Iraq’s Philippine Precursor

Brett M. Decker

Posted on August 4, 2008

Asymmetric warfare is nothing new.

Politicians endlessly refer to “this new kind of warfare” when discussing insurgent tactics, especially in Iraq. Intrinsic to this definition is the inference that America’s supposedly old traditional military structure is not prepared or capable of meeting the modern challenge. For example, Presidential candidate Barack Obama’s strict adherence to the need for a 16-month timeline is predicated on the assumption that if U.S. armed forces cannot get it right in 16 months, then it is unlikely that victory is achievable and withdrawal is thus necessary. There is no doubt that U.S. and coalition forces in the Middle East and in and around Afghanistan are confronting unconventional tactics. For example, the development and implementation of cheap Improvised Explosive Devices on a wide scale may be a novel way of using a specific weapon. However, little else is new under the hot Middle Eastern sun. It is an age-old practice to try to avoid conventional confrontation and to introduce inventive techniques so that smaller forces can take advantage of the weak spots of much larger, stronger armies. That is the very meaning of asymmetric warfare.

The current prevalence, initial triumphs and escalation of asymmetric warfare do not mean that these tactics are new or that they cannot successfully be put down. The United States has confronted asymmetric threats repeatedly over the course of its history and usually has been victorious. The defeat of the Philippine Insurgency of 1899-1903 is a fitting example. The origin of this conflict, which Filipinos call the Philippine-American War, was the transfer of the Philippines from Spain to the United States after Madrid’s defeat in the Spanish-American War of 1898. During America’s war with Spain, Washington promised independence to the Philippines if Filipinos helped U.S. forces eject the European colonial power from the archipelago. After the war, however, Washington reneged on its word and assumed sovereignty of the 5,000 or so Philippine islands in the Treaty of Paris, through which Washington also received other former Spanish possessions such as Cuba, Puerto Rico and Guam. The result of this broken promise was a Filipino insurgency to try to kick out the new American occupier.

Many aspects of the Philippine insurgency sound familiar to contemporary ears accustomed to hearing news chronicling the pace of setbacks or progress in Iraq. Terrorist tactics such as murdering government officials, blowing up public buildings, destroying food supplies and other important resources, and using civilians as cover were common practices among the insurgents. The asymmetric strategy proved so debilitating that the native Philippine government collapsed, opening the door to widespread social disorder. Initially, Washington responded with a large deployment of soldiers to the rebellious areas. At the height of the insurgency, there were 70,000 U.S. troops in the Philippines, or about half of what is currently in Iraq. This was a very large contingent of manpower given that the U.S. population at the time was a mere 76 million (compared to today’s 300 million). But when this large force tried to initiate contact, the enemy refused to engage. Instead, small bands of guerrillas pursued hit-and-run raids on convoys and small, isolated outposts. While U.S. forces were only bested once in a traditional force-on-force confrontation, they were being incessantly harassed across the Philippine countryside, which undermined the mobility necessary to pacify the country.

Political decision-makers, military bureaucracies and commanders rarely respond appropriately in immediate fashion to unexpected and unfamiliar resistance. This is not necessarily a failure; it is human nature to stick to established guidelines and to try to reuse what worked in the past. That said, when progress is not being made, it is imperative that leaders reassess policies and procedures in view of what is actually occurring on the ground and adapt operations to confront reality. Some leaders, commanders and institutions are more open to introspection in this regard than others. Ways of thinking and views of preferred weapons and tactics were very entrenched in the U.S. system during the Vietnam era, which made it difficult to question the status quo and adapt even when it was obvious current practices were not working. In Iraq, however, thorough assessment of the initial failure of the occupation led to major adaptation in policy to create what is now known as the surge strategy, which has succeeded in stabilizing the volatile country. As the media widely reported concerning the U.S. military toll in Iraq, July 2008 had the lowest casualty count since the 2003 invasion. Eleven American soldiers were killed in July 2008 compared to the high-water mark of 137 killed in action in November 2004. (Proving that progress has been consistent, the previous record low month for casualties was in May 2008, also after the surge.)

The Philippine insurgency offered U.S. commanders a similar unconventional challenge, and with it the opportunity to reassess and adapt strategy and policy in a chaotic environment. The resultant strategy was a combination of brutal suppression in the field tempered by an early version of a hearts-and-minds campaign in the more urbanized areas. The U.S. Army employed cutthroat field tactics that had been successful in subduing the Indians on the American Western frontier, which included orders to “take no prisoners” and to kill any adolescent male to thin the pool of potential insurgents. In contrast to bloody massacres in the contested rural areas, barrios and cities were showered with food stuffs and other largesse, and liberties were extended for locals that never were permitted under strict Spanish rule. At the same time, insurgents miscalculated and increased attacks on Filipinos who collaborated with the occupation force, which backfired and turned much of the population against the insurgency. Thus, gradually, most locals came to the view that life would be better under the Americans than under the guerrilla forces fighting for liberation. The overall modus operandi was to clear and secure rebellious regions and gradually expand safe zones, giving insurgents nowhere to hide.

Although ruthless in many aspects and undoubtedly immoral from some angles, when considered on purely military terms, the United States Army successfully confronted an insurgency by assessing its initial failure and adapting to the enemy’s asymmetric tactics. The future will hold more of the same because no strategic competitor can contest American power any other way. The superiority of U.S. conventional forces has made it clear to potential enemies that the safest way American power can be challenged is through asymmetric warfare. That is reality, and the United States must deal with it. But just as enemies adapt, so can the American military–and it has done so with success on many occasions, including during the Philippine insurrection a century ago.

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