Small Wars Journal

The Sri Lankan Civil War: Turning COIN on Its Head and Learning to Adapt

Sat, 09/09/2017 - 1:10pm

The Sri Lankan Civil War: Turning COIN on Its Head and Learning to Adapt

Carlton G. Haelig


Sri Lanka, formerly Ceylon, is a relatively small island nation about the size of the U.S. state of Maine that sits roughly 50 kilometers off the southwest coast of India. Beginning in the 6th century B.C., the island became populated with groups of ethnic Sinhalese migrating south from the Indian subcontinent. Sri Lanka was first colonized by the Portuguese who were soon followed by the Dutch. In 1796 the Dutch ceded the island to the British who would control the territory until Sri Lanka gained independence in 1948.[i]

When the Sri Lankan Civil War began in 1983 the population numbered 15.3 million people.[ii] The population consists of a Sinhalese majority who practice the Buddhist religion and a Tamil minority population who adhere to the Hindu faith. Traditionally, the Tamil population has been concentrated in the northern region of the country as well as in coastal areas along the eastern region of the island. These Tamil-majority areas would form the basis of the proposed Tamil Eelam (homeland).

The Sri Lankan Civil War took place from 1983 to 2009 between the Sri Lankan Government (SLG) and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), however, an active insurgency was underway as early as 1976. The roots of the civil war are found in the ethnic divide between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority. Following Sri Lanka’s independence in 1948, the majority Sinhalese initiated a series of reforms intended to revert the colonial-era imbalance favoring the Tamil minority and to reassert Sinhalese control of the country. The shift in political and social dominance within Sri Lanka sowed the seeds for an ethnic-based secessionist movement demanding an independent Tamil state—a Tamil Eelam.

Following competition between and consolidation of a number of Tamil nationalist groups, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam were founded in May of 1976. The LTTE began its insurgency by employing low-intensity attacks aimed at frustrating and disrupting SLG efforts to maintain control in the Tamil-majority areas of the country. During this time, the LTTE enjoyed the support of the legitimate political representatives of the Tamil community, the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF). The TULF provided covert financial and material support to the LTTE while also spearheading legitimate efforts to achieve a political solution for the question of Tamil independence. In 1983 the LTTE abandoned hope for a political settlement and urged the Tamil population to boycott the elections.[iii]

After the collapse of the Tamil political movement the Tamil insurgency quickly grew in strength. By 1983 the LTTE had initiated a full-scale civil war against the SLG. The LTTE was particularly brutal in its insurgent tactics; including the use of suicide bombing, assassinations, the brutal treatment of SLG captives, and a frequent disregard for the prevention of collateral damage. Many of their actions blurred the line between insurgency and terrorism. Moreover, the LTTE developed a sizeable military capacity that drove it to challenge the SLG in a conventional manner for much of the civil war. The LTTE engaged in pitched battles, utilized mechanized fighting vehicles, operated a contingent of tactical aircraft, and even possessed a naval wing—the Sea Tigers.[iv]

Officially, the civil war carried on until a final ceasefire occurred in 2009. Throughout the conflict, however, numerous negotiations and peace agreements were attempted. Over the course of 26 years the conflict ebbed and flowed through a series of strategic tradeoffs and competing rounds of foreign involvement that helped to create a truly unique insurgency.

Key Points of Analysis

This paper will approach the Sri Lankan Civil War from a broad, nearing grand strategic, perspective in order to address the full breadth of the 26 year-long conflict’s salient themes within the space allotted. The key points of analysis, therefore, will be: (1) the major efforts of the LTTE insurgency to first undermine and then directly challenge the SLG and the Sri Lankan Army (SLA); (2) the role of the SLA as a counterinsurgency (COIN) force and the SLG reliance on a largely military-based COIN approach; and finally, a brief discussion of (3) the role of third-party involvement, to include Indian support for both the insurgents and counterinsurgents, as well as the impact of the Tamil diaspora on the strength of the LTTE insurgency. Because the COIN approach utilized by the SLG focused almost entirely on military efforts and largely ignored civil and political initiatives—an approach mirrored by the LTTE—this paper will focus on the military initiatives of the insurgents and counterinsurgents while omitting much of the civil-COIN based analysis relevant to other cases.

