Friday, February 15, 2008

Why the Philippines is the example of counter-insurgency done right

Both the Philippine counter-insurgencies proved to be successful. Given the results attained, it would appear that the counter-insurgency efforts were more similar than dissimilar. It is illuminating to examine how the counter-insurgencies were different. The counterinsurgencies were different in ways that proved to be largely irrelevant to the success of the effort. The counter-insurgency at the turn of the century was lead by United States forces who recruited locals to the effort, mostly to serve in civil positions and the local constabulary. The later counter-insurgency was an effort manned exclusively by Filipinos with minor US logistical and intelligence support, fighting an indigenous communist front made up of other Filipinos. The insurgency following the Spanish American War was a collection of loosely linked nodes operating independently, without coordination and with only nominal allegiance to the titular head, Aguinaldo. The Communists in the later insurgency were hyper-organized and controlled although there is the possibility this organization was more apparent on paper at NPA headquarters than on the ground.

Given the differences in who was leading the counter-insurgency, the US in one case, the Philippine Army in the other and the gap in time between the conflicts, it is striking how similar the efforts actually were. Both counter-insurgencies saw the greatest success when it came to rely on dispersed, independently operated units. Both counter-insurgency efforts made a priority of establishing local political control that had a chance to flourish under the protection of arms. Both sought to destroy those elements of the insurgency that were not willing to come under control of the government. The similarities in the two strategies separated by more than seventy years would make it seem that that commanders were operating out the same OPLAN or at least from the same doctrine. However, the counter-insurgency leaders did not adhere to any OPLAN and they had no access to doctrine. The counter-insurgencies in both cases made a virtue of necessity, and by doing so, independently arrived at the most effective strategy at fighting insurgents.

Regarding the issue of doctrine, the Philippine Army commanders engaged in the fight expressly denied that they were conducting the fight in adherence to US Army doctrine. Victor Corpus, a Philippine Army officer who defected to the Communists then returned to fight the insurgency, denied that he had learned anything from US Army doctrine. Instead, he adapted to the situation and what they learned from fighting the war. In the words of Corpus: "we drew mostly upon my experience. We didn't refer to any books. We had read the US manuals on low intensity conflicts, but we blamed those manuals for introducing COIN doctrines that only aggravated the situation. They apply conventional efforts to an unconventional situation. In particular, traditional civic action is a mere palliative. It does not go to the root causes of the problem, to the lack of democracy.”1

To Corpus, the crucial difference in successful vice un-successful counter-insurgency strategy was the sincerity and permanence of efforts to institutionalize democracy and address the legitimate concerns of the "grievance guerrillas."2  The strategy that Corpus advocated resulted in a "feeling among the populace that nonviolent avenues were available for interest articulation and realization." With Corpus and others in the Philippine Army pushing for sincere democratic reforms, people in the countryside were convinced to give up the insurgency. "They had given up precisely because the hardline approach.3

Was the fact that the Philippine Army counter-insurgency strategy so closely mirrored that of US Army counter-insurgency efforts prior to the Vietnam War-vintage COIN doctrine dismissed by Corpus, merely a coincidence? Did the winning strategy transcend the Philippine theater, or is there something unique in Filipino psychology or terrain that channeled strategy in one particular way? These appear to be unexamined questions. There does not seem to be any literature that would support or deny the theory that there is something in Filipino psychology that would result in one particular type of effective counter-insurgency strategy. Rather, it appears that the fact that the same strategy arose some eighty years apart, albeit in the same geographic location, is evidence that the counter-insurgency doctrine hit upon independently decades apart, is the appropriate way to counter “grievance guerrillas.”

The strategies of the successful counterinsurgency that arose independently find support in the US Marine Corps Small Wars Manual. The Marines who wrote that document noticed the imperative to contest insurgents with all available means with an emphasis on the moral and psychological. “The motive in small wars is not material destruction. It. is usually a project dealing with the social, economic, and political development of the people. It is of primary importance that the fullest benefit be derived from the psychological aspects of the situation. That implies a serious study of the people, their racial, political, religious, and mental development.”4  Serious study of foreign people takes time for a foreign counter-insurgency force, such as the United States Army in the Philippines. As for the Philippine Army, they had a head-start since they were of the same culture and psychology of the insurgents they were battling. Since the Philippine Army battalions were also living in the same environment as the insurgency they fought, those soldiers became all the more attuned to the culture and therefore, all the more effective.

Other successful counter-insurgencies share many of the characteristics of the Philippine campaigns. The Malay Emergency and the current US campaign in Iraq both resemble, in broad terms, the traits apparent in the Philippine counter-insurgency. Richard Clutterbuck, in his book The Long, Long War, identified the keys to the successful counter-insurgency in Malaysia: "Protection of the people and the government structure is essential. An extensive police force at the village level is also required."5   Clutterbuck’s description of the successful counter-insurgency are similar to those in the Philippines and those currently in effect by the US Army in Iraq.

There is little doubt that the Philippine Army, however fortuitously, went about their counter-insurgency in the right way. The key, which went un-remarked by Marks is that the Philippine Army had time to make sure their counter-insurgency worked. In the words of General in the current counter-insurgency fight in Iraq, “Counterinsurgency is a long-term proposition. The ability to fight counterinsurgency requires time and building-block approach for learning…”6  The reason the Philippine Army had the time to make their strategy worked is self evident; the government and the insurgents had no where else to go. Both sides would fight until the war ended one way or the other. Time is a luxury that foreign counter-insurgency forces do not always have, whereas indigenous counter-insurgencies can fight until resolution. However, so long as the counter-insurgency has the time to prosecute the strategy, the doctrine will be validated. If for some reason, the counter-insurgency must leave the field, the strategy will fail.

Ultimately, the Philippine Army had the time to grind down the Philippine Insurgency with a home-grown strategy that focused on the psychology of the insurgency and addressed the concerns of “grievance guerrillas.” Indigenous forces addressed the psychological needs of the grievance guerrillas and had the time to grind down and destroy recalcitrant revolutionaries. This is the essence of a counter-insurgency done right.

1.  Marks, Thomas. Maoist Insurgency Since Vietnam (London: Frank Cass) 2003. Pg 136.

2.  Ibid. Pg 133.

3.  Ibid.

4.  United States Marine Corps Publications Small Wars Manual (Washington: United States Government) 1940. Pg 18.

5.  Clutterbuck, Richard. From The Long Long War, Quoted in "Insurgency and Counter-insurgency: Lessons from Malaya" in Ohio University E history at accessed 7 February 2008.

6.  Gaskin, Maj.Gen. Walter. “ DoD News Briefing with Maj. Gen. Gaskin from Iraq July 20, 2007” US Department of Defense News Transcript at accessed 7 February 2008.