I’ve been somewhat disappointed with the unanimously positive reaction to the killing of Velupillai Prabhakaran and the subsequent government declaration of victory in the Sri Lankan civil war. Not because I didn’t wanted the Tigers to lose – everyone did – but because none of the commentary has noted that Sri Lanka finished the job in the most brutal way possible. The UN estimates that indiscriminate government shelling killed 6,500 civilians and injured 14,000 more. Meanwhile, any civilians who try to escape are being forced into concentration camps which no international body can inspect.
For what it’s worth, the US government hasn’t been complacent about this, what with Clinton condemning the abuses and Susan Rice and Sam Power working to delay an IMF loan to Sri Lanka. But it’s weird that such concern has evaporated into universal euphoria once the government’s tactics succeeded. I can’t help but wonder if this is the natural ideological consequence of a US government fetish for counterinsurgency. Sure, it has the potential to be implemented somewhat humanely – though as Michael Cohen and Tara McKelvey argue, we should avoid it like the plague even then – but these things experience slippage. It’s hard for the US military to publicly endorse a policy with the vigor with which it’s embraced COIN without a degree of inadvertent evangelism. Just as Abu Ghraib and Guanatamo gave foreign government a way to cloak themselves in the American flag as a means of defending their own torture regimes, the US adoption of counterinsurgency provides a justification for mass atrocities like the ones the Sri Lankan government has been committing. After all, the easiest way to beat an insurgency is to make it unbearably painful to join one:
This isn’t to blame David Petraeus for what happened in Sri Lanka. But if we’re going to keep acting as though COIN is the future of the military, and something advanced democracies should be interested in conducting on a regular basis, then there will be regimes – like Sri Lanka – that will take that as carte blanche to treat their enemies like the Mau Mau. And while the US government obviously does not intend that, it has to enter into the cost/benefit calculation as to whether we are going to keep occupying other peoples’ countries.