To raise them up. Part 2: The role of the Philippines in the Long War

Filipino soldier on a mission in the southern Philippines.

B.A. Patty was recently embedded with the Armed Forces of the Philippines. In part two of his three-part series, Patty examines the the Philippines’ role in the Long War. Click to read part one, The lesser and greater insurgencies of the Philippines.

Map of the Philippines. Click to view.

Zamboanga, Philippines: Colonel David Maxwell is the commanding officer of the US Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines. In a two-hour interview he spoke about counterinsurgency in the Philippines and the larger Long War.

Small war theory

What must first be understood is that the situation in the Philippines is different from either Iraq or Afghanistan. In many ways, JSOTF-P is in an enviable position: It has a stable partner in the Filipino government and works with security forces that are both reliable and structurally similar to US forces. The general orders of Naval Forces, Western Mindanao Command are precisely the same as those of the US Navy. In the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ Marines and Navy Special Operations Group, the units are readily understood by US Marines and Navy Special Warfare. The Filipino noncommissioned officer corps is strong, as is the case in Western military forces. Their military academy is very much like West Point.

Those assets are not present in Iraq. They are not present in Afghanistan. Both governments are new, less stable. The security forces in Afghanistan and Iraq are still being developed, and under combat conditions. In Iraq, Lieutenant General James Dubik, commanding general of Multinational Transitional Security Command – Iraq, says that building an NCO corps is “a decade-long deal.”

While the US has a relatively free hand in Iraq and Afghanistan, in the Philippines the US military exerts much less operational control. “Of course we’ve got operators down in Mindanao who would love to go and get these guys,” Maxwell says, in reference to combating the terrorists. But to do that would do more damage than good. The great strength we have is that the government here is legitimate and independent, an ally. Nothing is worth throwing that away.”

Dr. David Kilcullen, also a lieutenant colonel in the Australian Army, has written of a counterinsurgency concept he calls “disaggregation,” as discussed below in a Dec. 2006 article from The New Yorker.

Last year, in an influential article in the Journal of Strategic Studies, Kilcullen redefined the war on terror as a “global counterinsurgency.” The change in terminology has large implications. A terrorist is “a kook in a room,” Kilcullen told me, and beyond persuasion; an insurgent has a mass base whose support can be won or lost through politics. The notion of a “war on terror” has led the U.S. government to focus overwhelmingly on military responses. In a counterinsurgency, according to the classical doctrine, which was first laid out by the British general Sir Gerald Templar during the Malayan Emergency, armed force is only a quarter of the effort; political, economic, and informational operations are also required. A war on terror suggests an undifferentiated enemy. Kilcullen speaks of the need to “disaggregate” insurgencies: finding ways to address local grievances in Pakistan’s tribal areas or along the Thai-Malay border so that they aren’t mapped onto the ambitions of the global jihad. Kilcullen writes, “Just as the Containment strategy was central to the Cold War, likewise a Disaggregation strategy would provide a unifying strategic conception for the war-something that has been lacking to date.” As an example of disaggregation, Kilcullen cited the Indonesian province of Aceh, where, after the 2004 tsunami, a radical Islamist organization tried to set up an office and convert a local separatist movement to its ideological agenda. Resentment toward the outsiders, combined with the swift humanitarian action of American and Australian warships, helped to prevent the Acehnese rebellion from becoming part of the global jihad.

When the 1996 peace treaty between the Filipino government and the Moro National Liberation Front was ratified, it disaggregated a large insurgent group into multiple factions, including several factions which were now either part of the government – such as the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao – or willing to respect the peace process. One faction, which became the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, was now the largest separatist faction, but still smaller than the earlier MNLF. Today, MILF may be itself in danger of becoming disaggregated. In recent months, MILF members are increasingly being turned over to the AFP or police authorities; 19 MILF members handed in their rifles in one week recently.

