In many respects--its entrenched religious and ethnic conflicts, its festering guerrilla warfare and suicide bombings, its seamless interchange between civilians and combatants--the war prefigured any number of later conflicts. Where it differed was in the government's brutal effectiveness in putting down the insurgency. To the extent that a counter-insurgency campaign can be successful, Sri Lanka is a grisly test cast for success in modern warfare.To the extent that a COIN campaign can be successful, of course. One wouldn't want readers to think that we're labeling the Iraq war a "success" or holding out hopes for a favorable outcome in Afghanistan. Heavens no! It's far more fashionable to insist that counterinsurgencies never work... unless, that is, they're executed in some way that's completely unreproducible -- whether for circumstantial, practical, or moral reasons -- by the U.S.
Anderson's basic summary of the campaign is useful for its brutal honesty about the tactical measures employed by the Sri Lankan military. I'm summarizing here:
- Direct civilians to assemble in safe zones where they'll be free of military reprisals
- Heavily shell these areas
- Force remaining insurgents and associated (?) civilians into a geographically isolated space
- Cut off all transportation, resupply, and communications to this space
- Heavily shell this area
- Kill everyone who doesn't succeed in fleeing and/or is not killed by insurgents during efforts to flee
- Kill insurgent leader
- Declare victory
In military circles around the world, the "Sri Lanka option" for counter-insurgency was discussed with admiration. Its basic tenets were: deny access to the media, the United Nations, and human rights groups; isolate your opponents, and kill them as quickly as possible; and separate and terrify the survivors--or, ideally, leave no witnesses at all.
UPDATE: Niel Smith helpfully links to his piece on the subject in the 4th Quarter 2010 issue of JFQ. It's worth repeating his conclusion here:
Those who wish to use the LTTE’s [Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or the Tamil Tigers] defeat as a foil for criticizing U.S. COIN doctrine have adopted an overly simplistic narrative of the LTTE’s defeat. These critics have missed the larger picture of what occurred in Sri Lanka. Appropriate and legitimate debate continues as to the significance of population centric tactics practiced by the U.S. military during the surge to the successful reduction of violence [in Iraq]. Without doubt, numerous changes in the wider internal and external dynamics of the conflict coincided with the tactical shift and accelerated the turnaround in Iraq. Likewise, by 2009, the LTTE was a shadow of its former self, bankrupt, isolated, illegitimate, divided, and unable to meet an invigorated government offensive of any kind. At almost every turn, the LTTE made profound strategic miscalculations in the post-9/11 environment by continuing its use of terror tactics despite a fundamentally changed global environment. Failing to realize this shift, [LTTE leader] Prabhakaran made poor strategic and tactical choices that doomed his movement long before the government began its final offensive. Taken together, these conditions proved essential to the collapse of the LTTE after nearly 30 years of conflict.N.b.: the Tigers didn't do themselves any favors while becoming one of the most well-known terrorist outfits on the globe. Things might not have shaken out the same way had they not so effectively worn out their welcome with patron and undecided alike.