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Wednesday, May 20, 2009

10 Lessons Israel Should Take From The Sri Lankan Victory Over Terror

Although most people couldn't find Sri Lanka on a map if their lives depended on it, something amazing happened this week on this beautiful Island nation that sits just south east of India in the Indian Ocean.  They did something that all of the European and American pundits had said was impossible:  They won an asymmetric war against a well entrenched, ethnically/politically motivated, insurgent terrorist army.

Since Israel has been fighting a similar war against a similarly motivated terrorist army, it would be a shame to squander some of the priceless lessons that can be taken from the Sri Lankan victory:

1.  Fighting for a draw or ceasefire will only ensure an endless war.  Fight to win or don't fight at all. A draw is a victory for the terrorists. 

2.  The rest of the world will never support a war of any kind, much less one fought against an enemy willing to use civilians as human shields and combatants.  Seeking foreign support for such a war is less than useless;  it is counterproductive.  As soon as Sri Lanka began fighting an all out, no-holds barred war against the Tamil Tigers (LTTE), the world turned against them.  Sri Lanka ignored the world and followed their chosen course of action to the desired conclusion; victory.  They did this at the cost of isolation and economic hardship.  But they won.

3.  When civil rights and the war effort bump up against one other (as they must in a war fought on home soil), there must be an accepted legal mechanism for temporarily setting aside some civil rights and personal freedoms in such a way that they can be easily and completely reclaimed by the populace once the war is over.  Societies at war are not free.  Get over it.  The sooner the war is won the sooner you'll get all your freedoms back.

4.  Civilian shields are the sole responsibility of those who hide behind them.  Once a warning has been given and the civilians have not been released, the war must be prosecuted despite the regrettable loss of human life.  Once civilians lose their value as shields they will cease to be used as such.  It remains to be seen if the world will hold the Sri Lankans or the Tigers responsible for the high civilian death toll.  But the end of the war will certainly ensure that no more civilians need die (on either side).

5.  Once an insurgent enemy abandons the conventions of 'civilized warfare', the army fighting them must do so as well (in a limited and organized way).  This does not mean the abandonment of ethics/morals or allowing government soldiers to become savages.  It means adopting new rules of engagement that place all combatants on an even footing.  It means assassination for assassination.  It means restructuring the army into small, semi-autonomous units that are more mobile and have clear objectives. It means occasionally telling soldiers to take no prisoners... especially when flags of truce are routinely used cynically to gain lethal advantage.

6.  Ask friendly nations for support, but be willing to turn to the enemies of our friends when the requested support is withheld.  Sri Lanka initially asked India for assistance and was turned down (due to the large Tamil minority in southern India).  This gave them no choice but to turn to China and even Pakistan for arms and support.  Eventually India came around.  They never actually provided material support, but once they saw Sri Lanka was serious about fighting the war to a conclusion, they stepped up efforts to stop domestic Indian support for the Tigers from being smuggled to LTTE strongholds. 

7.  Ceasefires rarely help the stronger side.  The multi-year cease fire that existed between the Tigers and the Sri Lankan government was used by the LTTE to re-arm and wage a low-intensity terror war against Sri Lankan civilian and government targets.  Each government retaliation was roundly condemned by the rest of the world as a breach of the cease-fire while each terror attack was met with indifference and resignation (sound familiar); a trend that emboldened the Tigers and won them many new supporters/combatants among the Sri Lankan Tamil minority.

8.  Insurgencies are like a cancer.  They must be removed completely or they will metastasize again and again in ever-more-dangerous incarnations.  But by the same analogy, care must be taken to differentiate between healthy (i.e. neutral) population and cancerous (insurgent) population.  As in the body, this designation isn't made by the doctors... it is apparent by observing the population.  Those who act as terrorists (or support/shelter the terrorists) are insurgents/cancer.  Those who don't are not.  Let them make their choice and then let everyone live (or die) with their choices.  I was never a big GWB fan, but one of the truest things he ever said was (paraphrased) "You are either with us or against us.  Time to choose."

9.  Being ethnically unique may entitle a population to pursue self-determination... but not necessarily at the expense of an existing sovereign nation.  Yes, it would be wonderful if every ethic and religious group had its own country.  It would also be wonderful if the global energy requirements could be met by burning rainbow dust and unicorn farts.  But the world has a finite amount of real estate, and in some cases there may need to be some multi-ethnic countries.  Sorry.  The ones who got there first and hung out a shingle get to make the rules.  Barring that, ethnic populations perpetually in conflict with their neighbors may occasionally need to seek out a new place to live near populations that are more similar to themselves. 

10.  Make sure the checks and balances of power adjust to the reality of a war footing.  New rules of engagement must be enshrined in law, and the executive/judicial branches of government must uphold (but not exceed) these new temporary powers.  An executive branch without checks is a dictator/tyrant.  A judicial branch that continues to operate on a peacetime footing during a war will undermine the government's ability and resolve to win.

Posted by David Bogner on May 20, 2009 | Permalink


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After reading this in conjunction to Jameel's most recent piece, I'm getting a little nervous...Is it time to say "read between the lines" to the US and just go?

Posted by: Safranit | May 20, 2009 1:50:11 PM

Another lesson is that the rebels had several chances to obtain a Tamil province with vast powers, but always refused. The Arabs think they will get a better deal in the future, since Israel doesn`t have red lines.