The way that MILF is treated will greatly influence the future of the conflict. The background here is the “Arms for Farms” program run by the US Agency for International Development in the earlier process. The program, which helped MNLF fighters find a living for their families if they would turn in their weapons and respect the peace, drew increasingly large numbers of MNLF guerrillas to lay down arms. The MILF fighters who surrendered in recent weeks will be closely watched by other MILF fighters in the field. If those who surrender prosper, it will influence others to do the same.

By the same token, it needs to be considered how MILF and MNLF are now withdrawing from areas the AFP wishes to search for Abu Sayyaf, a terrorist organization with ties to al Qaeda. In an area where the separatists and the terrorists are intermingled, this form of disaggregation has two benefits. First, it allows the AFP to move forward with combat operations against camps in a given area without worrying about a mistake touching off another encounter like the one in April, where one MNLF faction refused to evacuate the area and came into a bloody confrontation with government forces.

Second, it means that the MILF and MNLF elements that withdrew are endorsing the action against those elements that remain. Since officially MILF has withdrawn, an individual who may claim to be both MILF and Abu Sayyaf can be treated as only Abu Sayyaf. He has been disaggregated, with MILF’s effective approval.

Meanwhile, the villagers – deciding whether to support the guerrilla – examine the situation based on their self-interest. If the government defends their interests and does not oppress, the villagers often choose prosperity over conflict. If the government is corrupt and suppresses the things they care about, the people often support an insurgency.

This is essentially the model of the civilian military operations and USAID, and it is AFP’s new strategy. It is behind Maxwell’s conception that a crucial component to counterinsurgency success in the Philippines is to convince MILF to lay down its arms and become a political party. If that can be accomplished, he says, the result will be the isolation of terrorists from their main remaining cover. AFP operations against Abu Sayyaf will become far easier if the terrorists are not intermixed among the separatists, and if the separatists themselves are working with hammers and saws instead of guns.

Thomas P. M. Barnett’s The Pentagon’s New Map made the point that the source of terrorism can be treated by bringing areas that are disconnected from the benefits of modern society – true for both Mindanao and Iraq – into the systems of capitalism and democracy. An unabashed fan of globalization, Barnett asserts that the road forward is a matter of helping disconnected societies to tie into the global economy.

Long war theory

That, though, is not the whole picture. There is another level to the conflict that requires looking beyond the Philippines and considering the problem as a whole.

MILF is not a threat to the United States. Abu Sayyaf is, in part because it is connected to the global insurgency of which Kilcullen spoke . The global insurgency is not a factor of poverty, nor is it a factor of disconnection. It is precisely an outgrowth of the early connections of the international, global society with existing tribal societies. It is precisely about the influx of wealth into those societies. Al Qaeda is not a threat because it is poor. It is a threat because it has wealth, members with education and passports, and the language skills to travel easily in the West.

It is exactly at the point that poverty is abolished that the next, and worse, level of conflict begins. When globalized economics begin to change the basic structure of traditional societies, there is a reaction against this change. Because those people now have wealth and its associated powers, they are able to lash back. They have the capacity, and they have the understanding of where the West is most vulnerable: its transportation infrastructure . The attacks of Sept. 11 destroyed a fair amount of property directly, but the real cost was in the shockwaves to the global economy set off by having America’s airways shut down for an extended period of time.

There are two ways of responding to the problem that will work. The first is to raise up those societies that produce these global insurgents the rest of the way, so that they are full members of the modern world. The second is to tear them back down, so they are too poor to harm us. Either of these propositions will work; both have advocates in the US and the world at large.

In the US, the reality of that problem has never really been debated openly. In the last Presidential election, the opportunity was missed. John Kerry’s campaign chose as its chief military advisor retired General McPeak, who was an advocate of the “more rubble, less trouble” school. He held that the proper course in Iraq was to take out its communications systems, and then make no attempt to rebuild them. The resulting chaos would not be restrained by US forces on the ground, as he did not think US forces on the ground should be deployed. This would have left Iraq incapable of harming the US – knocked all the way down.

