Lessons in Counterinsurgency

In the former base of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the Muslim secessionist group that has been fighting the government in the southern Philippines for decades, Lt. Col. Francis Alaurin is practicing what he calls "economic diplomacy." While a ceasefire is in place, he's been meeting with some of the rebels and talking to them about giving up their arms in exchange for jobs. He has also asked businessmen to employ these MILF members.

"This way, we address the root causes of insurgency," Alaurin says enthusiastically. "The MILF has to be integrated into the economic mainstream." For this young military officer, the success of his battalion's performance is measured in jobs generated and business enterprises created, not body counts and firearms retrieved.

Alaurin's division commander, Maj. Gen. Raymundo Ferrer, is known for shunning combat in favor of civic action. He works with local government officials and non-government organizations to set up job programs, conduct cleanliness campaigns and carry out medical missions. He trains soldiers on topics like gender and culture sensitivity, conflict management, and awareness of children's rights.

"We have to regain the trust of the people," Ferrer says. "My experience in using a non-traditional approach has proven that there are ways to achieve the higher-end state of establishing a peaceful and secure environment so that development can overcome insurgency."

The Philippine military has a reputation for committing human rights abuses, especially in battles against communist insurgents. Units operating nationwide have been linked by human rights groups to assassinations of leftist leaders, for example, tarnishing the image of the military. But at least in this part of Mindanao, the military is finally seeing more officers like Ferrer who are trying non-traditional approaches to winning over rebels. The MILF has been fighting the government for more than two decades, but the military, buoyed by a three-year ceasefire, continuing peace talks, and a flexible chief of staff, is gradually shifting paradigms.

"We're out of the combat mode now," armed forces leader Gen. Hermogenes Esperon, says. "There's a growing culture of accommodation in the military." While the military has a national counterinsurgency program that addresses two threats Muslim rebels and communist guerillas – Esperon does not impose a rigid template and encourages the creative initiatives of commanders on the ground.

This new thinking among senior Philippine military officers is helping push forward talks to settle the MILF conflict and, government officials say, may lead to an agreement within the year.

This is a significant development because the armed forces are trying to play a constructive role in negotiations with Muslim rebels even before any final settlement is forged. In the past, the military was often openly hostile to peace talks.

This is a gradual transformation of the role of the military in fighting the Muslim insurgency. During the martial law years in the 1970s and 1980s, when Ferdinand Marcos was in power, the armed forces engaged in a bloody war against Muslim rebels, attempting to destroy the insurgency with force alone. The mindset then was "pacification" and eventually forced cooptation.

When democracy returned in 1986, the military was adjusting to new conditions. They had rebelled against Marcos but they were emerging from a culture steeped in more than a decade of martial law and authoritarian rule. Many of them tried to overthrow President Corazon Aquino repeatedly as younger officers yearned to wield power themselves.

In the 1990s it finally seemed that the military would return to the barracks. There were no attempts to overthrow the government in that decade, and a peace settlement was in place with the first of the Muslim rebel groups, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). Thus began the reorientation of the military, starting with a prolonged ceasefire and a final MNLF peace deal in 1996.

To be sure there have been setbacks since then and military adventurism in politics is still a reality. Soldiers played a key role in the ouster of former President Joseph Estrada in 2001, helping to put in place President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. Some elements of the armed forces have turned against her, launching plots aimed at removing her from office. Other officers have been widely accused of using extra-judicial killings to terrorize leftist opponents of the government.

The various approaches to counterinsurgency have been the subject of discussions and debates, especially with the war on terror and increased US military participation in the Philippines, particularly in the provinces of Sulu and, before that, Basilan. In these places, American and Filipino soldiers have been building roads and schools, providing health care and clean water.

Way before that, the Philippine military had long experience in fighting communist guerrillas, devising various counterinsurgency programs.

In countries like Afghanistan and Iraq, key questions are being raised on how best to win hearts and minds without losing the military edge and how to balance soft and hard approaches — civic action and combat.

In the Philippines, there's growing support in the military leadership for a proposal to carefully select division commanders in conflict areas based on criteria that will move peace negotiations forward. First, they should have knowledge and understanding of the conflict in Mindanao. Second, they should know the local culture and customs of the people. And third, they should share the common objective of development and be committed to the peace process.

In addition, the military, as ordered by President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, has revised its ceasefire guidelines to make the environment conducive to talks. Specifically, the military wants to reduce hostilities with the MILF by restraining the use of artillery and aerial bombing in case of military operations.

The Philippines, with its long history of insurgencies, still lacks decisive victories against communist rebels and military power has proved incapable of choking off a movement that feeds on social discontent. But the emerging experience with the equally intractable Muslim insurgency may yet point a way forward for the entire nation.

Marites Danguilan Vitug is a veteran journalist and the editor of Newsbreak, on online magazine.