The subsequent three sections will expand upon the following points of analysis but are worth noting up front:

  • The LTTE utilized a lethally effective combination of insurgent, terrorist, and conventional warfare tactics throughout the Sri Lankan Civil War.
  • The LTTE moved to conventional operations relatively quickly and directly challenged the conventional military capabilities of the SLG. This did not stop their increasing use of violence throughout the conflict, to include executions, suicide bombings, and violence toward civilians.
  • The SLG and SLA forces utilized a military-focused COIN strategy that relied on brute force regardless of the costs inflicted on the society—representing a dramatic shift away from traditionally successful COIN doctrine.
  • The SLA was initially unprepared to undertake major conventional operations and suffered numerous setbacks because of this, thereby significantly prolonging the conflict. Their efforts to adapt over the course of the war proved successful and led to the defeat of the LTTE.
  • Outside involvement in the insurgency played a critical role. The Indian Peacekeeping Force (IPKF) and Indian intelligence agencies provided support for both sides of the civil war at various points in the conflict. Additionally, the international Tamil diaspora provided a nearly endless supply of financial support that accounted for the majority of the LTTE’s budget.

The Sri Lankan Civil War & the LTTE: Tactics, Strategy, and Assessment

The LTTE emerged in the early 1980s as the sole standard bearer of the Tamil Eelam movement after subjugating or absorbing the various other Tamil nationalist groups. The goals of the LTTE insurgency remained relatively straightforward and consistent throughout the civil war. The LTTE’s leader, Villupillai Prabhakaran, enumerated the three fundamental goals of the LTTE as follows: (1) The creation of a Tamil homeland (Tamil Eelam); (2) to gain respect for the Tamil nationality; and (3) to secure the right to Tamil self-determination.[v]

July 1983 marked the beginning of the civil war’s eruption throughout Sri Lanka. In response to an LTTE attack on an SLA patrol that killed thirteen Sri Lankan soldiers, violent demonstrations erupted throughout the country against the Tamil community. In the following weeks, thousands of Tamils were murdered in retaliation and the event would become known as Black July. This episode proved to be an ominous foreshadowing of the violence that would engulf Sri Lanka over the next three decades of civil war.[vi]

Overview of the Civil War and the LTTE’s Tactics and Strategies

The LTTE insurgency utilized a combination of traditional guerrilla tactics; terrorism and political violence against civilian, military, and government targets; and conventional military capabilities. The group initially relied heavily on traditional guerrilla tactics, focusing on ambushes and limited assaults against lightly defended military and government targets. Quickly, however, these tactics began to be supplanted by terrorism and acts of political violence to include the pioneering use of suicide bombers and vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs). Alongside the insurgent and terrorist activities of the LTTE, a formidable conventional military apparatus developed. The LTTE eventually came to possess a full-spectrum military capability with which to challenge the SLG.[vii] Unlike a traditional insurgency that relies on asymmetric guerrilla operations to frustrate and wear down the resolve of counterinsurgent forces, the LTTE combined traditional insurgent tactics with political violence and a driving reliance on conventional military operations. Although the LTTE certainly utilized guerrilla tactics, and at times with great success, such operations were generally only in support of terrorism and conventional military campaigns.[viii]

The initial phase of the Sri Lankan Civil War (Eelam War I) lasted from 1983-1989. It was during this period that the LTTE relied most heavily on guerrilla tactics as it continued to build up its conventional capabilities and refine its terrorism operations. This period of the civil war was one of relative low-intensity compared to subsequent stages of the war. Neither the SLG nor the LTTE were truly prepared at this point for high-intensity military engagement with one another and both continued to focus on the husbanding of military resources. Notably, during this time the SLG did not attempt to undertake any civil-society based efforts to thwart the Tamil insurgency—they remained focused on the coming military confrontation and prepared accordingly.

The LTTE compounded the flaws of the initial SLG approach by focusing its early operations on attacking the Sri Lankan police forces—effectively blunting the SLG’s ability to monitor and contain the insurgency from the start. Building on the success of these initial operations, and benefitting from the lack of local police enforcement, the LTTE “graduated to small-scale assaults and ambushes of regular military and police patrols. With improved training and arms supplied by India, it began to attack small military installations.”[ix] It was also during this time that the LTTE established its naval arm, the Sea Tigers. During Eelam War I this force was largely used to harass Sri Lankan Navy (SLN) units along the coastline and to aid in short-range transportation of LTTE resources.

Eelam War II was the second stage in the civil war and occurred between 1990-1994. This was the period during which the LTTE began its transformation into a conventional military force and started to challenge SLG control over parts of the island. It was also during this period that the LTTE began to utilize terrorism and political violence as a matter of operational strategy—mainly relying on suicide bombers targeting soft civilian and military targets.

