Two US soldiers were dead in a flash. An IED had exploded as they supervised a humanitarian project, killing them and a Filipino Marine in late September. Their deaths went unnoticed during the clamor over Afghanistan, an advantage Operation Enduring Freedom - Philippines (OEF-P) silently exploits as long as it can.
America, in a complete reverse, has muffled international publicity of its success.
US officials don’t do so only to apply a soft touch to the Moro insurgency, rooted in the Philippines' Islamic population on its second largest island group, Mindanao. The counterinsurgency, despite its progress, needs another ten years or more of OEF-P, launched soon after 9/11.
The resource gulf is astronomical.
According to the U.S. embassy in Manila, Iraq rings up $100 billion a year, Afghanistan $90 billion and counting. The Philippines costs US taxpayers $52 million, a bargain insurgency. Yet this disparity cannot stop one from wondering, if the Philippines needs another decade or more of counterinsurgency, how could Afghanistan possibly be finished any sooner?
If counterinsurgency is an inherently slow process, why put 18 month markers - or any timeframe for that matter - on fighting the Taliban? That’s their game. If the argument is that Afghans - and President Obama - need a deadline to motivate them, the natural counter-argument is what happens if and when they don’t meet it? Obama will be in a deeper hole then.
Contrary to his argument, alternate strategies did and still exist: increasing a deployment beyond 40,000 US troops to conduct unlimited counterinsurgency, or freezing and eventually phasing out militarily while simultaneously adopting a diplomatic, regional-centric approach.
These strategies aren't extremes on the counterinsurgency spectrums, but separate spectrums of counterinsurgency. Obama chose the middle of one spectrum - limited counterinsurgency - not the best of all possible options to the world's preeminent insurgency.
His speech at West Point focused mainly on US troop levels, what he’ll do to get them out, and when they’ll come home. Besides a small gesture to Pakistan the perception is that Obama still chose a military solution, in part because of his hardheaded approach towards Islamabad. And because America is likely to lack deciding military force to implement effective nation-building, the cycle of war is set to protract.
More troops could be necessary if the Afghan National Army and especially the police lags like many realistically expect. At the very least an American withdrawal will be more symbolic than substantial.
Many analysts at the time were disturbed that Obama eschewed mention of a super-regional, diplomatic approach to Afghanistan when hotspots are flaring up around he world. US Special-Ops and al-Qaeda race to Yemen and Somalia while Obama leans on Lebanon to disarm Hezbollah before Israel invades again. Hamas is arming to break the blockade, among other plans. Sri Lanka’s defeated Tamils are regrouping under Maoist banners, further marginalized by the recent election. LeT is networking with al-Qaeda in Kashmir and Naxalites in India.
A Nigerian flying al-Qaeda's flag tried to blow up a US airplane on Christmas.
Nor is everything swell in the Philippines despite an ebb in the insurgency, which couldn't sustain its mass mobilization of the 1970's and 80's. Guerrillas don't die easily though, that's their nature. Mindanao, home to six Islamic and Maoist groups and awash in guns, witnessed an extraordinary amount of activity in late 2009.
First a disputed martial law was imposed in Maguindanao, a province in the , to quell an alleged rebellion by the Ampatuan clan, blamed for a massacre weeks prior. Then an unrelated communist militia took over 50 hostages in the Agusan del Sur province before releasing them.
Anywhere a guerrilla prison break occurs is a good sign of a robust insurgency. Al Jazeera reported up to 100 militants easily outgunned the few prison guards, an operation still under investigation. Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the largest insurgent group on Mindanao, denied responsibility but has attracted suspicion after five of its members escaped.
Abu Sayyaf, an al-Qaeda affiliated group, is the more likely culprit after 12 of its member escaped. It is also responsible for the deaths of the only two US casualties, two "Seabee" Naval engineers, in the last seven years.
The official story is that US forces are legally bound to self defense, who operate in a mentor position. Then again reports suspect otherwise.
Such a density of events suggests insurgency on Mindanao has plenty of life left in it. Though they aren’t necessarily working in sync, the actors behind each event are combining to overload the government's ability to deal with the total war. In the same way, global insurgencies are combining to overload America’s resources and attention.
America must develop a global full-spectrum counterinsurgency, one based on long-term political trends and cultural nuance, magnified by humanitarian operations, and backstopped by military force. At this moment, despite moderate success in Iraq and the pile al-Qaeda bodies, it's still an insurgent's world.
So are we supposed to be inquisitive or exasperated, in awe or terror?
The scale tips both ways. The collective conflict being waged, loosely connected but nevertheless intertwined, will grind into the 21st century. Stamping any time on Afghanistan is thus a short-term gamble with long-term consequences. Operation Enduring Freedom - Philippines only works because it's open ended and low-key.
Afghanistan is the opposite setup, a distressing sign.
At the same time global insurgencies are being waged to many varying degrees. Does not the US military have an opportunity to study a variety of counterinsurgency strategies? Shouldn’t some methods emerge superior? No doubt the Pentagon has vaults of comparative data already being computed in a dark basement.
All the more reason to do our own research.