US-Sponsored Low Intensity Conflict in the Philippines

Walden Bello | 12.01.1987

By Walden Bello, December 1987, Development Report No. 2


Recent dramatic events in the Philippines have underlined the volatile, revolutionary process that is underway in the country. The U.S. response has been to mount a major effort to stabilize the government of President Corazon Aquino and intensify its campaign to contain the escalating insurgency of the New People’s Army (NPA). The U.S. establishment sees itself as having vital stakes in the Philippines, the most important of which are two of the largest U.S. overseas bases, Subic Naval Base and Clark Air Base. But beyond this, the U.S. elite has long considered its relationship with the Philippines, a former colony, as a “special relationship” that justifies a more pervasive intervention in that country’s internal affairs than in most other third world countries. In short, Washington still regards the Philippines as a part of U.S. territory that can never be allowed to “go red.”

This report examines the strategies of low intensity conflict (LIC) or counterinsurgency that the United States has employed in the Philippines since the turn of the century. U.S. LIC strategy in the Philippines has developed through four major confrontations: the U.S. colonization of the Philippines, 1899,1903; the campaign to defeat the Huk insurgency from 1950 to 1953; the struggle to contain the New People’s Army (NPA) during the Marcos period from 1966 to 1986; and the current counterinsurgency effort fronted by the Aquino government and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).

While the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy during the colonization campaign was to rely on massive military repression, later efforts to contain rising insurgencies emphasized political initiatives aimed at defusing discontent. A counterinsurgency strategy using political and ideological initiatives was developed during the campaign against the Huk guerrillas in the early 1950s. Instrumental in this process was Edward Lansdale, an influential CIA operative. This study examines in detail the components of Lansdale’s strategy. We call his approach the “strategy of the Third Force” because its main feature was the creation of a populist, reformist alternative—Ramon Magsaysay—to both the right and left. Other elements of the strategy were fair elections, the promise of land reform, and military “civic action.” While political reforms were emphasized, the “streamlining” of the armed forces as an effective repressive force was nevertheless not neglected. The Huks were eventually crushed, but the striking feature of their defeat was that they were first beaten politically, then destroyed militarily.

In short, Washington still regards the Philippines as a part of U.S. territory that can never be allowed to “go red.”

During the Marcos period, 1966-86, emphasis on containing insurgency shifted back to the military solution. The United States had no substantial direct hand in containing the rise of the New People’s Army (NPA), and it largely limited its support to providing military aid to a military establishment that quadrupled in size in less than a decade. To counter the NPA, counterinsurgency tactics borrowed from Vietnam, like strategic hamletting, were employed. But with the political legitimacy and credibility of the Marcos regime severely eroded, military repression simply created more and more alienation in the populace.

As the NPA threat to U.S. interests became magnified and the Marcos regime was increasingly isolated, influential sectors of the U.S. national security bureaucracy were able to successfully transform U.S. policy from supporting Marcos to cutting him loose. This reorientation was part of a larger reorientation of counterinsurgency strategy from one based principally on escalating force to one that put the priority on political initiatives. Tactics employed during the Lansdale-Magsaysay period reappeared: for example, pushing the corrupt regime to loosen its grip on political power; free elections; reform in the military; and, finally, supporting a “centrist” alternative to both the right and the left—Corazon Aquino.

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Since the ouster of Marcos, the thrust of U.S. policy has been to assist in the consolidation of the Aquino government and the institutionalization of formal democratic institutions. The Third Force strategy is, however, threatened by several factors, including the military’s lack of any desire to reform, the rise of death squads, and the Aquino government’s inability to deliver basic economic reforms. Very damaging is the continuing failure of the civilian government and the military to achieve consensus on a counterinsurgency approach.

In a very real sense the current battle is merely “round four” of the confrontation between the U.S. imperial power and Philippine nationalism that began in 1898. Threading through the continuing conflict has been the insurgents’ goal of liberating the country from domination by the United States. When the nationalist element is joined to the lower classes’ struggle for land and equality, as it has been in the Philippines, then the revolutionary enterprise has turned out to be both explosive and enduring. And the costs of mounting a counterinsurgency campaign are getting progressively higher.

U.S. intervention in the Philippines, also has a broader significance in third world affairs. Given its status as a quasi-colony, the Philippines has, in the past, enjoyed the dubious distinction of serving as America’s principal proving ground for developing and testing strategies and tactics for low intensity conflict (LIC). America’s first major overseas LIC engagement, the Philippine-American War, allowed the U.S. Army free rein to develop and test a variety of counterinsurgency tactics that are still emulated today. Fifty years later, in the early 1950s, there was an effort to transfer to Vietnam some of the lessons that the United States had gained in the struggle against the Huk guerrillas in the Philippines. Today, the Philippines, together with Central America, serves as a laboratory for experimenting with LIC tactics, which have been revitalized and revised after the debacle in Vietnam.