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At the beginning of the 20th century, the U.S. defeated the Philippine insurgency eventually leading the Philippines toward a democratic state and independence. Today, the U.S. finds itself embroiled in an ongoing counterinsurgency (COIN) campaign in Iraq that bears similarities to the Philippine War (1898-1902). Several lessons can be extracted from both conflicts to avoid making the same mistakes while building and executing a more effective and expeditious COIN campaign in the future.
The U.S. has been involved in several COIN campaigns, both successful and unsuccessful. One successful campaign was the Philippine War. The expulsion of the Spanish from the Philippine Islands by the U.S. sparked an insurgency once the Filipino people realized that the U.S. was unwilling to leave the country and allow them self-governance. Similarities between that war and the ongoing Iraq conflict include: initial presidential policy regarding each country; the rapid establishment of U.S. military dominance; the early declaration of victory; a failure to immediately recognize the presence of an insurgency; insurgent tactics; lack of available U.S. troops; cultural issues; stability and support operations (SSO), and the underestimation by the U.S. of the occupied country's strength and willpower. (1)
U.S. Presidential Policy and Expectations
The initial situation was the same in both the Philippines and Iraq--both conflicts involved presidents who attempted to justify the U.S. occupation of a foreign country to improve human rights and because each country was strategically important, while others claimed it was imperialistic. In the Philippine War, President McKinley believed that the Filipinos would be grateful to the U.S. for liberating the country from the Spanish, and thus have little to no objection to a U.S. presence in the country as it attempted to build a democracy. Both Presidents McKinley and Bush had the goal of creating democracies in strategic locations allied to U.S. interests (2) however both were dealing with countries unaccustomed to democratic rule and populations opposed to an occupation force. (3) These circumstances led to the development of an insurgency in both situations.
Similar too, is the shared belief that the military defeat and occupation of the capital would lead to automatic authority over the rest of the country. (4) In both conflicts, major combat operations were rapidly concluded with minimal U.S. casualties. (5) Presidents Bush and McKinley both declared victory early, after the defeat of the capital but before the rest of the country was secure. (6) Our government believed that overwhelming military defeat combined with a population grateful to be freed from oppressive rule would result in the entire population falling in line behind the U.S., ready to become a democracy. Instead, it was viewed as an unwanted occupation force resulting in an insurgency attempting to expel U.S. troops from each country. In both cases, the U.S. was pulled into a violent COIN campaign. (7)
Adding to the struggle was the initial U.S. failure to realize an insurgency had developed, therefore failing to deploy the troops necessary to overcome the insurgency. In 1899, the U.S. was unable to capitalize on the confusion in the Filipino ranks after the removal of the Spanish because they were in the middle of a relief in place, awaiting reinforcements. The initial 26,000 troops were unable to hold the territory they had moved so quickly through during their initial action to take Manila. This left the area clear for Filipino rebels to take over. (8)
This also occurred in 2003, when the U.S. moved rapidly towards Baghdad, leaving the rest of the country open for insurgents to take hold of and control certain areas. In both conflicts, U.S. troops would fight in a certain area, occupy a town or city, then withdraw to another area, allowing insurgent forces to retake the area they had just left. (9) Also, in both cases, the U.S. government failed to plan for the possibility of an insurgency and thus failed to deploy enough troops at the outset to conduct successful COIN operations, and deny the insurgency a chance to grow. More significantly, in the case of Iraq, the U.S. failed to persuade NATO, the United Nations, and many of its Allies to join the coalition, resulting in fewer numbers of troops and perceived legitimacy. The U.S. planned to invade and occupy Iraq with 130,000 U.S. troops and 25,000 British troops which was not enough to handle the state of lawlessness and the power vacuum that erupted after the removal of Saddam Hussein. (10) In both situations, our government failed to realize the quantity of troops it would take to pacify a country from which the ruling power had been abruptly removed, allowing the insurgencies to take root unopposed, in each country.
In both the Philippines and Iraq, the U.S. underestimated the strength and willpower of the insurgents. During the Philippine conflict, the U.S. government believed that over time the insurgency would die on its own due to internal conflict and discouragement among the rebels. In both conflicts, the U.S. believed the initial violence of the insurgents to be that of the last fighters of a dying regime rather than an insurgent uprising. (11)
Insurgent tactics were similar in both conflicts. In the Philippines, the rebel leader, Emilio Aguinaldo, encouraged the rebels to attack U.S. troops, then blend back into the civilian population, never becoming decisively engaged. (12) This is similar to the use of improvised explosive devices and sniper shootings in Iraq, the insurgents fight at a distance. They know that the U.S. is a superior military power. Instead of facing U.S. troops directly, they attack and then hide, creating instability and fear. This tactic grants them safety and time allowing them to continue harassing attacks until the U.S. gets frustrated and withdraws from the country. (13) In both conflicts, the insurgents conducted criminal activities, attacked …