Insurgency is the struggle for control over “political space”.
How can we characterize this internal conflict between the Government and the MILF? The internal conflict with the MILF is essentially a “struggle for control over a contested space” in Mindanao. This war for “contested political space” which the MILF calls the “Bangsamoro Homeland” is being waged on different levels – international, regional, national and local, on different fields – in the battlefields, in TV, radio, on the internet, etc., on different media, and on different scales.
It is waged through the use of social networks (clans, family, community, political and religious affiliations) and exist in a complex social, informational and physical environment. It has been aptly called: “war amongst the people”.
This struggle then is clearly a political struggle which requires a political action. It is not however solely military one. In fact, if I may say when our counterinsurgency operations is predominantly military, that is a signal that our campaign is not doing well.
This contested political space is not a “geographical area” only, although the demand for territory is a practical consequence of this contest. More fundamentally, it refers to the “heart and minds” of the people. We are fighting for the loyalty of the people everytime and all the time. The prize is the people. Yes, the Bangsamoro people. Do not forget that – the prize is the people. Always. Thus, there can be no such thing as burning the village to free it from insurgents. The village, the people themselves is the prize.
The theater of conflict as a complex system.
If we go today to the conflict-affected areas in Mindanao in Central Mindanao, what do we see? We will see that the “theater of operations”, to use military parlance, is a complex system composed of multiple independent and interlinked actors with multiple agenda and interests, interacting and competing with each other for survival, hegemony and control of the envirionment. It is at the edge of chaos. In a sense, no one is in control of the situation. The complex situation is the sum and more of the interactions and decisions of the multiple actors within the theater of operations.
Thus, if we go Shariff Aguak this morning, we would find the following multiple actors: Philippine security forces, local police units, CVOs, SCAAs, MILF base commands, Abu Sayyaf members, foreign terrorists, members of Al Qaeda, private armed groups, kidnap for ransom groups, international forces like the uniformed personnel of Malaysia, Brunei, Libya (and soon from Norway and Indonesia), US soldiers participating in training, MNLF, MILF lost commands, warring politicians, drug lords, workers from international humanitarian organizations like the UNHCR, ICRC, Non-Violent Peace Force, World Food Program, absent local government officials, national government officials, civil society groups, media, human rights and non-violence monitoring groups, etc.
One can get the impression that it is a really messed-up situation. Multi-actors, multi-agenda, failing local governments in a situation of multiple social problems – competition over scarce resources like land, the prevalence of “rido” or inter-clan conflict, competition for political office, the proliferation of illegal drugs, etc.
Indeed, this is not anymore your usual conflict. The wars in our minds are industrial inter-state wars with armies on each side and fighting each other in a demarcated geographical space. This is not the reality of the conflict in Mindanao.
For instance, in Mindanao, most probably you would not know who the enemy is. He does not wear specialized uniform or badge that identifies him from the rest of the population. That he bears a firearm is not a good indicator. Almost everyone there has a gun or two. It is part of the culture. Secondly, there are no standing armies to speak of, there are no “camps”. The camps that the rebels talk about are communities. The insurgents are embedded in the communities. Thus, the usual concept of reintegration will not work. They are farmers and fisherfolks by day and “armies” when needed. They are effectively demobilized and only mobilized for action.
Lt. Gen. Raymundo “Ding” Ferrer, now Commanding General of the Eastern Mindanao Command, once told me the practical dilemma of soldiers when they enter a community in pursuit of so-called “lawless MILF groups”. He said: “When you enter a muslim community in hot pursuit of a rebels and people begin scampering for safety and you see a man running away with an armalite in his hands. You immediately ask yourself a question: is he a rebel or not? Should I shoot him?” On one hand, if the soldier shoots and the man turns out to be a civilian, human rights is violated and the soldier will be pilloried for it. On the other hand, if he does not engage and the running man turns out to be a rebel, he puts himself and co-soldiers in danger. These practical problems are matters of life and death for both civilians and soldiers.
Some of actors in this complex situation, especially the armed ones, are constantly adapting and learning in order to “control” the situation. For example, since most of the rebels are on the run, they could not feed their families. So what happens is that most of the families of the MILF are in IDP camps, receiving food aid and other humanitarian assistance. These families, in turn, share the food and/or the medicines provided to them in the camps to their family members who are members of the MILF. This is the reason why government forces discover these stuff in MILF camps. It is but natural for humanitarian aid to seep to the MILF. One cannot stop family members from taking care of each other. What then should we do? Should we ask that humanitarian aid be stopped? Should we impound all aid until a clear system is in place that will check if insurgents benefit indirectly from humanitarian assistance? Should we brand IDPs as “reserve forces of the MILF” as one senior military official in Central Mindanao mistakenly did, which statements were broadcast by Al Jazherra, for all the Islamic world to see. Or should we just cordon off the people, place them in hamlets?. These are real problems on the ground.
It is important to remember that the multiple actors on the ground take advantage of networks and relationships to attain their objectives. These networks include government, ethnic, tribal, clan or community relations. That “family”, “clan” and “religious” networks define the relationships of the people on the ground is not hard to prove. It is not rare to find a rebel who is related to a local government official who, in turn, is related to a member of the Abu Sayyaf. The identity lines of insurgent, government, terrorist, and civilians are “porous” and “blurred” in these areas. (To be continued)