Losing the Governance Contest

To battle terror, fight corruption and incompetence.

The Weekly Standard

MAY 2, 2016

It didn’t get a lot of play in the United States, but on April 9 disturbing news came from the Philippines. Eighteen soldiers were killed and 52 wounded in a firefight with Abu Sayyaf militants on the southern island of Basilan. This is a tragedy for the Philippines that also raises questions about the effectiveness of U.S. military assistance programs abroad following well-publicized failures in Mali and Yemen.

The United States had a Joint Special Operations Task Force in the Philippines from 2002 to 2014. An average of 500 to 600 U.S. Special Operations Forces at a time deployed as part of Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines to provide training, intelligence, and other assistance to Philippine forces in their fight against Islamist extremists, primarily the Abu Sayyaf group that is linked to al Qaeda and more recently pledged loyalty to ISIS. The total cost of this program was $441 million.

I visited the Special Operations Task Force on a couple of occasions, in 2008 and 2011, and came away impressed by what it was doing. (See my Jan. 5, 2009, Weekly Standard article, “Treading Softly in the Philippines.”) I still have vivid memories of the task force’s claustrophobic headquarters inside a military base in Zamboanga City, the principal city of Mindanao island, as well as visits to Special Forces “A Teams” in their team houses spread out across the lush jungle landscape of Mindanao. These special operators were not fighting terrorists directly, but they were enhancing the effectiveness of their Philippine partners. I and many others saw this as a model of a “small footprint” approach that could be used to fight terrorist groups without putting American forces into combat.

Does the fact that, after a dozen years, Abu Sayyaf is still strong enough to kill so many Philippine soldiers—and to continue holding 20 foreigners as hostages—suggest that I was deceived about the apparent success of the task force?

That is the contention of Zachary Abuza, a specialist on Southeast Asian security issues at the National War College in Washington. He told the Wall Street Journal: “My assessment is that [the U.S. training program] has been an absolute waste of money and a terrible investment: $50 million a year since 2002 with very little to show for it.”

I think that’s too harsh. A recent RAND study finds that the Philippine operation achieved real results. According to RAND, enemy-initiated attacks in Abu Sayyaf’s three primary areas of operation—the islands of Basilan, Sulu, and Tawi-Tawi—”declined 56 percent between 2000 and 2012,” while the number of Abu Sayyaf fighters declined either from 1,270 to 437 (the Philippine armed forces’ figures) or from 2,200 to 400 (the State Department’s figures). Perhaps the greatest achievement is that there has been no repeat of mass-casualty attacks such as the 2004 bombing of a Manila ferry that killed 116 people.

Still, it’s discouraging that Abu Sayyaf retains significant military capabilities despite a decade of efforts from the Philippine and U.S. armed forces. What accounts for this failure to eradicate the group?

Several factors can be cited, starting with the fact that all entrenched insurgent groups take a long time to defeat (an average of 10 years). The southern Philippine islands have long been a hotbed of discontent among the minority Muslims against the government in Manila, which has always been dominated by Christians, whether under Spanish, American, or Philippine rule. Young Captain John J. Pershing was fighting “Moros” (as Philippine Muslims are called) in the early years of the 20th century and the war has never entirely gone away. Although progress has been made toward addressing Muslim grievances, and a peace deal was reached with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in 2012, an insurgency with roots more than 500 years old won’t be wiped out overnight.

Perhaps the biggest factor holding back the push against Abu Sayyaf, however, is simply the corruption and incompetence of the Philippine government. What modern Philippines has lacked is a dynamic leader like Ramon Magsaysay, president from 1953 until his death in 1957. With help from his American adviser, Edward Lansdale, he masterminded the defeat of the Huk Rebellion, a Communist insurgency, by curbing governmental corruption and military abuse of the population. (Alvaro Uribe produced similarly impressive results with a remarkably similar approach in Colombia from 2002 to 2010.)

Lacking another Magsaysay, the Philippines has had to make do with lesser lights. President Joseph Estrada was forced out of office by massive protests in 2001 after facing impeachment on corruption charges. His successor, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, was arrested after leaving office on charges of electoral fraud and corruption. Benigno Aquino III, president since 2010, is generally seen as more honest but he has had limited success in rooting out the entrenched culture of corruption in Philippine politics, which goes back to Spanish colonial times.

The Philippines still places 95 (out of 167) in Transparency International’s global ranking of corruption. And it’s not just corruption that’s a problem but lack of governmental capacity in general. I remember visiting a cabinet minister’s office in Manila and finding no toilet paper in his bathroom. A government that can’t reliably stock the bathrooms of cabinet ministers, I thought, is not going to be able to marshal the kind of combined civil-military offensive necessary to defeat an insurgency.

That is no knock on the U.S. special operators who worked hard and achieved some success in enhancing Philippine counterterrorist capabilities. What the Philippine example suggests is that military-to-military assistance is not enough. Counterinsurgency has often been described as a “governance contest”—a test of whether the government or the rebels are better at administering territory. But while the U.S. military sent some of its best “operators” to advise the Philippine military, the U.S. government did not make a similar effort to advise the Philippine government how to up its game. The United States has made the same mistake in countries such as Mali and Yemen, which helps to explain why military-assistance missions there failed so spectacularly—there was no political infrastructure to support the operations undertaken by American-trained soldiers.

Unless the United States can do more to enhance the overall effectiveness of its allies in the war on terror, it will be hardpressed to win lasting victories. But that would require devoting more resources to nation-building, a term that is anathema in Washington—decried in equal measure by Barack Obama and Ted Cruz.