What the Philippines can Teach the Rest of Us about Insurgencies

On 15 October, 2012, a historic event took place in the Philippines – a peace framework was signed by the government of the Philippines and the country’s largest Muslim rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.  The framework begins a process that will lead to the Philippines mostly Muslim south obtaining greater political and economic autonomy – by creating a new southern administrative region called Bangsamoro.

Mindanao, the country’s southern region, is predominately Muslim (most of the Philippines is Roman Catholic) and has been at the center of several armed insurgencies.  The Moro Islamic Liberation Front is the most powerful insurgent organization in the country and has been locked in a conflict with Manila for over forty years.  The agreement between the government and the insurgency is the first real chance to heal the country’s divisions in several decades.  Too few in the West paid attention to the announcement in October and even fewer have paid attention in the three months that have followed.  President Benigno S. Aquino III is making it clear that the government intends on honoring the agreement, solidifying his political reputation and clearly divorcing himself from the policies of past presidents.  The cessation of hostilities between the government and the Moros will allow for the government to turn its attention towards economic development and political unification – something the perennial underachiever nation needs. 

The events of last fall should be a closely examined by US foreign policy leaders.  The Moro insurgency lasted for over forty years in spite of the government’s intense effort at destroying it.  Time and time again, the government’s superior marshal forces inflicted wounds against the insurgency that were insufficient in destroying it, increased anger among the civilian population, and wasted government resources.  It was not until a political approach to the insurgency came into effect that real progress was made.  Of greatest importance was the crafting of an effective communication policy on the part of the government.  President Aquino, who had crafted a public image of being for all people (and thus could be marginally more trusted by the south), led the government in reaching out to the Moro ranks, making inroads into the southern population, and coordinating the resources of the government.  Military forces were used as a political tool that could be used to entice negotiation. 

Insurgencies are regularly violent efforts that require the use of matching force, but they still remain political movements with specific aims.  Insurgencies are also regularly long-lasting incidents – campaigns that last decades, not years or months.  Too often US policy in regards to insurgencies has been defined and driven by the military’s COIN strategy and based on unrealistic timetables.  The Philippines provides evidence that counterinsurgency strategy requires patience, communication (and thus cultural) craftiness, and a political strategy.  In short, counterinsurgency is a whole-of-government issue – not merely a military doctrine. 

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.


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