The LTTE developed a separate branch focused entirely on terrorism and political violence—The Black Tigers. The Black Tigers revolutionized the tactic of suicide bombing and utilized it to great effect throughout the remainder of the conflict.[x] Notably, the LTTE became the only insurgent group to successfully execute two heads of state during Eelam War II. It used suicide bombers to assassinate Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa as well as Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. Assassinations, suicide bombings, and other attacks on civilians became the primary forms of LTTE political violence.[xi]

Following the withdrawal of the IPKF in 1990, the LTTE assumed control over the territories formerly under the protection of the IPKF. The result was a de facto safe-haven from which the LTTE could conduct training and launch conventional military operations against the SLG. Moreover, the resulting control over large swaths of Sri Lankan territory strengthened the legitimacy of the LTTE and its pursuit of Tamil Eelam. For the remainder of the civil war, LTTE control over these territories would frustrate SLA planners and force them to commit a significant portion of their overall resources to dislodging the LTTE in these areas rather than addressing more pressing counterinsurgency concerns throughout the country.

Eelam War III, which lasted from 1995-2000, marked the apogee of LTTE conventional operations. As part of the SLG’s “War for Peace” initiative, the LTTE and SLG forces engaged in a series of high-intensity conventional confrontations. The LTTE suffered significant initial setbacks but capitalized on the institutional flaws of the SLA and conducted counter-attacks which succeeded in regaining significant amounts of terrain. The LTTE exploited the public embarrassment being suffered by the poorly organized SLG and continued its campaign of political violence—successfully undermining the public’s confidence in the SLG. Despite the significant success enjoyed by a number of LTTE operations during Eelam War III, the conventional effort was simply not sustainable. The group never numbered greater than 20,000 fighters and was unable to stand up to the resources and manpower of the SLG. Eelam War III ended in a strategic stalemate that saw the LTTE manpower and resource base drastically reduced, and the public credibility of the SLG and SLA seriously damaged.[xii]

After the failure of an unsteady ceasefire agreement, full-scale hostilities resumed from 2006-2008. In this final stage of the Sri Lankan Civil War, the LTTE doubled down on its conventional operations and attempted to confront the SLA in a decisive full-scale conventional war. The LTTE was ultimately unsuccessful in this attempt and its military capability was eliminated following the Battle of Thoppigala in July 2007. The LTTE attempted to continue to carry on a guerrilla-based insurgency but was forced to admit defeat in May 2009.[xiii] That same month both the LTTE and the SLG confirmed the death of LTTE leader VP and the government declared a final victory and the pacification of the Tamil insurgency.

Final Assessment of the LTTE Insurgency

The LTTE insurgency is notable for its success in a number of areas. Despite significant conventional military pressure being applied by the SLG, the group was able to persevere for nearly thirty years without suffering any crippling blows to its leadership or infrastructure. Moreover, the LTTE displayed a formidable capacity to undertake limited conventional military operations against the SLA/SLN and were only fully defeated militarily when confronted with a multi-front offensive during the fourth Eelam War. In fact, the third Eelam War ended in a stalemate specifically because of the effectiveness of the LTTE’s conventional military capacity. Tactically, the LTTE has been credited with revolutionizing the use of political violence as part of an insurgent struggle for national liberation. Its pioneering innovation in the use of suicide bombings and VBIEDs has been replicated by terrorist groups worldwide.[xiv]

The organizational structure of the LTTE was responsible for prolonging the existence of the group despite the brutal SLG COIN campaign. The organization’s overlapping hierarchical structure ensured that decapitating blows to any one arm of the organization would be unable to halt the group’s operations. Militarily, however, the group’s organizational capacity was not sufficient to successfully implement conventional operations on the large-scale necessary to overcome the final SLG COIN campaigns. The LTTE’s continued pursuit of conventional land, air, and sea force structures failed to affect strategic success. Despite creating a substantial conventional military organization on paper—responsible for numerous tactical successes—LTTE conventional forces “were simply undermanned and poorly-equipped.”[xv] It was the LTTE’s inability to properly equip and train its numerous conventional units that led to their defeat under overwhelming, comprehensive SLG military pressure at the end of Eelam War IV.

