Posted on November 24th, 2019


There are none so blind as those who do not see.” Matthew 9:26-27

The most deluded people are those who choose to ignore what they already know.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and most wanted terrorist leader after Osama Bin Laden, was killed on October 26th in a US military raid by its Delta Force in the village of Barisha located to the northwest of Syria. The killing occurred in the de-escalation zone of Idlib. Baghdadi’s rule extended over 88,000 sq km, stretching across the Iraq-Syria border. He was cornered by US special forces in the dead-end of a tunnel, where he detonated an explosive suicide vest, killing himself and three of his children.

Six months ago, the final known footage of Baghdadi was aired on the militant group’s al-Furqan media network after the Easter Sunday killing in Sri Lanka, which claimed the lives of 250 civilians. The local extremist cluster that carried out the attack was influenced by Baghdadi and his terror network across South Asia.

Despite the threat of violent extremism spreading in the Island nation, which was being discussed and documented before the attack, it was not a priority due to shortcomings within the security establishment. This was highlighted a week ago by the recently released Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) report, a post-audit of the 4/21 attack.[1] Identifying deficiencies within the establishment and lapses in its decision-making process on national security, the committee’s report reveals the importance and urgency of security sector reforms to ensure the public safety of Sri Lankan citizens. 

The report holds eight recommendations. The first is for Sri Lanka’s defense establishment to implement ‘Essential reforms in the security and intelligence sector’ by undertaking a comprehensive review of national security priorities to identify gaps and weaknesses and areas that require reform and strengthening. The recommendations suggest coupling an immediate review of the present structures in place for security and intelligence and mapping out tasks, responsibilities and possible areas of overlap. The Parliamentary Select Committee is of the view that the nation has not identified its national security priorities. It leaves the task of strengthening coordination among the security establishment and key stakeholders. The nation requires a National Defence Policy (NDP). 

The Geneva Center for Security Sector Governance sees defence policy as part of a broader concept of a country’s National Security Policy or National Security Strategy. Defence policy encompasses defence planning and management, which are consecutive steps towards practical implementation of that policy, down to actual command and control. The lines that divide all these concepts or phases are often blurred in practice. In general, defence policy covers everything from ends to ways and means of achieving national defence objectives and is guided by codes and principles that are embedded in National Security Policy.”[2] Several South Asian nations do not possess defence policies shared with their public. Sri Lanka’s closest neighbour India, for example, has been criticized for not having a defence policy, a requirement that has been discussed since the time of Prime Minister Narasimha Rao in the 1990s. According to Prime Minister Rao:

The first criticism has been a rather extraordinary kind of criticism to say that we have no National Defence Policy. I would like to submit respectfully that is not true. We do not have a document called India’s National Defence Policy. But we have got several guidelines which are strictly followed and observed and those can be summed up as follows: First the Defence of national territory over land, sea and air encompassing among others the inviolability of our land borders, island territories, offshore assets and our maritime trade routes. Secondly, to secure an internal environment whereby our nation-state is insured against any threats to its unity or progress based on religion, language, ethnicity or socio-economic dissonance. Third, to be able to exercise a degree of influence over the nations in our immediate neighbourhood to promote harmonious relationships in tune with our national interests. Fourth, to be able to effectively contribute towards regional and international stability and to possess an effective out-of-the-country contingency capability to prevent destabilization of the small nations in our immediate neighbourhood that could have adverse security implications for us.[3]

S. Kalyanaraman, Research Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis in India, explains: one of the staples of the popular and even academic discourse on India’s national security during the last few decades has been the assertion that India does not have a defence policy. Such a view is widely shared not only by Indian and foreign scholars and analysts but also by retired high-ranking civilian and military officials.”[4] A National Defence Policy is a step towards moving away from reacting in an ad hoc manner, while promoting strategic thinking and action in the realm of national security.

Has Sri Lanka ever attempted to develop a National Defence Policy?

The first draft of the National Defence Policy was prepared in 2016 by a team of distinguished military officers along with the Institute of National Security Studies Sri Lanka (INSSSL), a national security think tank. It was prepared with the leadership of Air Chief Marshal Kolitha Gunathilake, Gen. Udaya Perera, Gen. Shavendra Silva and many others. After completion, the policy was submitted to the then Secretary of Defence Karunasena Hettiarachi, who was instrumental in initiating the process, but failed to take it forward due to his sudden transfer. The same policy was handed over to the subsequent Defence Secretaries, Kapila Waidyarathne and Hemasiri Fernando. A second attempt was engaged after the Easter Sunday bombing with the leadership of General Shantha Kottegoda and 18 distinguished military officers along with the INSSSL. After much deliberation, a revised policy was handed over to President Sirisena who would table this at the Cabinet of Sri Lanka. Had this policy guideline been taken up seriously before the Easter Sunday attacks, Sri Lanka would have had progressive reforms in the security sector and perhaps saved many innocent lives. The PSC report contains several key recommendations and findings highlighted by the committee, mirrored in the NDP as policy guidelines.

Sri Lanka’s first-ever NDP is an extensive document outlining 6 national defence interests and 13 objectives, while identifying Sri Lanka’s defence capabilities and discussing the country’s force structure modernization efforts. The document identifies the need and the extent to which force modernization ought to be facilitated for the future well-being of the defence forces. The purpose of defence policy is to ensure things are done in an organized manner and objectives are attained while respecting rules. The reforms discussed at the PSC, for example, of creating a National Security Advisor (NSA) and National Security Council (NSC), are clearly identified and discussed in the National Defence Policy. The NSC will be established under a new secretary-general as a secretariat headed by the President, and it will have 15 permanent members, including the Prime Minister, NSA, State Minister of Defence, Minister of Law and Order, Secretary to President, Secretary Defence, Secretary of Foreign Affairs, Secretary of Finance, Attorney General, Chief of Defence Staff, Tri Force Commanders, IGP and Chief of National Intelligence.

The NDP should be available to the public and, like any other policy, will go through a periodic review every three years. Such a policy gives strength to the entire system and improves decision making while prioritizing defence requirements. The strategies will be formulated by the respective forces and office of the chief of defence staff (OCDS) to achieve the security requirements from regime to regime.

In a rapidly changing, complex global threat environment in the international geopolitical arena, Sri Lanka faces numerous security threats such as extremism, cyberattacks, financial and economic crimes, maritime intrusions, environmental degradation and natural disasters. Sri Lanka has lost lives and property each year as a direct result of these threats. Examples of natural disasters include the mudslides in Aranayake[5] which killed more than 200 and displaced 350,000, as well as garbage disasters.[6]

National security issues are at the forefront of the November 2019 presidential election. It is pivotal we stimulate and strengthen the process using a National Defence Policy. New threats require new strategies and new capabilities. They also create new responsibilities. One of the fundamental questions is how to optimally balance the resources the nation possesses and how to acquire new resources to address rapidly changing security threats facing Sri Lanka. 

Asanga Abeyagoonasekera is the director general of the National Security Think Tank of Sri Lanka (INSSSL) under the Sri Lankan Ministry of Defense. The views expressed here are his own. This article was initially published by Hudson Institute Washington DC.


[1] PSC Full Report

[2] DCAF Security Sector Integrity

[3] Towards a Clear Defence Policy,” P.V. Narasimha Rao Selected Speeches. Volume IV: July 1994 – June 1995 (New Delhi: Government of India, 1995), p. 125.

[4] Kalyanaraman,

[5] SL landslide and rain

[6] SL Garbage dump collapse

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