The Problem of Control in Mindanao

The restive Philippine island of Mindanao was thrust back into the spotlight last week when President Rodrigo Duterte declared a period of martial law. The city of Marawi fell to the militants of the Islamic State-aligned Maute Group, an insurgency connected with the longer-running Moro Islamic Liberation Front in Mindanao. While President Duterte’s motivations for declaring martial law lie as much in consolidating power at the expense of democratic institutions, the violence in Mindanao goes beyond such a pretext for his law and order regime.

The battle for Marawi is far from the first episode of religious separatist violence in Mindanao. Why have separatist groups persisted in the large southern island for decades, defying government efforts to quell violence in the region? The answer lies with the microfoundations of violence: control and civilian cooperation in civil conflict.

The Philippine military faces a daunting task in retaking urban areas in which insurgent fighters are embedded, such as Marawi. To a much greater extent than conventional warfare, urban counterinsurgency must be conducted with surgical precision to avoid negative side effects. To target insurgent fighters with precision, the military requires high-quality intelligence. Intelligence, in turn, comes from either military infiltrators or civilian informers. However, when the military struggles to assert control over a restive region such as Mindanao, it cannot guarantee protection of civilian informers from insurgents, making intelligence flows unreliable.

With the resulting imperfect information, the military makes mistakes. Faulty intelligence on the ground can doom operations before they start. Civilians suffer the most from these strategic breakdowns, often getting caught in the crossfire or targeted in airstrikes with inaccurate coordinates. The Philippine military has already inadvertently killed civilians in the Mindanao campaign. Civilian casualties, besides being human rights violations, may undermine the military by provoking retaliatory violence. A civil conflict spiral results.

If the Philippine military fails to control Marawi swiftly, then further civilian casualties and a resulting long, gruesome siege appears likely. In the uncertain, fragmented civil conflict environment, the alternative of a negotiated settlement is highly unlikely. Basic humanitarian cease fires in Marawi have already fallen apart over the weekend. Meanwhile, Mindanao insurgencies will continue to undermine the government through sabotaging development projects.

What options are available to the Philippine government? The government can choose from a mixture of “hard” military solutions and “soft” heart-and-minds solutions. President Duterte’s declaration of martial law and threat to extend it across the entire country draws exclusively from “hard” solutions straight from the Marcos dictatorship playbook. Meanwhile, state security forces operate with impunity, egged on by the President Duterte himself. Even if the military asserts control in Mindanao and drives out this iteration of Islamist insurgency, it will be a Pyrrhic victory.

Any short-term “hard” military gain without a concomitant “soft” conflict resolution effort will destroy relationships with civilians, undermine government control, and let local grievances fester. Mindanao, being a remote region composed of a religious minority, is particularly vulnerable to these grievances being converted into collective challenges to government authority. Insurgencies such as the Maute Group have recurred on and off for decades in Mindanao, and the latest round of military action shows no signs of laying the foundations for a lasting peace.

Duterte could win this battle, but he set himself up to lose the war.


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