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

June 4, 2008

Reprinted from International Crisis Group

Asia Report Nº152
14 May 2008


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.


To the Philippines Government:

1. Facilitate insurgent cooperation against terrorists by addressing substantive political grievances, including by committing immediately to:

a) resume exploratory talks with the MILF on the basis of the right to self-determination of the Bangsamoro people, with the goal of a formal agreement on ancestral domain by June 2008 and formal talks on a final agreement to start by July; and

b) resume Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) tripartite talks to review implementation of the 1996 Jakarta peace agreement with the MNLF, without further delay, and with Nur Misuari’s participation, as sought by the MNLF.

2. Initiate discussion with both MILF and MNLF on reestablishing counter-terrorist cooperation along the following lines:

a) appoint senior, full-time AHJAG chairs and staff, ensure full and prompt funding and create teams for Basilan and Sulu;

b) encourage the MILF, as a step toward the demobilisation and reintegration of its members in the event a peace agreement is signed, to clarify its membership, in the first instance by providing a list of expelled members to prevent post-facto alibis;

c) formalise government-MNLF ceasefire mechanisms, map MNLF camps and communities in Sulu and upgrade the gentlemen’s agreement that facilitated Oplan Ultimatum’s early success to formal ceasefire and intelligence-sharing mechanisms; and

d) guarantee in return through a restored international Joint Monitoring Committee that clearly demarcated MNLF camps and communities will not be attacked.

To the U.S. Government:

3. Review official military doctrine with emphasis on clarifying the distinction between insurgents and terrorists, and in the specific Philippines case encourage insurgent cooperation against terrorists by supporting AHJAG and similar mechanisms.

4. Use all the resources at its disposal to encourage the Philippines government and the MILF to finalise a formal peace agreement.

Jakarta/Brussels, 14 May 2008

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