No, no, and hell no! Keep US Marines out of Sri Lanka!

(Added March 22nd) Kris attended a function in Colombo where the US Ambassador to Sri Lanka, Robert Blake, spoke. He was asked whether there was a possibility that the Marines would  intervene in Sri Lanka. Blake said that the news reports were just rumors and Kris interpreted this and his other comments as indicating that there was no way the Marines were coming to Sri Lanka. Hopefully his statements put an end to this subject.

(Added March 17th) The headline story in the Colombo Sunday Times of March 15th is that the Indian government is opposing the use of US Marines to “free” the civilians from the LTTE. This means that the original story may actually have some truth in it. The Indians are not completely against a military intervention, but, if it is to happen, they want it to be a UN operation.

This sounds like the possibility of sending in the Marines is still under discussion, even if it is made a UN operation. So, I hereby reiterate my objections as stated in the original posting below.

Bad, bad idea….


(Added March 10) The government run newspaper, the Daily News, is running a story  this morning in which the Foreign Minister of Sri Lanka denies any truth to the Daily Mirror story mentioned below. Here is a quote:

“Foreign Affairs Minister Rohitha Bogollagama said that the Government has not permitted any international forces to evacuate civilians from the Vanni.

“Certain reports published regarding the arrival of US marines in Sri Lanka to transport civilians on the invitation of the Sri Lankan Government are baseless and incorrect,” the Minister said.

Addressing a media briefing in Colombo yesterday, the Minister said that the Government has not made any request to the US Army to support the evacuation process in Sri Lanka.

“We have also not received any proposal from any country in this regard,” the Minister said. He said that US has always extended its support in countering terrorism in Sri Lanka.”

So perhaps a measure of sanity still exists in the world and I have to learn not to respond so quickly to initial, unverified, news stories.  – Tim

My original posting follows:

An even more remarkable story than the one in my previous posting is  in today’s Daily Mirror. US envoy Richard Boucher has been quoted as saying that the US will be discussing with India the possibility of a US Marine expeditionary force landing in Sri Lanka to assist in rescuing civilians being held hostage by the LTTE. I cannot begin to tell you how many reasons there are that this is a very bad idea!

At least the US has consulted with the Sri Lankan government. A week or so ago, there was an item in the local news that did seem a bit strange. The US Agency for International Development (AID) has been involved in building projects in the Eastern Province which recently is back in government hands. For example, AID recently rebuilt the central market in Batticaloa to much applause. So it was not a surprise to read a week or so ago that a delegation from AID was in Colombo for talks with the government on plans for a rebuilding project in the northeastern city of Trincomalee. What was a puzzle was that the members of the US delegation were a combination of AID and US military. A news report explained that the project was going to be a joint project of AID and the US military. At the time, the conservative, Marxist JVP party went public with the not totally implausible claim that the US was trying to gain control of the excellent harbor at Trincomalee for a naval base. (Before Sri Lankan independence, Trincomalee was a British naval base.) Now, assuming this Daily Mirror report is true,  it seems safe to assume that the military contingent was in Colombo to discuss the possibility of sending in the Marines.

So why do I think it is a bad idea? Let me count the ways. First, we are not perceived in Sri Lanka as neutral arbitrators in the conflict and, in fact, are perceived by many Sinhalese as being pro-LTTE. The Sri Lankan government  is against any kind of ceasefire because they feel that every ceasefire in the past has been used by the LTTE to regroup and rearm. The LTTE will not willingly let the Marines evacuate the civilians under their control. So the Marines will not be sure who their enemies and who their friends (if any) will be. They will surely be attacked by the LTTE and even as weak as they now are, the LTTE can not be taken lightly. They have proven themselves to be ferocious, disciplined, and clever fighters. The odds are good that we would lose a dozen or a few dozen Marines. In the worst case scenario, the Marines might be attacked by both sides.

Second, it is not at all established how many of the civilians actually want to be evacuated. Whether because they might actually be loyal to the LTTE or because the LTTE has instilled in them a desperate fear of government troops, no one knows how many civilians would cooperate in being evacuated. As happened recently to the Sri Lankan Army, the Marines should prepare for the possibility that among the civilians being evacuated there will be one or more female suicide bombers who might take out the aircraft she is riding in or kill many people wherever the civilians and their caregivers are congregated after leaving the island.