Finally, it is worth discussing the LTTE’s extensive use of violence and brutality. The LTTE’s overwhelming use of political violence (assassinations, executions, terrorism, etc) and indiscriminate violence towards civilians led to the group being listed as a terrorist organization by virtually every major international organization and over 32 states.[xvi] The international designation as a terrorist organization became critical in the post-9/11 security environment. The result was an overwhelming, almost endless, supply of arms, funds, and operational support being given to the SLG in their fight against the LTTE. Given that this influx of outside support for the COIN forces coincided with the SLG’s final all-out military offensive during the end of Eelam War III and throughout Eelam War IV, it proved to be yet another a decisive factor in the SLG defeat of the LTTE.

Sri Lankan Counterinsurgency: A Departure from the Norm

The general narrative of the Sri Lankan Civil War has been put forth in the preceding section. This section will instead analyze the overarching strategic approach of the SLG COIN operations rather than rehashing the narrative from the counterinsurgent point of view. The subsequent analysis will depend on traditional COIN theory to assess and evaluate the effectiveness of the SLG operations. In many respects the SLG, and particularly the SLA, went against many pillars of effective COIN strategy. Despite this, however, they were ultimately successful. The success of the SLG led one former Indian general in charge of the IPKF to proclaim that “the [SLG] defeat of the LTTE…turned conventional COIN theory on its head.”[xvii]

This section will use a number of theoretical criteria determined essential for successful COIN campaigns that are most relevant to the Sri Lankan Civil War.[xviii] Accordingly, the following theoretical elements will be explored: (1) The provision of a peaceful path to change and accommodation (e.g. amnesty, political concessions, etc.); (2) the commitment of sufficient military and intelligence resources; (3) isolation of the conflict area; (5) the prevention of weapons from entering insurgent areas; and (6) the ability to maintain constant pressure on the insurgents.

Provision of a Peaceful Path to Change

The SLG unapologetically pursued a purely military COIN strategy throughout the civil war. The goal was to destroy the LTTE, not to negotiate a lasting peace, afford any accommodation, or provide the Tamil people an alternative to the LTTE.[xix] In the words of a former Sri Lankan Defense Minister, “There was a clear aim and mandate from the political level to the official level and to the military level to destroy the LTTE at any cost.”[xx] The SLG did not make any attempts to pursue civil-based COIN initiatives or to offer an alternative path toward peace that could have avoided conflict. A crucial element of what has been coined the Rajapakse COIN Model is the need for unwavering political will in support of violent COIN operations. To that end the SLG announced to the LTTE and the world that “either the LTTE surrenders or face, their end [sic].” The SLA was to “fight and win the war,” while the government concerned itself only with blunting domestic and international outcry against their tactics. The military was given full control over the civil war and the government officially ruled out political negotiations with the LTTE.[xxi]

Final Assessment: Failure

Commitment of Sufficient Military and Intelligence Resources

Throughout the first three stages of the civil war (Eelam Wars I-III) the SLG had a poorly trained and equipped military. Senior officers reflecting on this period of the conflict note that their units were undermanned, underequipped, and poorly trained. Moreover, during this time the SLG possessed very little in the way of intelligence capabilities. The lack of intelligence gathering capabilities was compounded by the SLG’s stance against cooperation with and accommodation of the Tamil people. Sympathetic Tamils, those willing to provide the SLG with operational intelligence, were not taken seriously and the SLG provided no incentive for those individuals to cooperate—as a result these individuals often entered the ranks of the LTTE instead.

The open mandate provided to the military by the SLG produced an institutionalized lack of cooperation that prevented the proper utilization of the resources at the disposal of the SLG. SLA and SLN operations were conducted without inter-service coordination and the LTTE often capitalized on this dysfunction.[xxii] The lack of sufficient SLG resources and their inability to effectively coordinate with one another was directly responsible for the LTTE’s success in leveraging their asymmetric conventional advantages to affect military success against a numerically superior SLG force.

Following the embarrassing stalemate at the end of Eelam War III, the SLG began to reassess its COIN strategy—while still remaining committed to military-only COIN. The global shift of attention toward counterterrorism after 9/11 led to an influx in material and operational support for the SLG. The influx of weapons and assistance coincided with an organizational revolution in the SLA. Between 2005 and 2008, the SLG military budget increased 40% and the SLA increased in size by 70%. Following subsequent years of annual military expansion and investment, the professionalism of the officer corps and the effectiveness of the soldiers quickly rose. Similarly, under significant pressure from its newfound international backers, the SLG adopted more relaxed approaches toward LTTE defectors and committed itself to gaining valuable intelligence from a number of high-level LTTE defections—a departure from the “take no prisoners” mentality of Eelam Wars I-III.[xxiii] The result of these combined shifts was the creation of a SLG COIN force capable of dislodging and ultimately defeating LTTE forces—removing them from areas they had held for over a decade in the process.

