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How the West Was Lost

May 21st, 2009 by Chuck · 3 Comments · Foreign Affairs

If you were looking for the reason why we, with the most powerful military in the history of the planet, are struggling to defeat a ragtag collection of dirt poor guerilla fighters, this article from Time lays it out quite plainly, if unintentionally.  Time looked at the victory of Sri Lanka over the Tamil Tigers, and concluded they did everything wrong, and their successful methods were exactly what we should not do.  Never have I seen an analysis so utterly and spectacularly wrong as Time’s.  But Time’s insane method for “defeating” an insurgency is exactly the way the West is fighting, and looks like it will continue to fight, the Islamist assault on the West.

But now that the Tigers have been defeated, governments and security forces around the world may try to learn from the success of the Sri Lanka government. President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his army have turned the conventional wisdom on fighting insurgencies on its head, adopting strategies and tactics long discredited, both in the battlefield and in the military classroom. Since they appear to have worked against the Tigers, other countries wracked by insurgencies — from Pakistan to Sudan to Algeria — may be tempted to follow suit. But Rajapaksa’s triumph has come at a high cost in civilian lives and a sharp decline in democratic values — and he is no closer to resolving the ethnic resentments that underpinned the insurgency for decades. Perhaps Sri Lanka’s success should come with a warning label for political leaders and military commanders elsewhere: Do not try this at home.

Obviously, the US war with the Islamists is not the same as the insurgencies mentioned here.  But it is in fact comparable, simply on a global scale.  The Islamist insurgents want the whole world to bow to Islam, and since we are the top dog on the planet, as far as non-Muslim nations go, we are their most tempting target.  If we fall, the rest of the dominoes will quickly follow.  And the “discredited” tactics, as you will see, are certainly meant to apply to the US military as well. 

What horrible tactics were used by Sri Lanka?

Brute Force Works
Modern military wisdom says sheer force doesn’t quell insurgencies, and that in the long run political and economic power-sharing along with social reconciliation are the only ways to end the fighting. But the Sri Lankan army eventually broke down the Tigers in an unrelenting military campaign, the final phase of which lasted more than two years. That sort of sustained offensive hasn’t been tried anywhere, in decades.

I’ve never before read such a perfect statement of how the West will be lost as that one.  The way to fight a terrorist insurgency, according to Time, is not to kill the insurgents who are killing you, but a strategy of compromise and appeasement, i.e., total capitulation.  This will assuage their grievances, and voila! the insurgency will be over.  It’s so simple when you’re willing to give up without a fight, isn’t it?  This is the strategy that has led to a Hamas government in the Palestinian territory, and soon, no doubt, a Hezbollah government in Lebanon. 

Negotiations Don’t
After numerous attempts at mediation — most notably by Norway — led to nothing, Rajapaksa basically abandoned the pursuit of a negotiated solution. Once the military had the upper hand, there was little effort to treaty with the Tigers.

Negotiations assume their is something worth negotiating.  There was no mention in the article of what the Tamil Tigers wanted.  If they are anything like al Qaeda, obviously, there is nothing to negotiate with them.  We either surrender, or kill them. 

Collateral Damage Is Acceptable
In the final months of fighting, the Sri Lankan military offensive hardly differentiated between civilian and Tiger targets. Refugees fleeing the fighting said thousands of innocents were being killed in the army’s bombardments. Modern militaries typically halt hostilities when large numbers of civilians are killed. The Sri Lankan army barely paused. Reva Bhalla, director of analysis at Stratfor, a global intelligence firm, says Rajapaksa’s “disregard for civilian casualties” was a key to the success of the military operation.

In other words, we must allow our enemies to attack, and then hide behind civilian shields.  WWII would have went very well under those rules, wouldn’t it?   In fact, any civilian casualties are the responsiblity of the insurgents who initiated the warfare.  End of story.

The last point Time makes is that Sri Lanka restricted press freedom during the conflict, and kept reporters away from the fighting.  Some restrictins on the press are proper during a war.  You cannot allow reporters to give away the time and location of the D-Day invasion, for example. 

In any case, I’m not defending the Sri Lankan government as such.  They may be as bad as the Tamil Tigers, for all I know.  But the tactics they used to defeat the Tigers were exactly the right tactics, and their success should be an encouragement to anyone in the US government who wants to win this war.  Old fashioned, rational tactics still work just as well as they ever did.  We could easily defeat al Qaeda, not to mention the Somalian pirates, with a fraction of our military might, in a fraction of the time we have already spent appeasing and limiting ourselves to rules of engagement that only strengthen our enemies.  

The Sri Lankan defeat of the Tamil Tigers is, however, a lesson lost on the powers that be in this country, as the Time article so glaringly makes clear.

3 Comments so far ↓

  • Rajesh

    This is why I stopped reading Time a decade ago.
    Sri Lankan President should be thanked for achieving the destruction of one of the most dreaded group LTTE decisively. You have made some excellent points. Hit the terrorists hard, don’t waste time negotiating and focus on saving civilian casualties in the long run.

    As for WWII, I don’t think people during those times would have stood for the nonsense of the current times. Did Churchill drop biscuits and chocolate from the bombers to save the humanity from Hitler.

    Instead of supporting the intelligence services and acting as decisively as Sri Lanka, Obama is shutting G-Bay prison and going on friendly tours of the Islamic states. Is his four years going to be too late for the Western civilization? I hope not.

  • L-C

    “In fact, any civilian casualties are the responsiblity of the insurgents who initiated the warfare. End of story.”

    Those civilians that are necessary victims, yes. This is not a carte blanche to ravage the the populace needlessly because “they started it”.

    But yes, if they stand in the way of a necessary tactical maneuver, too bad. Failure or sacrifice of Americal lives are not acceptable consequences of attempting to save civilians. And I agree with the rest of your post.

  • Richard

    Wow. What an amazingly ignorant Time article.