This is not a question of left or right. The proposition has numerous advocates on the American right as well, including John Derbyshire of National Review magazine. It may be a practical position, in a case where the US has not the strength for following through with the rebuilding. “Counterinsurgency is a question of will,” Maxwell says, and here he is in precise agreement with the Army and Marine Corps’ new counterinsurgency manual. As a nation, if we are to pursue the path of “raising them up,” it must be because we have chosen to do so – because we have chosen to pay the cost.

“I have never agreed with the idea that debating these questions was disloyal, or ‘giving aid and comfort to the enemy,’ as people have said since Vietnam,” the colonel added. “One of the things that makes America great is that we can have the debate. We can think it through, carefully, and decide.” The problem in America is not that these questions are debated, but that there has not been a clear and thorough debate on this issue. That debate and decision are where political will comes from. We should think this question through, and decide what kind of people, what kind of nation, we want to be.

The third and final installment will discuss the role of investing in the AFP NCO corps, the people, and the local economy as a counterinsurgency tactic.

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  • Turner says:

    Interesting editorial. As one who lived through the Viet Nam period, and had one friend brainwashed into blowing the wheels off of police cars and another who began throwing trash cans through plate-glass store windows, I think the author’s take on Viet Nam is a little naive, but not unlike other people who didn’t live through it. Read “Sabotage, the Secret War Against America” circa 1943. It provides an interesting insight into what non-democratic nations will do to corrupt the debate in a free society, and the considerations involved in protecting that … and it’s far enough away in time that the things they found the Nazi’s doing won’t offend you.
    I firmly agree the poverty doesn’t cause insurgency, though an insurgency often creates poverty. The most important strategy, particularly in this war is to articulate the moral foundations for advancing civilization and cut through the propaganda to contrast terrorist outcomes to some commonly held sense of what makes a better world. The jihadi’s best weapon, the suicide bomber, is also their weak point. It takes a very myopic, focused sense of victimhood and a belief in pervasive external evil to keep someone on the edge of self-anhilation, and only certain people have the skills to bring young men to this point and sustain them. The Israeli’s turned the corner in Palestine, not only with the wall, but with taking out the Shehadae family and others with the skill to brainwash young men in this manner.
    The most important type of “disaggregation” is breaking the attempt to form logical links between jihad and other causes. When Bin Laden reaches out to the left by attacking the World Bank, we need to reinforce that the World Bank is the means by which developed nations reach out to assist and empower the developing world. When families give their sons to Jihad, we need to point out the those who trained them never seem to give their sons. When Osama attempts to project an air of bravery we need to point out the most of the time he seems to be hiding behind a ski-mask or burka. If free people seem decadant and corrupt we need to point out the suffering is aleviated, children no longer die and lives are peaceful, fruitful and long.
    In the Phillipines, the Moro heritage will take time to overcome. If you search a bit you can read the accounts of the British trying to pacify them as simple, poverty striken tribes where everyone carried a weapon and few could read the Koran they carried bits of. The fighting between tribes, clans and families was incessant. Getting them to leave their weapons behind while employed in building projects was tough. Convincing them to earn money for something other than better guns to resolve their disputes with was also hard. They had little, and wanted little and they had a long memory for old injuries and feuds. In the case of the Moro, stripping them down to base, tragic poverty would only return them to the state o ftheir grandparents and would not strip them of firearms or abundant rationals to use them.
    Leading the Moro to focus on hopes for peace, shared prosperity and a bright future for their children will take a long patient run at redirecting their attention.

  • David M says:

    Trackbacked by The Thunder Run – Web Reconnaissance for 10/18/2007
    A short recon of what’s out there that might draw your attention, updated throughout the day…so check back often.

  • Jeffrey says:

    Excellent work, as usual. It’s particularly refreshing to hear a CO like Col Maxwell encourage informed debate (my emphasis on “informed”) without fear of being charged with “giving aid and comfort to the enemy”.
    Regarding Kilcullen’s suggestion that we re-name the GWOT so that it is reflected as a “global counterinsurgency”, that clearly has merit in the Phillipines and in other parts of the world where the basis for internal strife can be ameliorated by addressing local greivances, however a large part of what is fueling Muslim extremists is their hatred of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Those extremists aren’t part of a global counterinsurgency, they are engaged in a religious war with the West. In my opinion, referring to them as counterinsurgents is not only inaccurate, misleading, and gives them a layer of legitimacy.

