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Sri Lankan lesson

AFTER three decades of protracted conflict Sri Lanka finally crushed the Tamil rebels of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009. Can Pakistan replicate the Sri Lankan strategy? In both situations, there are similarities and differences.

In Sri Lanka, extremism influenced a particular ethnic community, but in Pakistan, where extremism is also a mindset, it has infected different ethnic and sectarian groups. LTTE was the sole operator but here terrorism has given birth to numerous splinter groups, making action against all or negotiations difficult.

As an exponent of suicide bombing the LTTE earned worldwide publicity. The Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan and its splinter factions have copied the suicide missions of the Middle East and are proficient in the use of improvised explosive devices.

The LTTE waged one of the world’s longest insurgencies. At one time, it is reported to have controlled 15,000 square kilometres with air and naval defence capabilities. It carried out about 315 suicide bombings and 60 naval attacks. According to one source, since 9/11 Pakistan has faced 402 suicide attacks.

Decisive force is the only solution.

Over a decade, Pakistani security, intelligence and law-enforcement agencies have improved professional relationships. The current phase of militancy has also provided the police an opportunity to improve its image, while a number of institutions such as the National Counter Terrorism Authority have been created. However, in the post 9/11 era, the police might have multiplied its human resources but has yet to attain the optimum professional level. The Sri Lankan experience has proved that quality is more important than quantity.

Before winning a decisive victory, Sri Lanka held six sessions of peace talks and there were a number of ceasefires but these did not last long. The LTTE used negotiations and ceasefire to buy time, rearm, reconsolidate and launch offensives with more strength. The Sri Lankan experience proved that diplomacy and negotiations alone cannot quell militancy.

Owing to geographical and other factors, the Sri Lankan model cannot be replicated in toto. Sri Lanka is an island whereas landlocked Fata and KP consist of a harsh mountainous terrain where it is difficult to spot, cordon off, fight or arrest militants. In such situations, forces operate under tremendous pressure.

Sri Lanka was successful in pushing the LTTE towards diplomatic isolation; its financial supply was cut off and the strategies of the military and political leadership were in sync. With the tough policy defined by President Mahinda Rajapaksa Sri Lanka won what appeared to be an unwinnable war. Further, law enforcement agencies were trained to adapt to the specific challenge.

The post 9/11 scenario was effectively utilised by the Sri Lankan diplomatic corps which persuaded 32 countries to declare the LTTE a terrorist organisation, badly affecting the group’s fund collection. At one point, the LTTE was receiving more than $200 million per year, mainly from the Tamil diaspora. Ending fund collection that finances terrorist missions is a challenge that is also faced by Pakistan. Pakistan needs to revisit ways and means of drying up the finances of such organisations.

After decades, the Sri Lankan leadership learned that insurgencies cannot be defeated without popular support. In the Pakistani context, the clergy, media and civil society must create an environment for popular support against the extremists. In fact, during the years of conflict, Sri Lanka managed to conduct elections in terrorism-infested Tamil-majority areas. Fortunately, Pakistan has also kept up with democratic tradition as demonstrated by the last two elections.

Ambiguity is a tool always used by non state actors to their advantage but states cannot afford to employ this and must be clear in their objectives. The Sri Lankan model indicates that decisive force is the only solution. In such situations it often becomes difficult to achieve the ideals of human rights.

In addition to weakening the LTTE‘s foreign backing, the Sri Lankan government opted for a policy of creating divisions within the LTTE. By 1986, the LTTE had either established full control over rival warring factions or these were incorporated within the organisation. However, with the government-backed defection of an LTTE militant, Colonel Karuna, the process of erosion within the Tamil group started. This defection affected the recruitment process in the area. Later Karuna was appointed as minister for national integration.

The recent split among the Mehsud militants should be effectively exploited by the Pakistani state.

The Sri Lankan strategy shows that with military might and popular support the state can defeat insurgents. After the use of force the actual challenge is the capacity of the civilian administration to retain peace and integrate those who surrender. If the Lankan model cannot be replicated at least it can be a source of inspiration.

The writer is a police officer.


Mohammad Ali Babakhel, "Sri Lankan lesson," Dawn. 2014-07-13.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Suicide bombing , Suicide attacks , Tamil Tigers , Terrorist , Terrorism , Taliban , Diplomacy , Militancy , President Mahinda Rajapaksa , Sri Lanka , FATA , Pakistan , LTTE