Final Assessment: Early Failure, But Ultimately Successful.

Isolating the Conflict Area and Disarming the LTTE

Despite limited territorial control and overland supply routes, the LTTE enjoyed relatively open lines of supply and communication throughout the first three Eelam Wars. The situation changed drastically in the final stages of the civil war. The resulting isolation and interdiction of supplies crippled the LTTE military capacity.

Eelam Wars I-III: In this stage of the conflict the LTTE enjoyed extensive financial and material support. The effectiveness of the Sea Tigers outperformed that of the SLN, enabling the LTTE to transport supplies throughout its coastal territories as well as from abroad into LTTE territory. The SLA did not have the organizational capacity to interdict overland supply routes to great effect and thus the LTTE enjoyed relatively high freedom of action on land as well. Until 1987, the LTTE also received covert military aid and training from the Indian intelligence community. This ensured that the LTTE was well armed and well trained—something that the SLG COIN forces could not say for themselves. Following the 1987 Indo-Lanka Accord signed between India and the SLG, the Indians agreed to land the IPKF in the northern part of the island to establish a ceasefire and the disarmament of the LTTE. The SLG quickly became worried about the large Indian presence on the island and began to covertly supply arms to the LTTE for their use against the IPKF.[xxiv] The SLG’s decision to accept the IPKF’s presence and their subsequent arming of the LTTE represented a complete failure to isolate the conflict and disarm the LTTE. The IPKF’s presence expanded Tamil disenchantment with the SLG into areas previously dominated by the SLG—creating new zones of insurgency—while the covert SLG arming of the LTTE would prove detrimental throughout the remainder of the war.

Eelam War IV & The Defeat of the LTTE: The final phase of the Sri Lankan Civil War saw a significant push to isolate the conflict area both internally as well as externally from outside financial and material support. Financially, the LTTE’s international network began to crumble under strict international counterterrorism policies. Countries with large Tamil expatriate populations such as the United States, Canada, and the European Union undertook sweeping measures to halt the flow of resources to the LTTE under newly implemented counterterrorism laws. The lack of external financial support forced the LTTE to rely more on the practice of self-sufficiency and placed greater reliance on the Sea Tigers maritime transportation capabilities. This shift coincided with an increased focus on SLN maritime interdiction capabilities that saw the SLG drastically increase their interdiction of LTTE imports across the island.[xxv] Operationally, the SLA improved its special operations capability and developed a highly effective counterterrorism and counterinsurgency force that undertook small-unit missions intended to interdict and capture LTTE supplies and to eliminate key nodes of their organizational infrastructure.[xxvi] The changes implemented by SLG COIN forces during this period greatly increased their ability to isolate the conflict and reduce LTTE arms and financial resources. When combined with the widespread conventional offensives undertaken by the SLG during this time, the LTTE’s defeat was inevitable.

Final Assessment: Early Failure, But Eventual Success

Maintaining Constant Pressure on the LTTE

SLG COIN forces did not succeed in maintaining enough pressure on the insurgents until drastic military and government reforms occurred during Eelam War IV. As discussed previously, the LTTE focused its early attacks on decimating the local police force and thereby removed one of the government’s most necessary COIN tools from the Tamil-held regions. Moreover, SLG military offenses during the first three Eelam Wars were isolated and poorly organized—lacking the strategic planning and coordination that would link them to one another to maintain constant military pressure on LTTE forces. The LTTE military was therefore afforded significant opportunities to recover, reorganize, and reorient following even the largest military engagements. It is because of this that the LTTE, despite being outnumbered and poorly equipped, was able to persist in the face of numerous SLG military offensives into Tamil-held territories.

Things changed with the outbreak of Eelam War IV. The SLG reorganized its military’s organizational structure, invested heavily in military training and equipment programs, and benefitted from international military and financial assistance. The resulting military adaptations and government initiatives placed an immense amount of pressure on the LTTE’s financial, political, and military prowess. The SLA and SLN reoriented themselves, with the help of foreign training and material assistance, into a formidable COIN force—undergoing specialized small-unit training, jungle warfare courses, and benefitting from an influx of maritime interdiction and ISR capabilities.[xxvii] For the first time, the military was able to place constant, acutely targeted pressure on the LTTE. By transforming into an organization capable of learning and adapting based upon its lessons-learned, the SLA and SLN forces developed the capacity necessary to defeat the LTTE insurgents once and for all through the implementation of constant military and financial pressure.

