Monday, April 18, 2011

An Inconvenient Truth

I don't like war, I don't like the idea that it can sometimes be necessary, and I'm aware that I sometimes interpret new information in ways that reinforce that preconception.

When the Sri Lankan government finally defeated the Tamil Tigers in a major military operation I noticed that some foreign commentators were using this as an example of how to defeat terrorism. I was sceptical, thinking that the military victory might conceal continued terrorist attacks by the Tigers, or by spliter groups driven underground. If terrorism continued despite the military failure of the Tigers, it could undermine the narrative of those supporting the 'War on Terror'.

Yet the inconvenient truth is that Sri Lanka's war really does seem to have succeeded in ending most terrorist violence. From the South Asian Terrorism Portal, here are deaths from terrorism violence since 2000:

2000: 3,791
2001: 1,822
2002: 15
2003: 59
2004: 109
2005: 330
2006: 4,126
2007: 4,357
2008: 11,261
2009: 15,565
2010: 0
2011: 0

There may still be moral and strategic concerns with the military action, but I don't see any support for my scepticism about the success of the war. Challenging one's preconceptions with data that appears to disprove them is never pleasant, but to avoid being brainwashed it is necessary. In this case it seems I was wrong.


  1. Do you think the British were right to declare war on Germany in 1939? Personally, I think it was necessary even though it came at a massive cost.

  2. That's an excellent question Dave! I know there are some who argue that the western Allies could have stayed out of Europe and Germany and USSR might have ended up neutralising each other. World War II was "won" by the Allies, but that left eastern Europe under the power of the communists, with much more oppression and violence to follow.

    Who knows, though? That may be wistful thinking. Nazi Germany was certainly expansionist and brutal, many millions may have died either way, with liberal democracy discredited or destroyed.

    All guesses, of course! I do think Neville Chamberlain's poor reputation today is a bit undeserved since he did, understandably, try very hard to avoid another war. Even Churchill described him favourably after he died:

    "What were these wishes in which he was frustrated? What was that faith that was abused? They were surely among the most noble and benevolent instincts of the human heart—the love of peace, the toil for peace, the strife for peace, the pursuit of peace, even at great peril and certainly to the utter disdain of popularity or clamour. Whatever else history may or may not say about these terrible, tremendous years, we can be sure that Neville Chamberlain acted with perfect sincerity according to his lights and strove to the utmost of his capacity and authority, which were powerful, to save the world from the awful, devastating struggle in which we are now engaged."

  3. Another example was the elimination of Sikh terrorism in India, the methods were quite similar to what was used in Sri Lanka. It was brutal but it got the job done. What also helped was that the man leading the operation was a sikh and that sikhs constitute some 30% of the Indian Army where as only 3% of Indians are sikhs.

    Another more extreme example is the hama massacre. The Islamic Brotherhood had a stronghold in hama, so the syrian government just bombed the shit out of the city, killing thousands of terrorists but also thousands of innocent civilians either.

    These extreme methods however tend to backfire particularly if the terrorists are popular.

  4. Good call Rohan, and damn you are knowledgeable!

    The usual story told in Ireland is that the rebels for the 1916 Rising were initially very unpopular, and blamed by ordinary Dubliners for the destruction brought to the city by the rebellion. The turning point was when the British authorities executed the leaders, including one man too wounded to stand, who was shot in his chair. The creation of these martyrs seemed to bolster support for their cause. So it seems there needs to be a strange balance between repression and mercy.

  5. The alternative to war, perhaps, could have been to address the issues for the terrorism in the first place. Even if the war is effective and solves one of the symptoms (the terrorism) by no means does that necessarily mean that the problem is solved.

    That said, some terrorists are just zealots who won't take no for an answer, and you might have to bring overwhelming force to bear in order to suppress their fanaticism.

  6. Absolutely Justus, even if we look at the very low fatality rates in 2002, during the ceasefire, there may be signals that a non-military solution could have been possible.

    You might be interested in this, a study on how terrorist groups end:

  7. Pretty solid information. The two-pronged decade long counter-insurgency and it's complete lack of success should be evidence enough, but it's good to know that people out there are taking a broader look at the issue... and reaching the same conclusions.

  8. Thanks for pointing this out Shane, I seem to have missed this post of yours, despite it discussing something very close to my heart.

    As a Sri Lankan who actually LIVES in Sri Lanka (unlike the Lankan Diaspora who judge ground-realities from other continents), I can assure you that things are very peaceful in the island, despite what the pro-separatist organs of the International Media have tried to make us believe.

    Rohan is also spot-on on his assessment of the Sikh situation, which is yet another example for why the "force is never a solution to terrorism" argument in utter nonsense.

    You should’ve tagged me when you shared this on FB (if at all you did), I feel like I missed out.

  9. Thanks Nilan, I didn't share this one actually so you didn't miss it :)

    Politics aside, I'm glad things have improved in Sri Lanka, hopefully tourism and investment will increase as foreign confidence in the peace grows.


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