Monday, November 26, 2012

Solitudinem faciunt

I have been pondering a "decisive battles" post on the final months of what is known as Eelam War IV, the conclusion of the long conflict between the government of Sri Lanka and the Tamil Tiger rebels.
While the conflict itself is horrific, the engagements between the rebels and the Sri Lankan Army (SLA) are potentially of interest to citizens of the nations currently engaged in suppressing rebellions in the Middle East, which as of this writing includes the United States and its allies in Afghanistan and Israel in the occupied territories.

I thought that a look at the tactics and techniques that made the government forces successful and defeated the rebels might be useful for U.S. citizens pondering their own government's course in its wars and its support for the wars of its allies.

What I found was very revealing, but not about military tactics or techniques, but about nightmare and horror.

First, in researching Eelam War IV I discovered that the conflict may well be the most poorly documented recent major war outside the Russian campaigns against the Chechen rebels. The government of Sri Lanka did an exceptionally good job of preventing outside observers from getting any but the most haphazard notion of what went on in northern Sri Lanka in late 2008 and 2009.

For example, some sort of engagement at the village of Aanandapuram was fought in late March and early April, 2009. I had hoped to write up this engagement as the "decisive battle" for March 2013, given that it seems to have been the final act of the Tamil rebel forces as a conventional military outfit. But I quickly ran into the realization that providing any sort of militarily sensible account of the events of Aanandapuram was damn near impossible.

For one thing, I couldn't even come up with anything approaching an order of battle for either side.

Based on SLA sources we know that this combat included elements of the SLA 58 Division, 53 Division and something called "Task Force 8" (probably composed of SLA Special Operations units). But which of these units were engaged, and where? A Tiger website claims that "(t)he 4th, 6th,8th, 12th, 14th and 20th Gajabahu battalions, 5th Vijayabahu, 9th Gemunu Watch, 11th and 20th SL Light Infantry along with 1 special forces and 2 commando got into action" but offers no explanation of how these units were committed, or where, and what they did there.

SLA sources also tell us that the "Charles Anthony" Infantry Brigade of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE or just "Tamil Tigers") was present, although in what condition or strength is unknown. The same sources mention that a number of senior LTTE leaders were killed there, including the commanders of the Jayanthan Infantry brigade, the Imran-Pandian, Maalathi, Sothia infantry regiments, the Kittu artillery unit, the Kutty Sri mortar unit. Whether these leaders were with their units, and whether these LTTE units still existed effectively as bodies of troops?

We have no idea.
The other side of the hill includes Tiger websites and press releases quoting Tiger-source material. But much of this is as oblique and opaque as the SLA press releases.

In an attempt to find some documentary evidence of the engagement I read The Cage by Gordon Weiss and was not helped. The 2011 work details Weiss' account of the slaughter of Tamil civilians during the last stages of Eelam War IV but has little about the military hows and whys.

And that, in turn, led me back to thinking about the recent fighting in Gaza, and the reality of suppressing rebellions that we here in the West don't like to think about.
Since 1945 we many of us - civilians and soldiers alike - believe or try to believe that there is a "humane" way of crushing rebellion. That civil wars and rebellion-suppression can be successfully fought along Geneva Convention lines.

We like to believe that there's a "plan" or a "strategy" that can end these rebellions with less bloodshed. Conditioned on our belief in technical means to political, economic, and even military ends, we like to think that if we just hit on the right "strategy" we can bring the rebels in out of the cold, make them sit down with their rivals, "work things out".

This has meant that U.S. policy, as well as the reputations of the U.S. military and its general officers in the recent wars in southwest Asia, largely rests or has rested on the ability to successfully implement "counterinsurgency" plans along these Western lines, which typically feature relative military restraint along with civil "nation building" or "hearts-and-minds" campaigns; call then what you will, the idea is to bring the rebels back into the "government" camp and to "pacify" the rebellious regions without exterminating the inhabitants.

The original example cited for this sort of CI success is typically the 1948-1960 Malayan Emergency. Now and then you get mentions of the British CI efforts in south Yemen, Oman, and Dhofar.

But...when you look hard at those successes you start to realize their "one-off" characteristics.

Malaya was the really special case; a rebel group composed nearly entirely of a racial minority group that then made a series of critical strategic mistakes. In my opinion the attempt to re-create Malaya led to a whole bunch of screw-ups in places like Vietnam; the success of Malaya was due less to the British Hannibals than the MRLA's Varros.

