High Hopes for Philippine Peace Plan


(U.S. News & World Report)

The Philippine flag

photo by happy via/Flickr.com

by Molly Dunigan

December 6, 2012

A month after the announcement of a potentially historic peace deal between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the two sides continue to iron out the details, one of the negotiators has already picked up an award for his efforts, and, most importantly, peace still reigns.

The agreement promises to end an almost 30-year-old insurgency by the Islamic separatist group by enlarging the autonomous region in Mindanao and increasing its political and economic power. If the promise is ultimately met, considerable credit would be due to the Philippine government for handling the conflict in ways which, careful study of past counterinsurgencies shows, improved the odds for success.

The Moro Islamic Liberation Front was created in 1984 as an Islamic outgrowth of the more secular Moro National Liberation Front, which formed in the early 1970s. In 1996, the National Front reached a negotiated settlement with the Philippine government that created the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao. The new peace agreement aims to expand this area into a larger region called Bangsamoro.

While both the National Liberation Front and the Islamic Liberation Front are Muslim separatist movements, the Islamic Front is more extremist and, until now, had been unwilling to accept anything less than a fully independent state in Muslim Mindanao.

This is not the first peace agreement to be negotiated between the Philippine government and the Islamic Front. Indeed, the two parties have engaged in on-again, off-again peace talks since 1986 (with the National Front taking the lead in negotiations prior to 1996). Numerous ceasefires have been negotiated (and broken), and a peace agreement was drafted in 2008, only to be declared unconstitutional by the Philippine Supreme Court.

The Moro Islamic Liberation Front is not the only insurgent group still operating in the Philippines. The country currently contends with both a violent communist insurgency (the New People's Army) and an Islamic terrorist movement with ties to Al Qaeda (the Abu Sayyaf Group).

The government has successfully used a combination of counterinsurgency strategies against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in recent years, raising expectations that the new peace deal will also succeed—and in a manner that favors the government's interests.

A 2010 RAND study of 30 recent counterinsurgencies, Victory Has a Thousand Fathers: Sources of Success in Counterinsurgency, indicated that "effective counterinsurgency practices tend to run in packs." The study's authors developed a scorecard of 15 good and 12 bad counterinsurgency practices that perfectly discriminates the historical cases into wins and losses, with obvious implications for future counterinsurgency efforts. "Good" practices included incorporating strategic communication strategies, reducing tangible support to insurgents, avoiding collateral damage, and winning over the population in the area of conflict. "Bad" counterinsurgency practices, in contrast, included collective punishment, resettlement of the population, and coercion or intimidation.

A quick tally reveals that the Philippine government's recent counterinsurgency strategy against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front has consisted of predominantly "good" practices (12 good practices and only three bad practices, for a score of +9). To put this score into perspective, all of the historical counterinsurgency forces that won scored a 5 or higher. In the Philippines, those good counterinsurgency practices include the government's use of strategic communication, campaigns to win popular support, and efforts to reduce tangible support to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

Nonetheless, the Philippine government had to make concessions. Perhaps most importantly, the agreement gives Mindanao's 4 million Muslims a share of the proceeds generated by the region's as-yet-untapped mineral wealth.

The government will face numerous hurdles in bringing the Bangsamoro region into existence by the target date of 2016. Yet if we believe that history is the best predictor of success in counterinsurgency, the Philippine government has reason to be optimistic.

Molly Dunigan is a political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.

This commentary originally appeared on U.S. News & World Report on December 6, 2012. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.