The Nature of War – Part 3
My last post considered the most obvious feature of a post-modern war: the insurgency. Yet there are also common characteristics of the government involved that are common to many wars.
Using Sri Lanka as an example once again, I previously noted the systemic problem of the unitary form of government, which is essentially a dictatorship of the majority. In Sri Lanka, which is 3/4 Sinhalese, a party can get elected by winning 2/3 of the Sinhalese vote, without a single minority vote being cast. Campaigning therefore centers on the massive Sinhalese vote. Pleasing the majority gets a politician elected. Pleasing the minorities is a sure path to losing.
In Sri Lanka, there are two major parties, each with ties to a traditional leadership. The United National Party (UNP) represents the commercial class that arose under British colonialism. In rhetoric, they favor free markets and lean toward free trade and closer relationships with the west. The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) represents the traditional leadership of monks and village leaders. Their platform tends to be more socialist, hoping to distribute some of the nation’s wealth beyond the commercial class to the villages.
In reality, the UNP represents a very narrow class of wealthy commercial interests, while the SLFP represents a single family that capitalized on the desire of the poor for representation. In practice, politics in Sri Lanka pits these two small, powerful cliques against each other, fighting for the support of the Sinhalese majority so they can gain power for themselves and disempower the other side.
In the process, the central government has become more powerful. The prime minister position was upstaged by an Executive Presidency. Democratic checks and balances have been dismantled. The police and military at times have been used by the ruling party to try to influence elections, as well as to terrorize the populace, majority and minority alike.
The LTTE’s war against the government played right into the hands of these two small elites. With a clearly identified enemy, the party in power could expand the military, creating jobs in the process. It could accuse its rivals of being “soft on terror” and “unpatriotic,” causing both sides to try to demonstrate that each was tougher and more nationalistic than the other. It could spy on any perceived threat, including its rivals. The rival party, if it gained power, used the very same tactics.
The goal of the government thus was not to defeat the insurgency, but to gain and then cement its control over the populace. (The UNP succeeded in that goal, creating a virtual dictatorship, and only then were they willing to end the war. The fate of democracy in Sri Lanka is still undecided.) Throughout the history of the war, every time the LTTE came to the table, one party or the other found a way to sabotage the peace process. As previously noted, the LTTE had no motivation to end the war, either. With neither combatant having any real interest in peace, it’s no surprise that the war continued for 25 years.
Can these characteristics be seen in governments involved in other conflicts? Surely in Israel, a conservative minority seeks to retain power, and the war with the Palestinians provides them a useful means. In the U.S. in 2001, a president elected in a disputed election by the narrowest of margins, whose presidency was seen as floundering, suddenly gained respect and support because of Al Queda’s 9/11 attack. The resulting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, assault on civil rights, increased surveillance, and narrowing of political dialog to a few key issues, mirrors the Sri Lanka experience quite closely.
When considering a conflict, it is as important to recognize that often the government involved has as little motivation to make peace as the insurgents. Seen in this light, it is more understandable why wars can be so difficult to end.