Final Assessment: Late-stage adaptation was ultimately successful.

Final Thoughts on Sri Lankan Counterinsurgency Efforts

The SLG was outspoken in its commitment to confront the LTTE insurgency with a purely military-based approach and swore off civilian and politically oriented alternatives at the start of the war. Because of this, the SLG elected to pursue a number of large-scale military offenses in each of the first three Eelam Wars. The SLA and SLN, while much larger and better equipped than its adversary, were unable to inflict the military defeats and constant pressure necessary to destroy the LTTE insurgency during these phases of the war. The SLG COIN forces were poorly organized, unable to effectively plan and coordinate operations, and were simply unable to succeed on the strategic level despite numerous tactical and operational triumphs. These failures allowed the LTTE to survive for nearly three decades despite being overmatched and relatively isolated.[xxviii]

Two main factors broadly account for the SLG defeat of the LTTE. The first contributing factor being the LTTE’s own adherence to a conventional military approach and a pattern of brutal political violence. The LTTE’s conventional capabilities were initially sufficient to challenge the poorly organized SLG COIN forces, but their flaws were too great and they never amounted to the decisive force the LTTE leadership envisioned. Moreover, the LTTE’s terroristic activity resulted in international backlash that saw the SLG receive a much-needed influx of training and financial assistance. The second contributing factor was the SLG’s ability to reorient itself and capitalize on the LTTE’s own mistakes and the sudden influx of international support. Once the SLA and SLN reformed their organizational and operational practices, the COIN forces were able to coordinate campaigns that put the LTTE under constant military pressure and steadily rolled them back in preparation for the final military assault in May 2009. The most significant non-military adaptation undertaken by the SLG was their cooperation with major state and non-state actors to financially isolate the LTTE from its vital international financial resources. It is because of these shifts in the final stage of the Sri Lankan Civil War that the stalemate was broken and after 26 years of civil war, the government was able to claim victory.

A Brief Overview of Outside Involvement in the Sri Lankan Civil War

The Sri Lankan Civil War saw the direct participation of two major third-parties throughout the duration of the conflict: India and the international Tamil diaspora. A third general class of actors can be broadly identified as those state and non-state actors that offered material and financial support to the SLG following the global pivot toward counterterrorism. The involvement of these actors, however, was isolated to the final stages of the conflict and did not represent a long-term pattern of interaction comparable to that of India or the Tamil diaspora.

Indian Involvement in the Sri Lankan Civil War

Until 1987, India, through its Research and Analysis Wing intelligence service (RAW) provided covert support to the LTTE. RAW support for the LTTE included weapons, military training, and logistics and is credited with laying the initial foundations for the early success of the LTTE’s conventional military operations. In 1987, India deployed the IPKF to enforce a ceasefire between the SLG and the LTTE.

India’s participation in the Sri Lankan Civil War was entirely out of concern for their own national security. Initial support for the LTTE was meant to keep the budding Tamil nationalist movement within Sri Lanka diffuse and fragmented. India was in the midst of dealing with its own Tamil nationalist movement and feared that a united Tamil insurgency in Sri Lanka could galvanize the Tamil Nadu community in southern India against the government. The growing severity of the civil war in the late 1980s led India to become concerned about escalating foreign involvement so close to its territory. Rather than allowing an adversarial power to gain too much influence in the region through assistance given to the SLG, India proposed that it would provide the peacekeeping force necessary to establish the cease fire.[xxix]

India’s involvement at different points of the civil war affected significant change at strategically critical junctures in the conflict. Initial support to the LTTE helped the group solidify its position atop the Tamil nationalist movement to become the main insurgent force in Sri Lanka by the time the civil war began in 1983. It was an influx of training and equipment from the RAW that allowed the LTTE to move quickly toward the successful implementation of conventional military operations. The deployment of the IPKF in 1987 had the potential to halt the civil war when it introduced an overwhelming level of force to the island to disarm the LTTE and enforce the ceasefire. The presence of the IPKF, however, alarmed the SLG and led them to provide weapons and other supplies to the LTTE to support operations against the IPKF. The rearming of the LTTE by the SLG in reaction to the IPKF revitalized the LTTE’s capabilities. When the IPKF left in 1990, it was no surprise that the LTTE used these supplies to once again resume hostilities against the SLG.