What you do see, looking around, is that the mechanics of suppressing rebellions hasn't changed all that much since Roman times. You kill everything moving and keep killing until they stop moving.

It has worked in Sri Lanka largely because, not in spite, of the fact that the Sri Lankan pledge of "Zero Civilian Casualties" was a sick joke.

The grievances of the Tamil minority that the Weiss book documents thoroughly were not slight or trivial. The decisions that led to the Tamil rebellion were not facile, and despite their atrocities the LTTE were not dilettantes or wannabes. The Tamil rebellion was desperate, and desperation was required to crush it.

There is a reason that Eelam War IV is so poorly documented; because it was an old-fashioned Roman-sort of civil war. In my opinion the Sri Lankan government and the SLA recognized the legitimacy of the Tamil rebels.

But they had no interest in accommodating those people; they were interested in keeping power for themselves. That meant not "pacifying" the rebel areas; it meant destroying them, destroying the rebels and all their people, in such a way that they would never again think that the chance of victory outweighed the costs of defeat.

"Shared" power tends to become separate powers over time; ask the Czechs and the Slovaks, the Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats. The Sinhalese-majority Sri Lankan government had no interest in sharing power with the Tamil minority. It wanted to crush them, and crushing them meant - as it has always meant since Crassus' day - killing them in job lots.

And to kill to that degree meant keeping the press out. Without the cameras and reporters and the other busybodies of the lily-fingered West the SLA could get on with the business of crushing the rebellion with fire and steel.

Don't get me wrong; I don't like that.

Is it horrible? Yes.
Is it a war crime? Yes.
But it works.

And I know that. And I know that the record of the alternative - the Western hope that good roads and plasma TV will make the angry people happy again - has been iffy at best and disastrous at worst, if you can't change the fundamental problems they are angry about.


I guess that the only "lesson learned" I can come up with from the Battle of Aanandapuram is Tacitus' old lesson written over again in the letters of blood; Auferre, trucidare, rapere, falsis nominibus imperium; atque, ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant.
I wish I had a different story to tell. I wish I thought that there was a solution to the problems of Afghanistan or Israel short of endless war or brutal genocide.

But I don't.


  1. Chief,

    Been thinking about this since I got back from Afghanistan. I alternate between whether it is impossible or we are incompetent and then occasionally, it's possible in theory but impossible in reality because of who/what the Army is.

    Thanks for this, tho, spurred some new thinking on my part that I'll try to share at some point.

    One thing to consider now, though, is that you assume that the insurgents 'know' how to act like insurgents like its an instinct. Do you think that's a valid assumption? Shouldn't the response to an insurgency be determined by the level of insurgency rather than just a 'flatten everything?'

    PF Khans

  2. PFK: I'm not sure if I made myself clear in the post, but I'm NOT advocating the Roman solution. What I'm saying is that for a polity where there is no hope (or no willingness on the part of the government, which comes to the same thing) to change the issues that have given rise to the rebellion that massive violence CAN work to "solve" the problem of rebellion.

    It's not always a permanent solution - after all, the problems are still there; in this case, the atrocious conditions that caused enough Tamils to risk death to form the LTTE are still present and are in many cases worse than ever. It devastates the nation's economy and political system (the Weiss book makes it clear the degree to which the Eelam Wars enabled massive corruption and single-family oligarchy on Sri Lanka). It's not a "good" solution from any sort of human standpoint.

    But if you're a government that has no intention of moderating its position - or can't without being sent to the chop (as I believe is the case in Syria today) - it's probably your only way of surviving.

    That's how the Romans managed to stay Roman and crush all those servile rebellions and rebellious provinces. They were willing to bend on minor things, but big issues? Slavery? The status of "barbarians" versus Romans? No.

    And since it sucked to be a slave, or a barbarian - or a Tamil in Sri Lanka or a Palestinian in Gaza - the "outsiders" chose to rebel rather than live as the "insiders" decreed they should live.

    And - since the "insiders" couldn't or wouldn't change the way THEY wanted to live - the only thing that would "work" was total destruction; violence so indiscriminate and massive that no sane survivor would willingly even think of rebellion again for a generation or more. Violence so hideous that even life as a slave was a better option.

