As the Obama administration weighs its options in Afghanistan, the big question they are most certainly grappling with is: what does it take to defeat an insurgency? And as advisers pour through the history of successful counterinsurgency campaigns, they might be tempted to take a page from a very recent chapter.
Though it didn't make much of a news splash here, in May the government of the small island nation of Sri Lanka finally claimed victory in their 26-year battle against one of the most formidable militant organizations the world has ever known, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or the LTTE.
The end of what was Asia's longest-running civil war was a historic event. But if history is ultimately written by the winners, then tonight's episode of Vanguard, "Sri Lanka: Notes from a War on Terror," might serve as a small footnote. While some security analysts have hailed Sri Lanka as a case study into how to defeat an insurgency, we learned that it came at a very steep price, one that few Americans would likely be willing to pay.
The LTTE were in many ways the "original gangsters" of modern day terror. Since 1983, they had been fighting for an independent homeland for Sri Lanka's ethnic Tamil minority who have long complained of discrimination at the hands of Sri Lanka's Sinhalese majority.
In their struggle for independence, the LTTE pioneered many of the tactics employed by insurgencies and terrorist groups around the world. Inventors of the suicide vest, the LTTE conducted more suicide operations than Hamas and Hezbollah combined. Innovators in international fundraising, they were able to grow from a ragtag guerilla group to fairly conventional military force with their own army, navy and air force. In short, the LTTE was as powerful and dedicated of an insurgency as any military is likely to face.
At one point, the LTTE controlled up to a quarter of Sri Lankan territory, but by the time we arrived, they had been reduced to a small sliver of land in the north. In "Sri Lanka: Notes from a War on Terror," we explore what was responsible for such a quick turnaround. We examine how after 9/11 the LTTE quickly found themselves on the wrong side of history, and how the government of Sri Lanka was emboldened by the "Global War on Terror" launched by the U.S. and its allies.
We also investigate the excesses of Sri Lanka's War on Terror, like those recently raised in a U.S. State Department report on alleged war crimes commited during the final stages of fighting.
We meet with civilians who have been displaced, women whose husbands have disappeared and journalists who have been intimidated and silenced. We witness the sweeping security crackdown that has taken place across the country under emergency terror laws.
Finally, with ethnic tensions still simmering and no political resolution on the horizon, we question whether military's historic defeat of the LTTE is enough to win lasting peace in Sri Lanka.