Sri Lanka and counterinsurgency wars

Does the Sri Lankan Government’s defeat of the Tamil Tigers call for a reassessment of the prevailing wisdom that military counter-insurgency campaigns rarely work?

In some wars, victory is as devastating as the alternative. In Pakistan’s Swat Valley, according to the UN, 2.6 million people have fled their homes[i] in the face of the recent military action that the Government says has largely driven out Taliban insurgents and brought the major centres in the valley back into Government hands.[ii]  In Sri Lanka estimates of civilians killed in the final few months of fighting range from 7,000 to 20,000,[iii] with some 300,000 driven from their homes.[iv]

Both involve desperate measures to do what the evidence suggests can’t really be done. The prevailing wisdom, repeated from time to time in this space, is that insurgencies are rarely defeated on the battlefield; rather, insurgencies most often end through political negotiation and accommodation. Consider the evidence gathered in three separate reports.

The well known and oft quoted study by Seth Jones for the Rand Corporation, How Terrorist Groups End,[v] examined almost 650 terrorist groups from 1968 to 2008. Of those, 268 ended during that period, and the report offers what its authors call “stark” results: “Terrorist[vi] groups end for two major reasons: members decided to adopt nonviolent tactics and join the political process (43 percent), or local law-enforcement agencies arrest or kill key members of the group (40 percent) (pp. 18-19). Only seven percent of the groups were defeated by military means. Most groups in the study were relatively small urban organizations and thus not amenable to military action or attacks, but clearly amenable to police and law-enforcement action.

In 10 percent of the cases the “terrorist” groups achieved their aims (an example of the latter being the ANC of South Africa). Indeed, the larger the groups were, the more likely they were to achieve their goals – among large and very large groups, 35 percent and 20 percent respectively achieved their aims.

The study also found that the prospects for effective military action against groups increased the larger the groups were. So, larger groups, like the Tamil Tigers and the Taliban of Pakistan and Afghanistan, are at the same time more vulnerable to military defeat and more likely to achieve their goals. Even so, the Rand study found that among large and very large groups, only 12 percent and 15 percent respectively ended because they were militarily defeated.

The 2008 edition of the annual peace process yearbook produced at the University of Barcelona comes to similar conclusions in its examination of 78 armed conflicts dating from the 1970s, of which 33 had ended (another 15 were in the process of being resolved, while the rest remained active). Of the 33 that had ended, 27 (or 82%) ended through negotiated peace agreements, while 6 (or 18%) were ended militarily (in five cases the Governments won, and in one the “rebel force” won – that case being the Rwandan Patriotic Front).[vii]

And a 2004 issue of the Journal of Peace Research,[viii] focused on the “duration and termination of civil war,” also concluded that the military defeat of rebel groups is the exception in civil wars. Many factors are obviously involved, but because rebels or insurgents can win by not losing – that is, to be successful in pressing their case they have to be able to prolong war, not win it – they are able to force governments into negotiations and then to continue the pursuit of their objectives through political processes. And, by the way, the evidence also suggests that as insurgent or rebel groups enter into negotiations, their demands tend to moderate over time, yielding to accommodation and compromise.

After a quarter century of fighting[ix] – a full generation of violence that was not appreciably mitigated by the declared, but not honored, ceasefire of 2002 – the Government of Sri Lanka launched a heightened and brutal campaign to deliver the final blow and thus avoid political compromise – at least for now.

Not all believe it is the final blow. As the International Crisis Group has observed, “the deaths of tens of thousands of innocent Tamil civilians – while their family members watch from afar [in the Diaspora]  – is a recipe for another, possibly more explosive generation of terrorism.”[x]

Sadly, talk of “victory” is premature. Recidivism in civil wars can be as high as 25 percent in the first five years[xi] after a war. In Sri Lanka the dangers of renewed war must be taken seriously. The Tamil Tigers have been defeated as a conventional armed force, but their capacity for guerilla war probably remains strong. They may well continue to be supported by a dedicated international Diaspora[xii] and the Tamil community’s grievances remain, and it is likely that their aspirations for some level of self government also continue.

The Government of Sri Lanka has yet to set out a concrete program for dealing with the immediate humanitarian crisis that is the aftermath of war, let alone any movement toward reconciliation and addressing ongoing Tamil grievances and aspirations.

Notwithstanding the public characterization of Sri Lanka’s recent military campaign as the defeat of a 25-year insurgency, it hardly meets the requirements for a compelling counterinsurgency model.


[i] “Camps straining under weight of massive Pakistani displacement – UN agency,” The UN News Centre, 5 June 2009.

[ii] Farhan Sharif and Khalid Qayum, “Gilani Says Pakistan Will Revive Swat as Army Overcomes Taliban,” Bloomberg, 5 June 2009.

[iii] “Civilian casualties in Sri Lanka conflict ‘unacceptably high’ – Ban,” The UN News Centre, 1 June 2009.

[iv] “UN scaling up efforts to facilitate return home of displaced Sri Lankans,” The UN News Centre, 2 June 2009.

[v] Seth G. Jones and Martin Libicki, How Terrorist Groups End: Lessons for Countering al Qa’ida, Rand Corporation 2008, 225 pp.

[vi] The study defines “terrorism” as  involving “the use of politically motivated violence against noncombatants to cause intimidation or fear among a target audience” (p. 3) Only non-state groups are counted, although the authors acknowledge that states do a times engage in the same kinds of acts – but the current study was confined to looking at non-state groups.

[vii] Vicenç Fisas, 2008 Peace Process Yearbook, School for a Culture of Peace, University of Barcelona, 1988.

[viii] “Duration and Termination of Civil War,” Journal of Peace Research, Vol. 41, No. 3. 3 May 2004.

[ix] Background on the conflict is available in the Project Ploughshares Armed Conflicts Report, and annual update on word conflicts which includes a web-accessible data base at For details on the Sri Lankan conflict go to

[x] Mark Tran, “Taming of Tamil Tigers threatens to breed fiercer creatures,”, 17 May 2009, quoting the International Crisi Group.

[xi] Astri Suhrke and Ingrid Samset, “What’s in a Figure? Estimating Recurrence of Civil War,” International Peacekeeping, 14:2, 195 – 203. Available at

[xii] C. Bryson Hull, “Deciphering the end of Sri Lanka’s war.” Reuters, 17 May 2009.

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