    So what "should" the response be? Well, frankly, it "should" be an attempt to bring the society into some sort of rational balance that maximizes the good for the most people in it.

    But you and I know that there are LOTS of people who are more unhappy at the thought that "those people" might be getting a crumb of bread than pleased that "their people" get the entire loaf.

  3. And that leads back to our wars in Afghanistan and Israel's wars in the occupied territories.

    The fundamentalist Afghan tribes aren't willing to accept "westernization". The "outsider" tribes - say the clans of the Pashtun who were kicked out back in 2002 - see their relationship with the Tadjiks and Hazaras as zero-sum; for them to win the northern alliance tribes have to lose.

    The Arab residents of the former Palestine want the exact same territory the Israelis have. They want an ARAB state, where Arabs are the boss. There's no room for Jews there.

    How do you "respond" to that sort of rebellion? The only solution the rebels will accept is your capitulation; an Islamic government run by Pashtuns in Kabul, an Arab state run by Arabs in Jerusalem. How do you respond, short of beating them? And - if they aren't willing to come to terms - how do you "beat" them if you have to work around their women and kiddies and old folks? How do you sieve their guerrilla fish out of that sea?

    BUT...if you drain the sea and pound it flat with artillery and gas it and kill everything living that remains..?

  4. Chief - two comments and four questions:

    c1] How I agree with your post: Your statement: "the Western hope that good roads and plasma TV will make the angry people happy again - has been iffy at best and disastrous at worst, if you can't change the fundamental problems they are angry about." is right on the money.

    c2] How I disagree: This was never about insurgency or counterinsurgency. This was a civil war, a racial and religious divide. And for awhile it was an unofficial war between Sri Lanka and India as the Tamil Tigers were supported by the government of India at times. When that government stopped their official support (after the Tigers assassinated Rajiv?) there were still many groups and individuals in India that carried on their support.

    q1] What does Weiss say about female suicide bombers - even pregnant ones and female infantry regiments?

    q2] What does Weiss say if anything about General Fonseka?

    q3] What does Weiss say about LTTE violence on rival Tamil groups?

    q4] Weiss's book title 'The Cage', what is that an analogy for?

    1. In order:

      C2: But what are most "insurgencies" but some form of civil war/rebellion? The Eelam Wars were that on steroids - few other insurgent groups got as conventional as the LTTE - but how is that materially different from, say, the Provos vs the Prods/British in Ulster, or the Pashtuns/Talibs vs. the Northern Alliance/NATO in Afghanistan?

      Q1 - As I noted, his discussion of the military aspects of the final battles of EW4 was extremely rudimentary. He discussed the way that the LTTE leadership had a very nihilist cast that helped create the "Black Tigers" as suicide weapons. But women soldiers/assassins have been a feature of pretty much every rebellion since Spartacus' day. When the alternative is genocide, the women (and kiddies) kinda get tossed in with everyone else...

      He goes in depth about the Tigers' impressment of kids, too.

      Q2 - Again, not much tactically. He notes that Fonseka was the man in charge of the SLA side of EW4 and was, thus, the "Petraeus" of the SLG victory as much as anyone. Weiss is viciously condemnatory of "Rule by Rajapaksa" in general and the degree to which Mahinda and his family used the Eelam Wars to solidify Sri Lanka into their personal piggy bank and police state. In his epilogue he discusses the arrest and conviction of Fonseka with a certain relish as the "biter bit" sort of thing.

      Q3 - He details quite a bit of it, and in particular mentions the defection of COL Karuna in 2004 with many of his cadres as critical to the success of the SLG in EW4.

      Q4 - "The Cage" is the area where the LTTE was cornered in 2009; basically the area around the Nanthi Kadal. It's not really so much an analogy as his description of the "caged" condition of the LTTE and its Tamil population during the final phase of EW4.

      Just in general, the Weiss book isn't particularly evenhanded in the sense of its' content. While it discusses the LTTE's atrocities it is primarily concerned with 1) debunking the SLG's "zero civilian casualties" meme, and 2) condemning the Rajapaksa's for abuses of power. He simply accepts that the LTTE was a viciously violent organization as a given and mentions things like its forcing kids to fight, killing civilians (including Tamil civilians) and placing combat units near hospitals. But his real venom is reserved for the SLG.

