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Defeating the Tigers: The Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka and How to Defeat a Successful Insurgency

By Alan Cunningham

For the past twenty years, the United States has been dealing with insurgencies, most prominently the one in Afghanistan. While the U.S. has conducted insurgency campaigns since the beginning of the 20th century in the Philippines, the United States still is unable to properly perform a counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy. While they have been successful in individual provinces and districts of nation-states they are involved in, some have opined that “poor outcomes in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Vietnam before them are the result of a poor implementation of the U.S.’s counterinsurgency strategy” and that the U.S.’s COIN doctrine and policies are ineffective in combating insurgencies.

In determining how the U.S. can better defeat insurgencies in this new era, many have rightly suggested to explore the ways in which previous insurgencies that have been successful were defeated by their larger, more conventional opponents. As such, countless books, academic articles, and texts have been written about insurgencies in the past and how they can apply to operations today.

While there have been many successful insurgencies throughout time, there is one that many, at least in the United States and Western Europe, are unfamiliar with; the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the “Tamil Tigers”.

The Tamil Tigers

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The Tamil Tigers are one of the most important insurgencies in the modern-world, if relatively unknown except by those fluent in the academic or military study of counterterrorism (CT) and COIN. The history of the Tamil Tigers, however, is also the history of modern Sri Lanka.

In 1948, the island of Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) became independent from Great Britain, which had, for over a century, dominated the South Asian plate. Partly due to British rule, “the Tamil minority has felt increasingly marginalised and politically disenfranchised” within Sri Lanka, with “most Sri Lankans regarded the Tamil minority as collaborators with imperial rule and resented the Tamil’s perceived preferential treatment”. As some backstory to this, Sri Lanka is home to 21 million people and “Most Tamils live in northern and eastern Sri Lanka, and they comprise approximately 10 percent of the island’s population, according to a 2001 government census” while the island is largely demarcated by their religion and language “[setting] them apart from the four-fifths of Sri Lankans who are Sinhalese—members of a largely Buddhist, Sinhala-speaking ethnic group”.

Following the Sri Lankan Prime Minister making Sinhal the dominant language for the new nation (which resulted in many Tamil civil servants losing their jobs), Tamil-targeted riots “swept through” the nation, resulting in Tamils calling for their own independent state.

To answer this call, many groups arose to try and make an independent state for Tamils in Sri Lanka including the “Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation (TELO), the People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOT), the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF), the Eelam Revolutionary Organisation (EROS) and the Eelam National Democratic Liberation Front (ENDLF)” however only one organization arose to become the most dominant fighting force; the Liberal Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

The LTTE itself was created by Velupillai Prabhakaran in 1976 “as the successor to an organization he had formed earlier in the 1970s”. Prabhakaran had been a longtime revolutionary, having assassinated a pro-government mayor in the informal Tamil capital of Jaffna in 1975 and eventually taking control. Described in depth in a 2011 New Yorker profile, Prabhakaran “in his early days as the Tiger leader … posed for pictures with a pet leopard cub, and spoke with admiration of Napoleon Bonaparte and Alexander the Great”, revered action film stars like Clint Eastwood and Sylvester Stallone and also “emerged as the most ruthless of the Tamil militant groups, [annihilating] all their rivals”. Not only this, but a strong cult of personality developed around Prabhakaran, adding to the mystique of him and his group.

For the next thirty years, from 1975 to 2009, the Tamil Tigers engaged in a series of operations and insurgent tactics against the Sri Lankan government, including the 1983 LTTE ambush of an army patrol outside Jaffna, which most consider to the be the opening salvo of the Sri Lankan Civil War.

Throughout their history, the organization numbered some 5-7,000 persons while raking in hundreds of millions of dollars in fundraising through charitable fronts and general intimidation of Tamil locals. In terms of tactics, “the LTTE has used conventional bombs and Claymore mines to attack political and civilian targets, and has gunned down both Sri Lankan officials and civilians … [in addition to] assassinating almost a dozen high-level figures, including two heads of state” in addition to also practically inventing and perfecting the suicide belt as a terrorist tactic. Furthermore, they created an effective form of civilian government in the Northern and Eastern regions of Sri Lanka which functioned independently of the Sri Lankan government.

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The 1990s and early 2000s were marked by a breakdown in peace negotiations, followed by a ceasefire, then an increase in fighting, another ceasefire, before another increase in fighting. By 2008 “the government formally abandoned the 2002 cease-fire agreement, and authorities captured major strongholds of the LTTE over the following months” before eventually making one final offensive against the Tamil Tiger leadership, killing Prabhakaran in a May 2009. Shortly afterward, the rest of the LTTE surrendered and admitted defeat.

Currently, there is no threat of a resurgence from the Tamil Tigers. Furthermore, while the Tigers certainly did engage in explicitly terrorist activity and were by no means innocent in this conflict, it is also worth noting that the Sri Lankan government has, since the rightful destruction of the Tigers, “continues to disenfranchise the Tamil community” by way of erasing the Tamil culture, legally targeted Tamils via the Prevention of Terrorism Act, had the military police largely Tamil areas, and engaged in otherwise racially motivated efforts against the Tamil population.