Posted by: ED | May 20, 2009 4:34:35 PM

An interesting and thought-provoking post. Great work.

Posted by: Jendeis | May 20, 2009 5:13:30 PM

The Tamils invented the suicide vest, so from our point of view it is good that they lost.

It is of interest that they had no international armorers with nuclear weapons. Indeed, few international armorers at all.

Posted by: Fred | May 20, 2009 5:34:19 PM

Great piece. Of course the Sri Lankans do have one great advantage in the eyes of the rest of the World. Guess what, they aren't Israel.

Posted by: Superpharm | May 20, 2009 7:03:13 PM

So now we have at least four examples of terrorist/guerilla movements that have failed to topple their target-nation:

1.) Malaya
2.) Sri-Lanka
3.) Colombia
4.) Phillipines

Would Al-Quaeda's campaign in Iraq also count here, as well?

Posted by: DMO | May 20, 2009 8:30:37 PM

The U.S. could use these lessons as well.

Posted by: davidwag | May 20, 2009 9:01:21 PM

Don't get ahead of yourself, David. Yes, the Sri Lankan government won the conventional war against LTTE - albeit at a terrible cost. They also managed to kill a number of the high ranking leaders, though who exactly is still alive is as yet unclear. But the unconventional war - ie, the war against Tamil separatist terrorism - is most definitely not won.

As with most regional terrorist/separatist groups, LTTE worked hard to gain a conventional military capability; infantry, a rudimentary navy, and even an air force. But when they experience military setbacks - even dramatic ones like this - they just turn back to tried-and-true methods: suicide bombings, shooting attacks, mines/IEDs, etc. It's even tougher for Sri Lanka than Israel to deal with this, as the Tamils live throughout the country (as opposed to the territories, where most of the Palestinians do not live mixed in with Israelis). While LTTE's operational capacity is sharply reduced, they still have quite a number of operatives and supporters (and equipment) at large. Whether they receive more support depends highly on how the SL government treats the Tamil minority in the wake of this victory. If they make substantive efforts to promote equality under the law, I suspect LTTE will lose steam. But if they continue their harrassment and discrimination of the Tamil minority, the Tigers will only gain in strength again.

Furthermore: civil rights must be set aside during wartime? Would this include the intimidation and assassination of journalists who spoke out against some of the government actions (we're not talking about Tamil terrorist sympathizers, but something more like Ha'aretz's editorial slant)? What about the treatment of Tamil citizens who had no relationship with LTTE? Is this reasonable behavior, even in wartime? I'm certainly not a fan of the Japanese internment camps in WWII, or Soviet-style suppression of antigovernment journalism.

I agree in principle with you about human shields, but the case in the last few weeks in Sri Lanka was a bit more muddled - the SL army was complicit in herding the civilians ahead of them into a small zone with LTTE. While they claimed it was a 'no fire' zone, they clearly violated it on multiple occasions, killing hundreds if not thousands of their own civilians. They had LTTE cornered - they definitely could have exercised some more care in dealing with the situation, instead of just writing them off as collateral damage by dint of being human shields.

I'm also not sure you're right about ceasefires. In this case, SL used the lull as an opportunity to drastically expand their military - it has swelled considerably in size and equipment in the last few years, as part of a concerted gamble to invest everything for one big push against LTTE. Certainly it can be used either way... Do you think the restructuring/retraining of the IDF in the wake of the Lebanon war was needed, and improved the performance in the latest Gaza incursion?

It's easy to speak in declarative, black-and-white statements. But the reality is much more shaded - in both Sri Lanka and in Israel. This doesn't mean there isn't some truth to what you say, but we need to think of these as only part of a bigger picture that should actually drive policy.

Posted by: matlabfreak | May 20, 2009 9:06:31 PM

I looks more like China won this war.

Posted by: Abu Zibby | May 20, 2009 9:15:54 PM

I agree with Abu Zibby. Some interesting points, but a number you didd not consider. Sri Lanka differs from Israel in another way. The Tamils were not part of a majority regional population with whom Sri Lanka is trying to forge some kind of relationship. So this is another way that the situation muddies.

Posted by: jordan Hirsch | May 21, 2009 4:00:21 AM

"It would also be wonderful if the global energy requirements could be met by burning rainbow dust and unicorn farts."

Don't laugh - you just gave Al Gore the plot for his next movie. :)

Posted by: psachya | May 21, 2009 5:12:20 AM

@jordan: it isn't obvious but China had some interest to drive LTTE out from strategically important ports. The deals go back to 2007-09 if I remember correctly. Also China supplied the weapons for this campaign. There is hardly a chance that China lets go by to reduce the Indian incfluence in this region.
I am waiting for China to offer assistance to India against PAK.

For Israel, I don't know. There is some strategic partneship between Israel and China for a long time regarding some arms development. Apart from this I don't see how China would have a big interest in Israel. We'll would have to give them control of Ashdod and Ashkelon to establish harbours there to get entrance to the Mediterranean.

Sorry for myr English. It'll improve, I'm working on it.

Posted by: Abu Zibby | May 21, 2009 3:51:39 PM

unicorns DON'T fart, Trep, you little libeller! That's what makes them special and magical!

Posted by: Wry Mouth | May 24, 2009 6:41:15 AM

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