Third, our relationship with the Sri Lankan government is very cool right now. The Sri Lankan government has recently exchanged presidential visits with Iran. The biggest donor country to Sri Lanka right now is China. The government recently reiterated its close ties to Cuba and, also in the news today, with Vietnam. Remember,  this island is officially the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan government is deliberately seeking to strengthen non-Western ties because they want to immunize themselves economically against Western political demands to conduct the civil war in a certain way or for the West to dictate the terms of a political solution once the conventional war is over. The Indians would be apoplectic if the Chinese military appeared in Sri Lanka, so let the Vietnamese or the Iranians do the job if it is to be “outsourced” to a foreign country.

Fourth, if a foreign country scoops up “civilians” indiscriminately (and takes them where?), this will be seen as a way for the top leadership of the LTTE to escape the island. If we get involved in this and then, at the end of the day, Prabhakaran has vanished, we will have generated bad feelings on this island that will last a generation. Now, it may well be that Prabhakaran has already left, or will leave by his own means, but the US will be blamed for his escape if we get involved.

Fifth, it would be a blow to our new “friend” India’s prestige. They are the local superpower. They have decidedly mixed feelings about the LTTE. The Indians under Indira Gandhi trained the LTTE. (She was repaid when the LTTE assassinated her son, Rajiv, though she did not live to see it.) People in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu are setting themselves on fire to protest the imminent defeat of the LTTE. The people of Tamil Nadu make up 6% of the population of India and national elections are next month. Sri Lanka is just 25 miles off the coast of Tamil Nadu. The Indians have a natural stake in the lives of the Hindu civilians located in the last bit of LTTE controlled territory. But the Indians have been burned before. They sent peacekeeping troops to Sri Lanka in the late ’80s as part of a ceasefire agreement, but were forced by the LTTE, the “representatives” of the people the Indians were sent there to protect, to withdraw in humiliating defeat with much loss of life.

So the Indians will have decidedly mixed feelings about the possibility of an American intervention. One the one hand, they would be happy that it is not their army landing in Sri Lanka, but it will make them look weak, in the sense that they will be seen as unable to influence events so close to their own shore.

Can this initiative be the result of the one-sided Senate hearings recently held by Senator Kerry? Kerry held a hearing on the situation in Sri Lanka where all the witnesses were known critics of the Sri Lankan government. The Sri Lankan government was not invited to present its views. The UN Commissioner on Human Rights was not there to present the results of his recent visit to the conflict zone. Please, someone tell me that a) the US ambassador to Sri Lanka was consulted by the committee (even if at a distance) and b) we are not contemplating this intervention as some politcal favor to some supporters of Senator Kerry. I railed against Bush’s fanaticism getting in the way of seeing the facts. Please let us demonstrate that indeed there has been “change we can believe in” in Washington.

And doesn’t the US have enough trouble on its hands right now? This looks like yet another case where, with noble intentions, we want to “help” but where we do not really understand the local situation. When phrased as the rescue of  innocent civilians being held by the evil LTTE terrorists, it sounds black and white. Of course, being the noble people that we are, we ride in on the white stallion and save the day. But easy-to-digest sound bites do not make good foreign policy. We can not use satellite recon to read the minds of the civilians. We can not rely on the LTTE  to act rationally and surrender in the face of superior numbers. No one in Asia today will buy that “we thought we were doing what was right” excuse. Good intentions do not cut it here anymore. We have helped to destroy whole regions of Asia with our well-intentioned but ignorant policies. Asia deserves competence from us and, if we cannot deliver competence, we should just stay away.

It will not be simple if we get involved militarily in Sri Lanka. It is hard for me to envision what good we can do in this situation. The core problem is that the remainder of the LTTE is embedded within a large number of civilians. To defeat the LTTE conventional forces, and the Sri Lankan government will accept no less, someone is going to have to attack them and continue to attack them until they surrender or they all die. It will be messy. There will be a large loss of civilian life, if for no other reason than that is the outcome that the LTTE wants for future propaganda purposes. The only question is, who will get the blame for the large loss of life? If we send in the Marines to do the job, we will get the blame. This might be a relief to the Sri Lankans and the Indians, but is that what we really want?



1 Comment

  1. March 21, 2009 at 5:36 pm

    […] did spend a few hours writing and sending variants on my “Keep the Marines out of Sri Lanka” posting to President Obama and Senators Brown and Voinovich (both Ohio senators). It turns out that both of […]

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