      Frankly, what I came away with from my entire inquiry into the Eelam Wars was a strong desire to shower off; all sides seemed appalling. The Sinhalese groups that initiated the racial repression are the worst of the bunch, but the British, the Indians, the LTTE and the other guerrilla groups, the SLG/SLA, the Buddhist fanatics...they all pitched in (it seemed to me) to make this fucking mess. Just gawdawful.

  5. Thanks Chief for the response.

    Kids yes. You have to wonder why the Africans get all the press on child soldiers and not the Tamils.

    I think I will pass on reading author Weiss. A pox on both their houses I say.

  6. FDChief-

    Interesting thread.

    Been thinking about this topic for the last couple of days. You've mentioned Gaza and Afghanistan in the context of the Tamils on Sri Lanka. First I think you're conflating three very different conflicts. What do they have in common? "COIN"? Is that it? Actually the political contexts are all very different. "COIN" is assumed common to all three due to the power relationships between the two opposing sides, but that is more the nature of wars in general, are not most conflicts "asymmetrical"?

    Second, the Roman's method also had a carrot to the stick you mention, were not the local "barbarian" nobility encouraged to become "Roman"? How was the strategic effect gained by Arminius in 9 AD even possible had this not been the case?

    Finally, the strategic incoherence of the Bush wars (Afghanistan & Iraq) is due to the domestic US political confusion/dysfunctions which led to the wars themselves, not to the nature of COIN or the conflicts which resulted. In other words we went in screwed up, rather then getting screwed up after the fact . . .

    1. 1. They are similar in that there is a similar problem at the crux of the biscuit; winning the "hearts and minds" of the insurgents/rebels/outsiders would require a concession that the government/insiders will not or cannot make. Power sharing, equal standing, physical possession of part of the place they both want - in all three cases the principals believe that to compromise is to lose.

      In that case the Roman way is the only real alternative. The SLG was "fortunate" enough to have an island they could isolate long enough to use it.

      2. There was a "carrot", if you choose to call it that, was a pretty nasty vegetable for everyone BUT the local elites. And you'll not that in the worst cases - where, like the SLG, Rome felt there was no room for accomodation as in the Servile Wars, there was no "carrot", either.

      And one crucial difference I see between the Romans and the other governments involved in these wars is that the Romans had little or no ethnic character to their empire (outside the reality that if you weren't one of a couple of dozen families you could forget about direct access to the levers of power...). But the Tamil/Sinhalese, Israeli/Arab, and Tajik-Hazara-Pashtun conflicts all have nasty overlays of racism and tribalism that the Romans were too pragmatic to bother with. That gives them less room for a "compromise" solution. If a Gaul can take a Latin name and become Romanized, fine. But if the very NATURE of the conflict depends on keeping those nasty, dirty sneaky, barbarian Tamils/Arabs/Pashtuns under your bootheel, well, what then?

      Mind you, the Arminius thing didn't work out all that well, either, did it?

      And as for the Bush Wars, I couldn't disagree more about the problems leading back to the methods involved. Had the Bushies been able to go Roman in Iraq; had they been able to do as McKinley's troops did in the PI we'd be finding Iraqi immigrants selling kebabs on Van Nuys Boulevard twenty years from now like we have Filipina maids in every hotel in Hollywood. We brought the water torture but left behind the concentration camps and the mass murder; makes civilizing the little brown brothers MUCH harder...

      (Not to mention we had to give a carrot to the local Arminii who turned out to love Americans about as well as the original loved Romans, but, there...)

      The domestic confusion LED to the wars, yes. But the nature of COIN as practiced by the Western powers - that is, trying to "win" rebels whose fundamental objection is to the very nature of the regimes the Western powers are supporting - meant that regardless of whether we went in screwed up or not we would have been screwed up after we got there. It was only after the local Shia went all Roman on the Sunni - and we were prevented from going all Roman on the Shia and, in fact, had to hand over the keys to them - that the war was won.

      The lesson I think comparing Iraq/Gaza/Afghanistan to Sri Lanka is that while the Roman methods work a dandy (providing you're willing to stomach the moral revulsion and can keep the press out) the Western way simply doesn't work except in the most favorable circumstances AND the rebels have to make a cascade of critical errors AND the Westerners have to do everything right AND the local government has to be willing to change/accomodate/share power with the rebels.

