An Alternative To Attrition

By Dinesh D. Dodamgoda

The US State Department’s 2012 Country Report on Terrorism released in May 2013 noted Sri Lankan government’s concerns about the possible re-emergence of pro-LTTE sympathisers. The Sri Lankan government’s concerns now, however, are somewhat different from predictions it made four years ago when victoriously ending the military battle against the LTTE. The President stated in 2007 that his strategy is to achieve “Peace through War in Sri Lanka”.

The military victory against the LTTE in May 2009 was portrayed by the Sri Lanka government and the local media as an absolute end to violence. However, Kumaran Pathmanadan (KP) – the Head of the LTTE’s International Wing, was then living abroad roaming freely and Professor Rohan Gunarathna, one of the advisors to the Sri Lanka Defence Secretary, told media that “If KP is not arrested or killed, he wouldl revive the LTTE.”

Later, KP was arrested and now he is closely working with the Sri Lanka government. Yet, the US report’s revelation on Sri Lanka government’s current fears about the possible re-emergence of pro-LTTE sympathisers generates many questions in observers’ minds, especially regarding the strategy the Sri Lanka government adopted against the LTTE. As the USA report indicates, although the Sri Lanka government’s strategy made guns silent, they are still relevant.

Strategically, a threat is considered as a phenomenon that has two components, namely ‘capability’ and ‘will’. Unless one possesses both components, a threat cannot be posed against an enemy.

For example, although you have the ‘capability’ to attack your neighbour, you must have a ‘will’ to attack in order to pose a threat against him and vice versa. Hence, when eliminating a threat, there are three possibilities a strategist could think of: eliminating the ‘capability’ or eliminating the ‘will’ or eliminating them both.

Capability and will

The approach the Sri Lanka government adopted against the LTTE focused on eliminating the group’s ‘capability’ to fight. The objective was successfully achieved and the LTTE’s ‘capability’ was defeated militarily.

Therefore, the approach is called an attritional approach. As a strategy, attrition warfare aims at destroying enemy’s material and personnel capability.  The strategy was developed for the military use to fight rather conventional and relatively symmetric battles where both sides have similarities in terms of capability and will.

The UK Joint Doctrine Concept Centre (JDCC) that gives strategic guidance to the British military in May 2003 concluded assessing doctrinal efficiency against asymmetric threats that “An attritional campaign may have an increasingly negative effect in terms of achieving a strategic goal.”  Accordingly, the process of an attritional approach against an asymmetric enemies such as terrorists groups creates undesired effects that include collateral damage and casualties, human rights violations, destruction of democracy and socio-ethnic polarisation as its counterproductive by-products.

Although the LTTE displayed itself as somewhat conventional, it was a terrorist group even by definition and fought an asymmetric and unconventional battle against the Sri Lanka government.  Therefore, the threat posed by the LTTE should not have been countered using a pure attritional approach as there is an inherent weakness in the doctrine of attrition warfare in countering asymmetric threats.

Although the war of attrition against terrorism can remove enemy’s material and personnel ‘capability’, it strengthens sympathisers’ ‘will’ to fight and support as the strategy’s counterproductive effects spread more hatred and deepens socio-ethnic polarisation, especially in ethno-national and political conflicts.

This can further lead to radicalise structured groups or individual cells that would eventually pose threats to National Security. It is important to note that radicalised individuals are difficult to detect and can pose a serious threat.

Counterproductive strategies

As it was evident, the impact of an attritional campaign on public opinion is also counterproductive. As the USA’s ‘War on Terror’ strategy was evaluated by a White House panel in October 2003, “Muslim hostility towards the USA has reached shocking levels, and is growing steadily.” Furthermore, a survey by Euro RSCG Worldwide in September 2003 showed that “Two years after the 9/11 attacks, most Americans felt no safer from terrorist threats, more distrustful of many longstanding allies, and increasingly anxious about the future”. Even the 2012 USA Country Report on Terrorism noted that “The AQ [Al Qaeda] core still has the ability to inspire, plot, and launch regional and transnational attacks from its safe haven in Western Pakistan, despite its leadership losses.”

Hence, it is apparent that only removing ‘capability’ when countering terrorism is not sufficient in achieving long-lasting peace and a correct approach should aim at removing enemy’s ‘will’ to fight, because removing the ‘will’ can take causes of radicalisation out from the socio-political context.

This was evident in the ideological defeat of Irish Republicanism that aimed at creating a United Ireland by the use of violence and force.
The violent ideology was socio-politically defeated in 1997 as the majority supported the USA, Sinn Fein and Tony Blair’s Labour Party government mediated and led ‘Good Friday Agreement’ that ceased hostilities.

Hence, it is a pity that Sri Lanka too had several opportunities to defeat the Tamil Secessionism ideologically by creating a context of co-existence through peace agreements, yet both parties, the Sri Lanka Government and the LTTE, believed in violence and force in destroying each other’s ‘capability’ than ‘will’.

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