase was very bloody for civilians. However, I relate this more to a situation like the plight of civilians in any modern urban fight (Seoul, Manila, Arnhem) than the challenges of targeting individual compounds in Afghanistan. Ive been troubled by the popularization of Rupert Smiths "war among the peoples" as something wholly distinct from what we have done before in larger "conventional" wars. Its always been about politics and its always been among the people. An organized and uniformed army is as much an expression of popular will as an insurgent group is.

It seems that the main difference in approach is where we used to talk of breaking an enemys will to resist (people, armed force and government), we now talk of persuading them not to resist. There could be a fine line between these two. Im not sure that the "tribal revolt" in Iraq didnt have more to do with years of conflict that ultimately broke their will and made them open to our persuasion than pure "protection of the population". Our own US Civil War gives a good framework of the "hard hand of war" approach.

Bill Moore (not verified)

Thu, 08/27/2009 - 5:40am

Simply sharing some thoughts. I'm not taking a stand on Sri Lanka's emerging doctrine, because you can't weigh the pro's and con's generically, rather you have to apply it to a specific insurgency to assess whether or not we think it would be effective. However, it appears to have worked in Sri Lanka, but the jury is still out on whether they truly resolved the conflict or simply beat it back into a war of low level insurgency again (versus the war of movement that it had evolved to).

While Carl may be correct that Sri Lanka's approach is not acceptable to Western powers based on our cultural values, that doesn't mean the strategy is ineffective. We have to separate our thoughts about it morally from the actual effect. Carl pointed out that the LTTE didn't have a safehaven that bordered Sri Lanka, but assuming they did, then in theory you would extend your operations into that safehaven with the same level of aggressiveness to crush the enemy, assuming you were prepared to take on the state providing that safehaven and you were prepared disregard international opinion.

We tend to interpret population centric as winning the hearts of the local populace, but tend to forget the insurgency is part of the populace, so isolating the insurgents in many cases is a major challenge, and if you're dealing with a hostile populace, then you may have to use coercion to establish your position. This is still population centric, since the objective/focus of your operations is still the populace. We sometimes forget this is not a humanitarian operation but warfare. Of course those of us with western values are generally repulsed at the thought of this, but again that doesn't mean it doesn't work.

Any comparison between the success and failure of other conflicts is unfair due to numerous variables that shape the context of any particular war or warfare scenario, but if you view WWII as "total war", where we waged war against each others' militaries, economic capacity, civilian populations, etc., then the same principles apply. We waged war against Germany and Japan, not just their militaries. We didn't drop the bomb surgically on a military base, and the fire bombing campaigns in both Germany and Japan was aimed at breaking the targeted nations' will.

While our COIN doctrine may be appropriate to our western sensibilities, it is still largely theory with little grounding in the historical record. Furthermore, just because it is appropriate to our values does not mean it is an appropriate strategy to defeat an insurgency.

If I was a national leader in a developing nation struggling with a serious insurgency and I was looking for a model to ensure national survival I'm not so sure I wouldn't lean toward Sri Lanka's model instead of adopting U.S. doctrine.

Carl, I disagree with your comments on the 101st and 4th ID, because what you're discussing is an episodic events versus a comprehensive strategy focused on using the stick on the populace. Additionally, the high value target (head hunting) approach isn't population centric or enemy centric, it is individual centric, in other words it is too weak to have a real effect, you have to kill the leaders and foot soldiers with equal zeal to break their will collectively.

If there were easy answers we would have solved this problem a long time ago. Bottom line concur that Sri Lanka's approach can't be our approach, but that doesn't mean it can't work.

Mark Pyruz

Thu, 08/27/2009 - 5:09am

Carl, I would just point out that probably the majority of Native American wars were actually expansionist in nature, rather than counterinsurgencies. As such, they represented a "ruthless" approach more comparable to that which was later adopted by the Germans, in their expansion east into Poland and later the Soviet Union. (At the Nuremberg Trials, certain German defendants admitted that aspects of their war policy were derived from the American westward experience.)

It should be remembered that two of the most successful examples of the "ruthless" approach were led by the likes of Josef Stalin and Saddam Hussein, examples of which are not mentioned in this brief post.

One more thing to take into consideration, many times the "ruthless" approach requires the forced resettlement of large populations, as well as the maintaining of a relatively large and brutal garrison for an indefinite period of time- perhaps best illustrated by the Israeli experience of the past six decades.

<a href=""… examined this</a> a few months back after <a href="">Kings of War tackled this very issue</a>.

Even Galula doesn't disagree with the brute force approach to counterinsurgency in certain situations. Particularly when insurgencies are nascent, totalitarian regimes can easily suppress them through mass arrests.

Of course, acting like totalitarian regimes is completely inconsistent with our values, and can have a penchant to backfire in the strategic sense if we practiced it. No one protests when the Russians use brute fore to suppress insurgency in Chechnya because, let's face it, they're the Russians.

It is interesting that all the successful "ruthless" campaigns cited were conducted by countries suppressing internal insurgencies with their own armed forces. These insurgencies didn't have any real sanctuaries either. The unsuccessful "ruthless" campaign was a foreign force helping a weak government opposed by insurgents who had a sanctuary.

We are presently involved in small wars as foreign forces helping weak governments. Almost all of the small wars we have been in for the past 100 years have fit this pattern. In Afghanistan the insurgents still have their sanctuary.

So apart from the extremely, fundamentally important humanitarian considerations, the "ruthless" method just doesn't appear to work in the types of conflicts we are involved in. It seems to me also that we, in essence, ran some small scale experiments confirming this with the approaches of the 101st Air Assault and 4th Infantry Divisions during their initial deployments to Iraq.