Why the Tigers Were Successful

The Tigers have been called an incredibly successful insurgency, having done battle against the Sri Lankan government for years, yet all of their gains (economic, social, political, geographic) all crumbled within a period of months by the Sri Lankan government. Analyzing how and why the Tigers were successful in their insurgency tactics and what factors resulted in the Sri Lankan government overpowering them hold undeniable benefits for both Western powers like the United Kingdom and the United States and international organizations like the United Nations.

With the Tigers themselves, they are an oddity in the world of insurgents. While many insurgent campaigns have a more rural and guerilla operation, with a looser hierarchy and utilizing minimal or lesser small arms than their conventional counterpart, the Tigers were far in a way different.

The LTTE was “very hierarchical … [having] two wings – the political and the military” with the military wing having “ranks and grades are similar to those of the Sri Lankan army … [including] two grades of enlisted ranks, non-commissioned officers and commissioned officers” in addition to an aerial wing, a naval force, an intelligence collection and analysis unit, a standard infantry force, and a guerilla force alongside their suicide bomber unit. The Tigers’ political wing included the Central Governing Committee (CGM) which was headed by Prabhakaran and “[decided] all aspects of organizational[sic] policy … [and oversaw] the civil administration of its territory through departments” alongside devising a role equivalent to the U.S. Secretary of State which dealt with foreign relations.

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This is a stark difference from, say, the North Vietnamese or Castro’s Cuban revolutionaries, in that there is a clear line of command and structure unlike most other insurgent groups. Furthermore, the Tigers gained advanced weaponry and equipment throughout their struggle against the Sri Lankan government, having an entire armament research arm alongside their organization. While other insurgent groups have advanced logistical prowess (like the North Vietnamese) or had the ability of knowing how to win over largely rural populations (Castro’s revolutionaries), the Tigers benefited from superior funding abilities and exceptional weaponry.

Perhaps the most brilliant adaptation on the Tiger’s part, however, has been in their set up of a civilian government. According to Paige Ziegler, a student at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and researcher on the Tamil Tigers, “terrorist organizations [like al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas, and Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades] have also mimicked the LTTE exceptional strategies in the political arena, setting up parallel hierarchies and shadow governments to provide structures to replace the state”. This served to the Tiger’s benefit in that it showed the Tamil civilian populace that there was an effective alternative to the Sri Lankan government, a separate, Tamil led government that would work for the desires and rights of all Tamils instead of treating them as a separate, lesser entity.

However, what the Tamil Tigers failed in realizing was in manpower. According to Peter Layton, a Visiting Fellow at Griffith University in Australia and former RAAF officer, in the Asia-Pacific security magazine The Diplomat“The LTTE’s principal problem was its finite manpower base. Only 12 percent of Sri Lanka’s population were Lankan Tamils and of these it was believed that only some 300,000 actively supported the LTTE … By 2006, the LTTE relied on conscription – not volunteers – to fill its ranks and many of these were children. At the operational level some seeming strengths could also be turned against the LTTE, including its rigid command structure, a preference for fighting conventional land battles, and a deep reliance on international support … Eventually, in late 2005 a new government was elected that choose a different strategic objective that matched the LTTE’s principal weaknesses while negating their strengths”.

In a large way, the biggest problem to the LTTE was manpower. They were unable to maintain a strong base of support from the Tamil populace in North and East Sri Lanka. This is dissimilar to from other successful insurgencies in which they benefited from large popular support from their base, which always contributed to their successes.

In many cases, other insurgencies have much to learn and gain through the Tamil Tigers, however this is really strictly in terms of tactics and methodology. Multiple defense think tanks and analysis sites have identified this exactly, with Small Wars Journal writing “insurgent networks looking to learn from the LTTE are more likely to replicate their terrorism and political violence operations rather than their adherence to conventional military operations” and concluding “the most salient lessons to be learned are the importance of adaptability and organizational learning for the counterinsurgents, and the ability of outside support to prolong an insurgency despite overwhelming counterinsurgent superiority”.

From an insurgent standpoint, these are the most important lessons to learn from the Tamil Tigers. In terms of how the Sri Lankan government has operated, however, there is even more to learn from nation-states enduring a prolonged COIN operation. According to Malik Ahmad Jalal, a Kennedy School graduate and venture capitalist, writing in Harvard Law School’s National Security Journal, “In the Sri Lankan experience, there was significant violence committed by both sides and the loss of life — at least on the Sri Lankan side — could not have been sustained without broad domestic support … Only by having a nuanced, multi-pronged strategy that uses all instruments of state power — fusing diplomatic and political strategies with military ones — can a long-lasting insurgency be defeated”.

From a nation-state, conventional perspective, the Sri Lankan government and military utilized rather brutal and intense tactics that would be, in a nation like the United States, possibly an effective policy in defeating the insurgents, but ineffective in winning over the hearts and minds of the affected region and with the domestic citizenry. In any effective COIN strategy, the populace of the nation itself and the nation-state conducting these operations must always be considered and taken to heart in order to effectively win the conflict and achieve the operation’s goals.

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