Thursday, April 23, 2009

The lessons of Sri Lanka

Guest post by Peter S. Henne

Peter S. Henne is a Security Fellow with the Truman National Security Project and a doctoral candidate at Georgetown University.

On picturesque Sri Lanka, a brutal conflict has been raging for nearly three decades between the majority-Sinhalese government and the militant Tamil opposition group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). With Sri Lankan military victory over the LTTE now likely, however, U.S. policymakers should watch the outcome of the conflict closely as it will provide significant lessons for the attempt to formulate a progressive counterinsurgency strategy.

The current conflict began in the early 1980s, with the LTTE eventually becoming the dominant Tamil group. The group conducted extremely violent attacks, including massacres of civilians, while the government responded in a like manner, often attacking civilians in conflict zones. The government's recent progress towards defeating the LTTE was achieved through an outright military campaign against LTTE-controlled territories. This campaign, however, has driven many Tamil civilians out of the conflict zone, creating a potential humanitarian crisis.

The apparent outcome of this conflict, then, is depressingly in line with the scholarly finding that the best way to secure peace in a civil war is often the complete victory of one side over the other. The government has made such headway against the LTTE because it abandoned attempts to find a mutually acceptable solution, instead attempting to eradicate the group.

If this strategy is more successful than "hearts and minds" approaches, the fate of the LTTE may have less than promising prospects for U.S. counterinsurgency planning. General Petraeus's constructive counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq was predicated on the assumption that winning over the population is more effective than trampling it. If Sri Lanka demonstrates the supremacy of the latter approach, though, this suggests that maintaining our security may require abandoning our values. Must progressives make a choice between the two?

The answer is yes, and no. While the population may want peace, the insurgents are usually more intractable; a balanced strategy will lead to a prolonged conflict and higher casualties that could sour the public and increase demands for total victory. If progressives are to eschew the all-out tactics used by the Sri Lankan government, we must be prepared to accept high levels of U.S. casualties and public discontent.

Yet the brutal conflict in Sri Lanka did not emerge automatically from the Tamils' grievances. The Tamils attempted to change their situation peacefully for decades, so early concessions to Tamils could have prevented violence. Also, while the ceasefires were short-lived, they did create a space for government outreach to moderate Tamil groups. Greater international support during these ceasefires may also have made a difference.

The United States, then, may be able to pursue a progressive approach to such insurgencies. First, we must pay attention to minority grievances throughout the world, pressuring leaders who infringe their citizens' rights. Second, we must create space for negotiation and reconciliation in conflicts, as we so ably did under President Clinton; Obama's appointment of special envoys to high-conflict areas is an encouraging step in this direction.

These efforts may not end all insurgencies, but this approach will encourage us to avoid entering into conflict when our interests can be advanced in other ways, avoiding insurgencies like the one that arose in Iraq. Also, strengthened international engagement can address minority grievances and prevent future conflicts. In such a way, the United States can learn from the lessons of Sri Lanka.

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