The Worldwide Tamil Diaspora

The Tamil diaspora is a relatively recent phenomenon and many credit the Sri Lankan Civil War for the rapid expansion of the diaspora movement. The Tamil diaspora’s intimate connection with the violence of the civil war engendered widespread financial and material support for the LTTE throughout the Tamil community.[xxx]

Material and financial support provided to the LTTE through the Tamil diaspora amounted to roughly $50 million in annual revenue and made its way to the group through a variety of sources, including direct donations, private business contributions, charities, and NGO participation. This revenue stream, and the global network that facilitated it, provided a vital lifeline for the LTTE; allowing it to sustain its insurgent operations despite overwhelming domestic pressure from the SLG. The success of the LTTE offensive campaigns can be directly linked to the pattern of outside financial assistance from the Tamil diaspora. Funding patterns indicate that increased donations often preceded military victories and that military success resulted in a noticeable increase in donations. Conversely, once the international community collectively cracked down on the international financial network of the LTTE, their battlefield effectiveness sharply declined. The elimination of outside financial support by the international community coincided with the SLA’s final COIN offensives and directly contributed to the SLG’s ultimate victory over the LTTE.[xxxi]


The Sri Lankan Civil War is a unique case and the lessons that can be drawn from it have a relatively narrow applicability to the study insurgency and counterinsurgency operations. The brutality of the SLG COIN campaigns would be unacceptable in most situations and their approach is unlikely to be replicated by liberal-democratic governments. Similarly, insurgent networks looking to learn from the LTTE are more likely to replicate their terrorism and political violence operations rather than their adherence to conventional military operations. The most salient lessons to be learned are the importance of adaptability and organizational learning for the counterinsurgents, and the ability of outside support to prolong an insurgency despite overwhelming counterinsurgent superiority.

Government officials and military strategists should take notice of the importance of adaptability and isolation in counterinsurgency operations. If a force is able to learn from experience, and the organization is open to subsequent adaptation, valuable lessons can be gained. A counterinsurgent force that is rigid and unable to adapt will more likely than not find itself in a strategic quagmire of its own creation. An organizational capacity to adapt, in conjunction with a commitment to insurgent isolation and degradation, are vital preconditions to victory in any insurgency. Despite the SLG abandoning civil and political COIN initiatives, their willingness to adapt in the latter stages of the civil war proved successful. A counterinsurgent force that couples these lessons with the application of political and civil initiatives is very likely to succeed.

The views expressed within this paper are solely those of the author and are not representative of the author’s relationship the University of Pennsylvania Law School or any other affiliates.

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Ouellet, Eric. “Institutional Analysis of Counterinsurgency: The Case of the IPKF in Sri Lanka (1987–1990).” Defence Studies 11, no. 3 (September 2011): 470–96. doi:10.1080/14702436.2011.630173.

“Remembering Sri Lanka’s Black July.” BBC News, July 23, 2013, sec. Asia.

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Shashikumar, V.K. “Lessons from Sri Lanka’s War.” Indian Defence Review 24, no. 3 (September 2009).

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End Notes

[i] Central Intelligence Agency, “Sri Lanka,” The World Factbook — Central Intelligence Agency, accessed July 14, 2017,

[ii] The World Bank, “Sri Lankan Population,” The World Bank, accessed July 14, 2017,

[iii] Rohan Gunaratne, “International and Regional Implications of the Sri Lankan Tamil Insurgency,” December 2, 1998,

[iv] Peter Layton, “How Sri Lanka Won the War,” The Diplomat, accessed July 8, 2017,

[v] Ahmed Hashim, “Lions and Tigers in Paradise: Terrorism and Insurgency and the State’s Response in Sri Lanka,” Defence Against Terrorism Review 3, no. 1 (Spring 2010): 1–24.

[vi] “Remembering Sri Lanka’s Black July,” BBC News, July 23, 2013, sec. Asia,; “Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam,” Mapping Militant Organizations, accessed July 17, 2017,

[vii] “Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam,” Mapping Militant Organizations, accessed July 17, 2017,

[viii] Hashim, “Lions and Tigers in Paradise: Terrorism and Insurgency and the State’s Response in Sri Lanka.” Page 16; Niel A Smith, “Understanding Sri Lanka’s Defeat of the Tamil Tigers,” Joint Forces Quarterl, no. 59 (Quarter 2010): 40–44.