  • ajacksonian says:

    I do have problems with Thomas P. Barnett’s views of things: they are intrinsically top-down and put forward an artificial structure that falls apart in the local instantiation.
    The key in this article [and it is excellent and much thanks!] is not that prosperity, per se, leads to the buy-in of locals: it is honest and accountable government. That is not a part of a globalization concept, but one of local sovereignty and authority being held to account by its own people. When that deteriorates, the slow shift from peace to resentment and unrest begins. To remove local insurgency, you need not only military protection and countering the insurgents, but an accountable government that can offer something *better* than fighting. Corrupt governments have no compunction about killing insurgents or, indeed, anyone that gets in the way. Offering aid in those places offers nothing in the way of long-term assurances to the locals, and no reason to give up fighting.
    Disaggregation is key, and it is only effective with accountable governments. The long term agenda, then, is not military based but Nation based, with accountable government (internal and external) in place to assure a modicum of societal justice and accountability. Prosperity, then, cannot be bought with goods, only *made* by the people there to sustain their society and culture. It is in that arena, one that is heavily Nation State oriented and getting accountable government with regularized rule of law that becomes key. Removing insurgents in relatively poor areas or areas with little firm attachment to the rest of the Nation or with corrupt local government then requires not only fighting to keep things from getting *worse* but addressing the underlying and extremely local factors causing the insurgency to remain.
    As this and the other articles point out, the Philippines has a good leg-up on other Nations facing insurgent problems (Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Kasmir region of India, Sudan/Somalia, interior Columbia and the Tri-Border area of S. America. In these regions there is little local accomodation for societal differences, corrupt government or lack of meaningful infrastructure (schools, roads, policing), or combination of the three. And as each of these areas has different societal outlooks, making a sweeping generalization of them is a misguided act. The maxim of “all politics is local” tends to go with insurgents, also.
    On the insurgent side of this, there is also a ‘disaggregation factor’ that they consider: spreading lawlessness. The al Qaeda doctrine book ‘The Management of Savagery’ goes into exquisite detail of how to destabilize and exploit regions generically, and then gives per-instance outlooks to examine how that should adjust locally. Here the global Middle Eastern ex-pat community is their main target, so as to further distance those communities from non-ME cultures and religions. Thwart assimilation and resentment grows as the alien society feels it is not being served by local accountable government. This then works with local problems, like Abu Sayyaf, to exploit those and spread further on a local basis. The adversaries in this, being from Middle and Upper Class educational background, are not fools, although their outlooks are highly skewed. These distributed contact points become, then, a distributed form of insurgency. That is not a TPB ‘gap’: it is an incitement to societal destruction for other ends, utilizing localized problems to achieve that. To counter that requires not only the local instancing (Indonesia,Pakistan, India, Columbia, Argentina, Brazil, Sudan, Somalia) but to remove the capability of the coordination of the larger organization to shift fighters, trainers and equipment on a global basis cheaply.
    We can look to the previous era of this, that of piracy, to examine the tools available to be used against such organizations. The ‘King’s Amnesty’ of those days with offer of modest payment bought an end to many individuals in that era, but those that were left were more dedicated and harder to go after. Privateering, of that era, had substantial problems of accountability due to communication lags, something the modern era no longer suffers. Unfortunately as we did not fully codify Vattel’s Law of Nations, the US has not put in place the ‘predatory warfare’ paragraphs for the equivalent of illegitimate warfare on land. The US Congress can do that, the basis is written directly and exactly as a book reference into the Constitution and Law of Nations was used by Presidents all the way to the era of Wilson to determine the course of the Nation. That requires that we adjust our modern conceptions of warfare to what is fully allowable by Nations so as to help other Nations address this new, globally distributed methodology of insurgency. That is a realm that terrorists cannot go into, not being Nations… but Nations can outflank them there. If we dare.


Islamic state



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Boko Haram