How Sri Lanka Won the War

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How Sri Lanka Won the War

Lessons in strategy from an overlooked victory

How Sri Lanka Won the War
Credit: REUTERS/David Gray

How to win a civil war in a globalized world where insurgents skillfully exploit offshore resources? With most conflicts now being such wars, this is a question many governments are trying to answer. Few succeed, with one major exception being Sri Lanka where, after 25 years of civil war the government decisively defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and created a peace that appears lasting. This victory stands in stark contrast to the conflicts fought by well-funded Western forces in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last decade. How did Sri Lanka succeed against what many considered the most innovative and dangerous insurgency force in the world? Three main areas stand out.

First, the strategic objective needs to be appropriate to the enemy being fought. For the first 22 years of the civil war the government’s strategy was to bring the LTTE to the negotiating table using military means. Indeed, this was the advice foreign experts gave as the best and only option. In 2006, just before the start of the conflict’s final phase, retired Indian Lieutenant General AS Kalkat in 2006 declared, “There is no armed resolution to the conflict. The Sri Lanka Army cannot win the war against the Lankan Tamil insurgents.”

Indeed, the LTTE entered negotiations five times, but talks always collapsed, leaving a seemingly stronger LTTE even better placed to defeat government forces. In mid-2006, sensing victory was in its grasp, the LTTE deliberately ended the Norwegian-brokered ceasefire and initiated the so-called Eelam War IV. In response, the Sri Lankan government finally decided to change its strategic objective, from negotiating with the LTTE to annihilating it.

To succeed, a strategy needs to take into account the adversary. In this case it needed to be relevant to the nature of the LTTE insurgency. Over the first 22 years of the civil war, the strategies of successive Sri Lankan governments did not fulfill this criterion. 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.

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. Moreover, the LTTE’s legitimacy as an organization was declining. 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.

Grand Strategy

Second, success requires a grand strategy. A grand strategy defines the peace sought, intelligently combines diplomacy, economics, military actions, and information operations, and considers the development of the capabilities the nation needs to succeed. The new government decided not to continue with the narrowly focused military strategies that had failed its predecessors, but rather adopt a comprehensive whole-of-nation grand strategy to guide lower-level activities.

In the economic sphere, the new government decided to allocate some 4 percent of GDP to defense and increase the armed forces budget some 40 percent. This would significantly strain the nation’s limited fiscal resources so annual grants and loans of some $1 billion were sought from China to ease the burden. Other forms of financial assistance, including lines of credit for oil and arms purchases, were provided by Iran, Libya, Russia and Pakistan.

Diplomatically, the government took steps to isolate the LTTE, which received some 60 percent of its funding and most of its military equipment from offshore. This succeeded and over time the group was banned in some 32 countries. Importantly, a close working relationship was formed with India, the only country able to meaningfully interfere with the new government’s grand strategy. The U.S. in the post-9/11 counterterrorism era also proved receptive to the government’s intentions of destroying the world’s premier suicide bomber force. America assisted by disrupting LTTE offshore military equipment procurement, sharing intelligence, providing a Coast Guard vessel, and supplying an important national naval command and control system. Canada and the European Union also came on board by outlawing the LTTE’s funding networks in their countries, severely impacting the group’s funding base.

Internally, the government set out to gain the active support of the public. By 2006 many Sri Lankans were war weary and doubted the new government’s abilities to achieve a victory no one else could. To win popular support the government realized that development activities had to be continued, not stopped while the war was fought. Moreover, various national schemes addressing poverty needed to be sustained, a prominent example being the poor farmer fertilizer subsidy scheme. These measures made financing the war very difficult and foreign financial support important, but were essential to convincing the people that there was a peace worth fighting for. The measures worked. Before 2005, the Army had difficulty recruiting 3,000 soldiers annually; by late 2008, the Army was recruiting 3,000 soldiers a month.
The increased budgets and popular support allowed the Sri Lankan armed forces to grow significantly. The Army in particular was expanded, growing from some 120,000 personnel in 2005 to more than 200,000 by 2009.

Astute Tactics

Third, to meet the ends that the grand strategy seeks, the focus of the lower-level, subordinate military strategy needed to be exploiting the enemy’s weaknesses while countering its strengths. The LTTE had limited numbers of soldiers, fielding only some 20,000-30,000, and with astute tactics could be overwhelmed. In this regard, the government forces had already won a major success before Eelam War IV started in mid-2006.

In late 2004, a senior LTTE military commander, Colonel Karuna, defected, bringing with him some 6,000 LTTE cadres and seriously damaging the LTTE’s support base in Eastern Sri Lankan. The mass defection provided crucial intelligence that offered deep insights into the LTTE as a fighting organization. Crucially, for the first time, the government intelligence agencies now had Lankan Tamils willing to return to LTTE-held areas, collect information, and report back. The scale of the defection also clearly showed that the legitimacy of the LTTE was waning.

At the start of Eelam War IV, the LTTE were able to operate throughout the country. There were no safe rear areas as high-profile suicide attacks on the foreign minister, defense secretary, the Pakistani high commissioner and the army chief underlined. This capability was countered by using the enlarged armed forces and police on internal security tasks, and by developing a Civil Defence Force of armed villagers. Operations were also conducted to find and destroy LTTE terrorist cells operating within the capital and some large towns. This defense-in-depth neutralized the LTTE’s well-proven ability to undertake both leadership decapitation strikes and terrorist attacks on vulnerable civilian targets.

