Treading Softly in the Philippines

Max Boot and Richard Bennet discuss why a low-intensity counterinsurgency strategy seems to be working in the Philippines at The Weekly Standard.

The war on terror that the Obama administration is inheriting comes with a decidedly mixed record. Stopping attacks on the American homeland since 2001 has been the Bush administration's biggest accomplishment. Turning around the war effort in Iraq, which was on the verge of failure in 2006, has been another signal success. But, as the Mumbai attacks remind us, the threat of Islamist terrorism has hardly been extinguished...

Almost forgotten amid these major developments is a tiny success story in Southeast Asia that may offer a more apt template than either Iraq or Afghanistan for fighting extremists in many corners of the world. The southern islands of the Philippines, inhabited by Muslims known as Moros (Spanish for "Moor"), have been in almost perpetual rebellion against the Christian majority ruling in Manila...

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I agree entirely and should add that it is a well-researched and very important article. If I did not pay sufficient attention to its critical last paragraph, my concern is that others also won't.

David,

That is why people need to pay particular attention to this quote from the end of the article: "As Major General Salvatore Cambria, commander of U.S. Special Operations Forces in the Pacific, says, "This is a model, not the model." But this "soft and light" approach--a "soft" counterinsurgency strategy, a light American footprint--is a model that has obvious application to many countries around the world where we cannot or will not send large numbers of troops to stamp out affiliates of the global jihadist network."

You are also exactly right in that the success that is being achieved is because the conditions are much different in the Philippines than in Iraq and Afghanistan and that there is a functioning, democratic government (with of course many internal challenges but it functions much more effectively than the governments of Iraq and Afghanistan). It has adequate security forces (that clearly benefit from our assistance but are in fact much more capable than anything that exists in Iraq and Afghanistan).

The lesson from the article and from you commentary should be that we have to understand that every situation is different, the conditions are different and as such there is no cookie cutter approach to any of the challenges we face in the 21st Century. We have to conduct proper assessments and then develop the strategy and campaign plans to support the strategy (and of course not be afraid to adjust the strategy and plans if they at first do not succeed which is inevitable in a COIN/IW environment). But also please recognize the very complex challenges the Filipinos face with multiple ongoing insurgencies from multiple Moro factions (and keeping the MNLF insurgency at bay based on the 1996 political settlement) as well as the communists all the while dealing with the international terrorists (and the homegrown ones) that have found sanctuary and allies in undergoverned or ungoverned spaces particularly in the Southern Philippines.

So to take MG Cambria's correct quote a little farther, OEF-P is not THE model for the war on terrorism it is only ONE model for how to support a friend, partner, or ally in its fight against insurgency and terror. It may very well have application in support of other friends, partners, or allies around the world but more likely based on proper assessments of the political and security situations (as well as the economic, social, and cultural conditions) it is that no two plans will ever be the same though there are lessons and pieces and parts that will certainly have application. But the key is development of the right strategy and the implementation of the correct supporting campaign plan (organization and application of the right resources) that has the chance of successfully aiding a friend, partner, or ally against lawless, subversion, terror, and insurgency.

"Almost forgotten amid these major developments is a tiny success story in Southeast Asia that may offer a more apt template than either Iraq or Afghanistan for fighting extremists in many corners of the world."

The direct comparison of Iraq/Afghanistan on one hand and the Philippines on the other is disingeneous and misleading. OEF-Philippines can proceed as it does because the U.S. works WITH the government, whereas Afghanistan and Iraq were from the outset predicated on regime-change - and have evolved accordingly. Certainly what is heralded as the 'indirect approach' (advisers rather than combat troops) is 'more apt' in some circumstances, but it depends on having someone to partner with.

The comparison is most pernicious if it is allowed to inform force development (and there are signs of this happening). In such a case, the vain hope of future interventions being necessarily indirect (because it is 'more apt') will puncture any effort to boost general-purpose troops' ability to conduct missins directly, as seen in Iraq and Afghanistan, and which will also be needed, now and in the future.