Some lessons learned
While watching the news coverage of US President Bush’s announcement of his new strategy for the Iraq war, I was reminded of an encounter I had with a general, more than a decade ago. The military experts on TV were talking about the classic counter insurgency approach that was being employed in Iraq. It has been proven to work: clear, hold, consolidate and develop.
I was then a senator, and chairman of the Senate Defense Committee as well as the Finance sub-committee in charge of the budget of the Armed Forces of the Philippines. I had announced that I was going to cut the budget of the para-military units used by the armed forces to hold territory in provinces where they have been fighting communist insurgents for decades. I was responding to reports of human rights abuses as well as corruption in the disbursement of funds. Payroll padding and ghost recruits were a problem. There was tension between me and the top brass. A private meeting with the Chief-of-Staff was arranged.
In this meeting the four-star general started lecturing me about how my actions would compromise the whole counter-insurgency effort of the country. We had a sharp exchange of words. I stood my ground and told him that I did not disagree with the strategy. But they had to stop recruiting thugs and criminals to be their surrogates. They had to be more transparent in their financial management. It was to be the first of many disagreements with the country’s top soldier, culminating in a very public clash when I became Secretary of Defense and he was still chair of the soldier’s pension fund that eventually went bankrupt. Today, he still faces graft charges for his role in running the soldier’s retirement and benefit fund to the ground.
There is no comparison between the insurgencies in Iraq and the Philippines. That is pretty obvious. What is clear is that the playbook is the same. Most will agree that the “clearing” stage may be the easy part of the process. The troop surge the White House wants may provide initial “victories” as territory is reclaimed from the insurgents. It becomes tricky in the “holding” and “consolidating” phases. A tribal and religious difference complicated by clashing political and economic interests tells us that it is going to be a protracted war. Getting to the “developing” or “building” stage is not possible without setting up the institutions for governance. Throw money at the problem and you bring out the worst in those who hold power, regardless of their titles or the number of stars on their shoulders. It has happened before. Some flashbacks may be unpleasant, but they can be useful.