COLOMBO: Sri Lanka became the first country in the world to defeat terrorism in 2009. On the surface, it was a victory for the government after a four-decade fight with the Tamil Tiger rebels. Nearly 100,000 people were killed in the ethnic guerrilla war between the Sinhalese Buddhists and the Hindu Tamils. And just like in Pakistan today, Sri Lanka too bore the brunt of the Tiger suicide bombers. But that is where the similarity ends.
What Pakistan would not give to make the same declaration today – that it has defeated terrorism.
The former chief of the Sri Lankan army understands this desire all too well. “Fighting against its homegrown militants is the only guarantee for peace in Pakistan,” General Srilal Weerasooriya recently told The Express Tribune in an exclusive interview. His long-time friendship with several Pakistani generals, particularly Gen (retired) Pervez Musharraf, made it possible for him to develop an understanding of Pakistani politics and security threats that the region is facing.
Weerasooriya, who rates the Pakistan military as the best disciplined force in South Asia, underscored the need for the country to stop foreigners from infiltrating over the Durand Line – its porous border with Afghanistan. He stopped short of naming any country, however.
And as far as the withdrawal of troops in Afghanistan is concerned, Weerasooriya, who has served as ambassador to Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, urged Russia and China to play a part in peace-building in this region. The Sri Lankan army could assist Pakistan in the war against insurgency, suggested Weerasooriya. Indeed, perhaps some of the tactics that proved successful on the island could work here. For example, the Sri Lankan army set aside a series of “no-fire zones” and told civilians to assemble there before it repeatedly shelled insurgents.
But Weerasooriya hastened to cautiously add, no doubt from his nuanced understanding of Pakistan’s particular challenge, that the situation in its volatile areas are totally different from those in the Sri Lankan north-western Jaffna province, where much of his country’s civil war took place.
Ties with Musharraf
The general, who also served as ambassador to Pakistan from 2002 to 2007, felt that Musharraf’s team could have changed the mindset of extremists as various military generals, particularly from the ISI, were major players in his cabinet. Musharraf was two batches ahead of Weerasooriya who graduated from Pakistan Military Academy at Kakul.
The Sri Lankan general had an interesting meeting with Musharraf in 1999 just hours before the COAS was to take a flight back home from Colombo on October 12. Weerasooriya feels that Musharraf had dropped a hint about his uneasy relations with then prime minister Nawaz Sharif. This led him to suspect that contrary to Musharraf’s stated position that his decision to topple Nawaz’s government was not planned, it was a premeditated coup. Weerasooriya’s claim contradicts Musharraf’s stance that he was compelled to topple the civilian government when Nawaz attempted to hijack his plane that day.
Counter-insurgency 101 How Sri Lanka beat the rebels
1. Democracy works. Refrain from imposing emergency controls that curtail democratic representation; ensure that legitimate local elections occur regularly in insurgent territory.
2. Empower the military to adapt to guerrilla warfare. Create smaller fighting units. Devolve authority to independent battlefield commanders.
3. Engage internationally and cut off funding. Focus political, military, and diplomatic contacts at the highest level with key neighbouring countries to build confidence.
4. Co-opt at the top. Initiate defection of key operational or regional commanders rather than foot soldiers.
SOURCE: ‘Think Like a Guerrilla: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Sri Lanka’ by Malik Ahmad Jalal in Harvard Kennedy School Review 2011
Published in The Express Tribune, March 4th, 2013.