The Philippines: Counter-insurgency vs. Counter-terrorism in Mindanao
The Philippines: Counter-insurgency vs. Counter-terrorism in Mindanao
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Report 152 / Asia

The Philippines: Counter-insurgency vs. Counter-terrorism in Mindanao

U.S.-backed security operations in the southern Philippines are making progress but are also confusing counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency with dangerous implications for conflict in the region.

Executive Summary

U.S.-backed security operations in the southern Philippines are making progress but are also confusing counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency with dangerous implications for conflict in the region. The “Mindanao Model” – using classic counter-insurgency techniques to achieve counter-terror goals – has been directed against the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) and has helped force its fighters out of their traditional stronghold on Basilan. But it runs the risk of pushing them into the arms of the broader insurgencies in Mindanao, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). The U.S. and the Philippines need to revive mechanisms to keep these conflicts apart and refocus energies on peace processes with these groups. That imperative has become particularly acute since the Malaysian government announced with­drawal, beginning on 10 May, from the International Monitoring Team (IMT) that has helped keep a lid on conflict since 2004. If renewed attention to a peace agreement is not forth­coming by the time the IMT mandate ends in August, hostilities could quickly resume.

A policy tool of proven value is at hand. Called the Ad Hoc Joint Action Group (AHJAG), it was designed to facilitate coordination between the Philippines govern­ment and the MILF to share intelligence on terrorists and avoid accidental clashes while government forces pursued them. Allowed to lapse in June 2007, it was formally renewed in November but not fully revived. It should be, as a counter-terror and conflict management mechanism that worked, and a similar arrangement should be developed with the MNLF. The problem is that it will only work if there is progress on the political front – that is, in peace nego­tiations – so that insurgents see concrete benefits from their cooperation with the government.

As part of Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines, U.S. forces are strengthening the Philippines military and using civic action to drive a wedge between rebels and the Muslim populace. But if their goal is to defeat the ASG and its foreign, mainly Indonesian, jihadi allies, they are casting the net too widely and creating unnecessary enemies.

Mass-based insurgencies like the MILF and MNLF rely on supportive populations. By extension, small numbers of terrorists rely on sympathetic insurgents. Counter-terrorism’s central task in a setting like that in the Philippines is to isolate jihadis from their insurgent hosts – not divide insurgents from the population. Recent gains against the ASG came only after the MILF expelled key jihadis from main­land Mindanao in 2005. Yet AHJAG, the mechanism that made this possible, is not getting the attention it deserves.

AHJAG was crafted as part of an ongoing government-MILF peace process. For more than two years, it prevented conflict escalation as the search for terrorists intensified in MILF strongholds in western Mindanao and led to a few cases of the MILF’s disciplining extremists in its own ranks. It helped force the ASG’s core group, including Kadaffy Janjalani and Abu Solaiman, to Sulu, where they were killed.

This has come at a heavy price in Sulu, where no equivalent ceasefire machinery exists to separate jihadis from the dominant local guerrilla force, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). Instead, heavy-handed offensives against ASG and its foreign jihadi allies have repeatedly spilled over into MNLF communities, driving some insurgents into closer cooperation with the terrorists, instead of with government.

Ceasefire mechanisms like AHJAG depend on sub­stantive progress toward a comprehensive peace pact, but negotiations with the MILF remain deadlocked. While the Arroyo administration is distracted by turmoil in Manila, and Washington focuses on economic and military approaches to an essentially political problem in the Philippines south, AHJAG has been allowed to wither. As an innovative means of depriving transnational extremists of refuge and regeneration while building confidence with insurgents and strengthening moderates among them, this mechanism needs to be strengthened and expanded.

Jakarta/Brussels, 14 May 2008

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