For some years after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the existence of violent Muslim separatists on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao gave U.S. officials significant cause for concern. In 2005, for example, the U.S. embassy charge d’affaires to the Philippines, Joseph Mussomeli, told reporters that “certain portions of Mindanao are so lawless, so porous…that you run the risk of it becoming like an Afghanistan situation. Mindanao is almost, forgive the poor religious pun, the new Mecca for terrorism.” During the Bush administration, officials referred to the region as a “second front” in the War on Terror: the region was once seen as a “new Afghanistan” that “threatened to become an epicenter of Al Qaeda.” [Video Below]
Nevertheless, as noted by Wilson Center Fellow Patricio Abinales at an Asia Program event on May 11, U.S. efforts to co-opt and pacify separatist guerrillas have proven remarkably successful in some areas of the islands. Some commentators have highlighted the role of the U.S. military in bringing a relative sense of security to troubled regions, noting that Mindanao presents a “future model for counterinsurgency.” However, Abinales’s research shows the military activities have had little effect, often because troops are stationed far from potential areas of conflict. Instead, it is the civilian side of the American presence that has dampened conflict in the war zones of the southern Philippines.
Abinales specifically explored the factors behind the success of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Growth with Equity in Mindanao (GEM) program in demobilizing and reintegrating 28,000 separatist guerrillas of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), as well as the long-term political consequences of this accomplishment.
“Arms to Farms”
Usually, USAID programs are organized on the basis of grants for specific and limited projects. In contrast, GEM arose as a long-term umbrella organization that oversees the disbursement and management of American funding across a number of long-term projects. Coordinators are trained directly in Mindanao and are encouraged to “go native,” living in the area and becoming part of the community. GEM prioritizes cultural understanding, respect for community leaders, an appreciation of the important role that women play in local societies, and sensitivity to potential divisions within separatist groups and their security concerns vis-à-vis the Philippine government.
There has often been a general tendency for aid organizations to associate the demobilization of warring groups with disarmament. While Philippine officials on Mindanao have sometimes tried this approach, cash-for-guns amnesty schemes have opened up opportunities for corruption and have not been particularly effective. Understanding that one of the major concerns of guerrilla rebels is exploitation by corrupt government officials, GEM established an “Arms to Farms” scheme, whereby Muslim rebels are trained to engage in agriculture, but are not encouraged to put away their weapons. In this way, the program keeps potential guerrillas and Al Qaeda recruits busy with legitimate and peaceful economic activity, while it assuages their concerns about the threat from corrupt government officials, who may otherwise take the fruits of agricultural labor by force.
In fact, Abinales noted that one of the keys to GEM’s success is that the organization has never submitted to the official local authorities, and has largely been allowed a free reign by Manila to conduct its activities on Mindanao. It is precisely because the state has not been successful in delivering welfare regimes which provide stability to the area that GEM is seen as an alternate source of development and security in the region. Moreover, because of GEM’s activities, other American officials are allowed relatively free access, and are even welcomed into areas where the authority of the Philippine government holds no sway. Most of GEM’s activities are conducted with the MNLF, which has maintained its own official treaties and agreements with Manila since the 1970s. However, the American organization is beginning to enter the territory of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, a splinter group of the MNLF that rejects relations with the national government outright, but one whose leaders are jealous of the development gains the MNLF has made under GEM.
Abinales was quick to point out that although GEM’s activities have been successful, they are tailor-made to specific circumstances. It is therefore difficult to present them as a generalized model that can be applied to other separatist conflicts. Nevertheless, Abinales’s work suggests that government agencies working on counterinsurgency efforts elsewhere might do well to examine the benefits of the flexible civilian approaches to conflict resolution formed with a deep understanding of the concerns of the specific communities involved.
Bryce Wakefield is program associate with the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center.