Friday 23 Feb 2018 | 17:05 | SYDNEY
Friday 23 Feb 2018 | 17:05 | SYDNEY

Sri Lanka's flea circus



23 February 2009 09:17

The weekend’s news about the aerial attacks on the Sri Lankan capital by the Tamil Tigers provides a timely reminder that the normal rules of ‘victory’ and ‘defeat’ are suspended in insurgency warfare. 

Recent reporting from Sri Lanka has described the significant territorial losses by the Tigers in the face of a sustained government offensive. This in turn has led to claims by senior Sri Lankan Government and military figures that the Tiger’s ultimate defeat is imminent. 

The weekend’s aerial attack suggests just how wishful this thinking may be. The attack itself was relatively inconsequential in military effect. It is in the nature and timing of the attack where the true consequences lie, highlighting yet again that while ‘possession’ of terrain is imperative for the counterinsurgent, it can be an optional activity at various stages of an insurgent campaign.

Robert Taber’s description of guerrilla warfare as the ‘war of the flea’ highlights the problem confronting the Sri Lankan Government:

The guerrilla fights the war of the flea, and his military enemy suffers the dog’s disadvantages: too much to defend; too small, ubiquitous, and agile an enemy to come to grips with.

Over the last few decades, the Tamil Tigers have ruthlessly demonstrated both familiarity and deadly competence at the ‘tactics of the flea’. What point does this highlight? That ‘victory’ against an insurgency rarely comes from just securing ground. Indeed, if the government makes missteps among the population in doing so, ‘victory’ may well aid the enemy in the information war that is a critical part of any insurgency.

The paradox for the Sri Lankan Government is that defeat of the Tamil Tiger objective of an autonomous homeland will not come from occupation of the contested territory. The record of insurgent warfare tells us that ‘victory’ only comes about in two ways: defeat of the ‘idea’ proposed by the insurgent, or a compromise of the idea that is ultimately acceptable to both sides.

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