Merchant of Death
Money, Guns, Planes, and the Man Who Makes War Possible

Blood from Stones

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The Defeat of the Tamil Tigers and Waning Insurgencies
We are facing an unusual time in recent history. Two of the oldest and most successful insurgencies in recent times, the FARC in Colombia and the LTTE (Tamil Tigers) in Sri Lanka, are on the brink of complete military defeat.

Both have lost their most senior and charismatic leader and much of the top command structure, both suffered the effects of top level defections and morale, and both suffered the catastrophic loss of geographic space in which to operate. Both have existed for several decades.

Although neither is completely destroyed (and the FARC retains the capacity to launch military strikes and controls some territory), both will leave lasting legacies for non-state actors, whose repercussions are being felt today and likely will be for years to come.

My assumption is that remnants of the FARC will survive, and not be crushed in a total military defeat like the LTTE. However, more and more combatants will drift away other types of armed activities, and the movement as a Marxist, ideologically-driven movement, will disappear almost as completely.

I hope there are some serious studies going on regarding the lessons learned in these two cases, as well as comparative looks at the factors that let to the sudden reversal of fortunes for these two groups.

Even without benefit of extensive hindsight, one can look at the groups' legacies.

For the LTTE, the lasting legacy is pioneering the use of suicide bombers and suicide belts, which have widely been adopted by radical Islamist groups and others. The specially trained and selected Black Tigers, the mystique surrounding them within the organization and the belief in the validity of the tactic have now been widely transferred to other terrorist organizations.

It is, as some theorists like to say, the "atomic weapon of the poor," and a weapon that is tremendously difficult to defend against, especially when any constraints on killing the civilian population is lifted, as it was for the LTTE, as well as al Qaeda, Hamas and others who learned the lesson well.

The FARC has been a pioneer in turning an armed, ideological group into a transnational criminal organization. The adaptability of the group in the face of the loss of funding, particularly the ability to move beyond petty crime into serious and lucrative illegal activities, is no small thing. Again, it is something that is already being copied on a wide scale, from the Taliban in Afghanistan and other radical Islamist groups.

There is still a chance to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in both the case of the LTTE and the FARC, and history shows (see Sendero Luminoso etc.) that armed movements, in the absence of a negotiated end, are almost never over until they are over.

My CTB colleague Zach Abuza points out some of the dangers that remain from the LTTE, which are largely the same for the FARC.

In referring to the LTTE's spokesman Selvarasa Pathmanathan often referred as Kumaran Padmanadan, Abuza noted that:

Pathmanathan continues to head the Tiger’s global operations and is often described in the media as the LTTE spokesman. But he was more importantly the Tiger's chief arms procurement agent. While the LTTE political and military organization in Sri Lankan has been decimated, the international network of the LTTE remains fully in tact. And to be clear, what set the LTTE apart from other terrorist organizations, was the sophistication and breadth of its international operations. Pathmanathan was known to have procured weapons from Bulgaria, China, North Korea, Zimbabwe, Ukraine, and the Czech Republic, to name but a few. Pathmanathan also oversaw the organizations international fundraising, which included the notorious “Tamil Tax” as well as a plethora of legal businesses and criminal enterprises, including large human smuggling operations. In short, Pathmanathan oversaw a multi-million dollar a year operation, whose network of agents spanned the globe.

One should not expect Pathmanathan to fade quietly into retirement, and gently accept the Sri Lankan rout of the LTTE. He was Prabhakaran's closest lieutenant. He will remain committed to the Tamil cause. It will take time to rebuild even a small organization. But, in the mean time, there is a new gun (merchant) for hire.

The same issue faces the Colombian government with the FARC. It has much to do to undermine the legitimate social grievances that have allowed the FARC to survive for more than 40 years, and without that, the risk of rebirth is serious.

The second issue is, as it is with the LTTE, that the financial and international structure is likely to remain relatively intact even as the FARC as an organization disintegrates. As long as there is the money coming in, someone will use that money for fighting the state, whether for economic profit or ideology.

So, success in the field of militarily defeating an insurgency is rare. We will see if either one of these situations can shed light on how to truly end the wars.

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