      That's just way too many ANDs. The real lesson is that eating soup with a knife isn't possible, and believing it is just cuts your lip.

      But cutting out rebel hearts, disembowelling them, and cutting the throats of their women and children?

      A knife works juuuuust fine for that.

  7. I still see a lot of conflating going on here which blurs out the important distinctions and implies similarities where there possibly are none.

    First off, we've been talking about COIN for years now. One of my posts on the subject showed the confusion around the writings of David Galula. If one wishes to apply his theory, then certain conditions must apply. For instance an occupying power can hardly achieve success using his approach to impose their will on a foreign population. It is the actual "legitimate" government of the state/political community involved which wages counterinsurgency warfare. Regarding Afghanistan, the Taliban have as much (or more?) legitimacy in the eyes of the various Afghan factions than the imposed Karzai government, so which side are the "insurgents"? Also in Galula's view the insurgents are Marxists imposing a new way of life on the inhabitants - so which side is attempting to impose a new (and foreign) way of life? Then of course, there's Pakistan . . .

    Gaza? I asked a question on bb's thread regarding "act of war" in connection with this conflict. Gaza doesn't seem to me to be much of a war at all. It is more the nature of a prison camp revolt. That the inmates are able to kill 1 guard/visitor/civilian for every 10 they lose with their improvised shanks and zip guns doesn't make it a war. We use the metaphor of war to avoid addressing the actual conditions of the conflict which raises far too many unseemly questions. The Palestinians don't have much of a political system and obviously do not enjoy the monopoly of legitimate violence on the territory they "control", rather the Israelis do. The conflict is better compared to a "faucet" that the Israelis turn on and off than to a "war" which would preclude this ability. Hamas is more the result of Israeli (and let's not forget Bush and Condie Rice's little gambit) mistakes and attempts at political manipulation than it is the result of Palestinian political choices. The Palestinians don't really have many choices. In regards to "why don't they just go back to where they came from", the condition with them is the very opposite of that with the Tamils and Sinhalese.

    As to the war in Sri Lanka, this is what the thread is all about imo and you provide much interesting background and commentary. But what of the deeper political context? The Tamils were brought in as laborers by the British and Dutch to build infrastructure and work on the tea plantations in the 19th Century. They were treated essentially as slaves. After independence in 1947, India and Sri Lanka made various agreements to repatriate some of the Tamils to India and settle some in Sri Lanka, but these fell through for different reasons. The Tamils revolted, but then alienated their main patron India as mike points out. The Sri Lankan government wishes to impose control over the entire territory and expel/exterminate those unwilling to accept their aims. It is a coherent political goal which is seemingly attainable through military means . . . in fact the only coherent war of the three conflicts that you mention from a strategic theory perspective . . . That it is pitiless and brutal is besides the point . . . only all the more reason not to get involved in incoherent wars . . .

  8. Researching the history of Sri Lanka I found this little gem on wikipedia:

    "The first noted use of "serendipity" in the English language was by Horace Walpole (1717–1797). In a letter to Horace Mann (dated 28 January 1754) he said he formed it from the Persian fairy tale The Three Princes of Serendip, whose heroes "were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of". The name stems from Serendip, an old name for Sri Lanka (aka Ceylon), from Arabic Sarandib, which was adopted from Tamil "Seren deevu" or originally from Sanskrit Suvarnadweepa or golden island (some trace the etymology to Simhaladvipa which literally translates to "Dwelling-Place-of-Lions Island"[3]). Christophero Armeno had translated the Persian fairy tale into Italian, adapting Amir Khusrau's Hasht Bihisht[4] of 1302."

    If you read the tale of 'The Three Princes of Sertendip you get the possible (probable?) source or at least one of the sources of Arthur Conan Doyle's inspiration for Sherlock.

    Which I know has nothing to do with your post Chief. My apologies. But I thought it bizarre that a country so torn up by inhumanity and brutality (on both sides) was the source of an English word meaning "happy accident" or "pleasant surprise"

    BTW, I don't think this civil war is over. Based on what is posted on I would not be surprised if an Eelam-V war is in their future.

  9. Chief/seydlitz
    When we say-GO ROMAN why don't we say GO gERMAN/fRENCH OR bRITISH?
    Excuse my comp-it won't capitalize the 3 countries.Not my bad.
    Didn't these countries do much the same. ie guerilla war in spain. the fr and br examples abound.