[ix] Ahmed Hashim, “When Counterinsurgency Wins Sri Lanka’s Defeat of the Tamil Tigers” (Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 2013). Page 89.

[x] “Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam.”

[xi] Hashim, “When Counterinsurgency Wins Sri Lanka’s Defeat of the Tamil Tigers.” Pages 98-100.

[xii] Ibid. Pages 102-113.

[xiii] Simon Gardner, “Sri Lanka Declares Fall of Rebel East, Tigers Defiant,” Reuters, July 11, 2007,

[xiv] Paige Ziegler, “Learning From The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam,” The Strategy Bridge, accessed July 17, 2017,

[xv] Hashim, “Lions and Tigers in Paradise: Terrorism and Insurgency and the State’s Response in Sri Lanka.” Page 17.

[xvi] “Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam.”

[xvii] Smith, “Understanding Sri Lanka’s Defeat of the Tamil Tigers.”

[xviii] These criteria are pulled from: Anthony James Joes, “Resisting Rebellion: The History and Politics of Counterinsurgency,” (Lexington, Ky: University Press of Kentucky, 2006). Note that these analytical sections merge some of Joes’s COIN criteria for the sake of space and fluidity.

[xix] Gunaratne, “International and Regional Implications of the Sri Lankan Tamil Insurgency.” Page 14.

[xx] Anbarasan Ethirajan, “How Sri Lanka’s Military Won,” BBC News, May 22, 2009,

[xxi] V.K. Shashikumar, “Lessons from Sri Lanka’s War,” Indian Defence Review 24, no. 3 (September 2009),

[xxii] Hashim, “Lions and Tigers in Paradise: Terrorism and Insurgency and the State’s Response in Sri Lanka.” Page 21. As well as: Hashim, “When Counterinsurgency Wins Sri Lanka’s Defeat of the Tamil Tigers.” Chapter III.

[xxiii] Smith, “Understanding Sri Lanka’s Defeat of the Tamil Tigers.” Pages 43-44.

[xxiv] Hashim, “Lions and Tigers in Paradise: Terrorism and Insurgency and the State’s Response in Sri Lanka.” Pages 19-20.

[xxv] Smith, “Understanding Sri Lanka’s Defeat of the Tamil Tigers.” Pages 42-43; Justin O. Smith, “Maritime Interdiction in Sri Lanka’s Counterinsurgency,” Small Wars & Insurgencies 22, no. 3 (July 2011): 448–66; Malik Ahmad Jalal, “Think Like a Guerilla: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Sri Lanka,” Harvard National Security Journal, Forum, June 2011,

[xxvi] Hashim, “When Counterinsurgency Wins Sri Lanka’s Defeat of the Tamil Tigers.” Chapter IV.

[xxvii] Layton, “How Sri Lanka Won the War.”

[xxviii] Smith, “Understanding Sri Lanka’s Defeat of the Tamil Tigers.” Pages 42-43.

[xxix] Eric Ouellet, “Institutional Analysis of Counterinsurgency: The Case of the IPKF in Sri Lanka (1987–1990),” Defence Studies 11, no. 3 (September 2011): 470–96, doi:10.1080/14702436.2011.630173; D. Sengupta and R. Ganguly, “Diffusion, Mediation, Suppression: India’s Varied Strategy towards the Tamil Insurgency in Sri Lanka,” Journal of South Asian Development 8, no. 1 (April 1, 2013): 105–25, doi:10.1177/0973174113476996; Daniel Byman, Trends in Outside Support for Insurgent Movements (Santa Monica, CA: Rand, 2001), Chapter 2.

[xxx] C. Christine Fair, “DIASPORA INVOLVEMENT IN INSURGENCIES: INSIGHTS FROM THE KHALISTAN AND TAMIL EELAM MOVEMENTS,” Nationalism and Ethnic Politics 11, no. 1 (April 2005): 125–56, doi:10.1080/13537110590927845. Pages 138-139.

[xxxi] Byman, Trends in Outside Support for Insurgent Movements. Pages 49-51.


About the Author(s)

Carlton G. Haelig is a graduate fellow with the Center for Security Policy Studies at George Mason University's Schar School. He is a graduate student studying international security and focuses on strategy, military innovation, military history, and asymmetric conflict. Additionally, Carlton is a junior fellow for national security policy and strategy at the University of Pennsylvania Law School's Center for Ethics and the Rule of Law.