These defensive measures in the south and the west of the country allowed the Sri Lankan military strategy in the north and east to be enemy-focused rather than population-centric. The primary aim there was to attack the LTTE and force them onto the defensive rather than try to protect the population from the LTTE – the conventional Western doctrine. The areas under LTTE control were accordingly attacked in multiple simultaneous operations to confuse, overload, tie down and thin out the defenders. Tactical advantage was taken of the Army’s new much greater numbers.

In these operations, small, well-trained, highly-mobile groups proved key. These groups infiltrated behind the LTTE’s front lines attacking high-value targets, providing real-time intelligence and disrupting LTTE lines of resupply and communication. Groups down to section level were trained and authorized to call in precision air, artillery and mortar attacks on defending LTTE units. The combination of frontal and in-depth assaults meant that the LTTE forces lost their freedom of maneuver, were pinned down, and could be defeated in detail.

The small groups included Special Forces operating deep and a distinct Sri Lankan innovation: large numbers of well-trained Special Infantry Operations Teams (SIOT) operating closer. The considerably expanded 10,000 strong Special Forces proved highly capable in attacking LTTE military leadership targets, removing very experienced commanders when they were most needed and causing considerable disruption to the inflexible hierarchical command system. Of the SIOTs, Army Chief General Fonseka, who introduced the concept, notes that: “we also fought with four-man teams… trained to operate deep in the jungle…. be self-reliant and operate independently. So a battalion had large numbers of four-man groups that allowed us to operate from wider fronts.” When Eelam War IV started there were 1500 SIOT trained troops; by 2008 there were more than 30,000.

Learning Organization

With enhanced training in complex jungle fighting operations, Sri Lankan solders generally became more capable, more professional, and more confident. The Army could now undertake increasingly difficult tasks day or night while maintaining a high tempo. The Army had became a ‘learning organization’ that embraced tactical level initiatives and innovations.

The LTTE was unique amongst global insurgency groups in also having a capable navy that conducted two main tasks: interdiction of government coastal shipping and logistic sea transport.

For interdiction operations the LTTE developed two classes of small, fast boats: fiberglass-hulled, attack craft armed with machine guns and grenade launchers, and low-profile, armored suicide boats fitted with contact-fused, large explosive charges. In Eelam War IV, sizeable clusters of some 30 attack craft and 8-10 suicide craft operated as swarms, mingling with local trawler fleets to make defense difficult. These were eventually defeated by even larger counter-swarms of 60-70 government fast attack craft that used targeting information from some 20 shore-based coastal radars coordinated through the command and control system the U.S. had provided.

For sea transport operations the LTTE used eleven large cargo ships that would pick up military equipment purchased from around the globe, station themselves beyond the Navy’s reach some 2,000 kms from Sri Lanka and then dash in close to the coast and quickly offload to waiting LTTE trawlers. In Eelam War IV though, the Navy used three recently acquired, second-hand offshore patrol vessels (including the donated ex-U.S. Coast Guard Cutter) combined with innovative tactics and intelligence support from India and the U.S. to strike at the LTTE’s transport ships. The last ship was sunk in late 2007 more than 3,000 km from Sri Lanka and close to Australia’s Cocos Islands.

The combination of the three factors of adopting a strategic objective matched to the adversary, using a grand strategy that focused the whole-of-the-nation on this objective, and adopting an optimized, subordinate military strategy proved devastating. The LTTE was completely destroyed. The government proved able to change its strategies in response to continuing failure and win, whereas the LTTE doggedly stuck to its previously successful formula and lost.

Some have criticized the Sri Lankan victory as only being possible because the government disregarded civilian casualties and used military force bluntly and brutally. This view correctly emphasizes that wars are by their nature cruel and violent and should not be entered into or continued lightly. However, it unhelpfully neglects critical factors and explains little. As this article has discussed, victory came to the side with the most successful strategies – even if it took the government more than 22 years to find them.

In this regard, a comparison with the two other Western-led counterinsurgency wars of the period comparing soldiers and civilians killed is instructive:

Breakdown of Overall Deaths in the Conflict

Category of those Killed Sri Lanka War (1983-2009) Iraq War
Afghanistan War (2001-14)
Friendly Force Personnel 29% 17% 29%
Enemy Force Personnel 37% 22% 46%
Civilians 34% 61% 25%


These were three different civil wars that each featured counterinsurgency strategies that progressively evolved. All involved significant civilian casualties with Iraq markedly the worse with 61 percent of those killed being civilians and Afghanistan the best at 25 percent. The Sri Lankan war with 34 percent of those killed overall being civilians, and thus broadly comparable to Afghanistan, then seems somewhat unremarkable except that the Sri Lankan war was decisively won. In Iraq and Afghanistan there was no victory, there remains no peace and people continue to die.

In Sri Lanka the guns fells silent in 2009, there is 7 percent GDP growth, low unemployment, and steadily rising per capita incomes. Even an economically poor country it seems can win the peace in a civil war. The key is to focus on getting the strategy right.

Peter Layton has considerable defense experience and a doctorate in grand strategy.