Imperial Grunts

With the Army Special Forces in the Philippines and Afghanistan—laboratories of counterinsurgency

As I continued around the island over the next few days, especially in the Muslim region of Tipo-Tipo, to the southeast, local Muslim officials were openly grateful toward the U.S. military for the wells, schools, and clinics that had been built, but critical of their own government in Manila for corruption and for not providing funds for development. True or not, this was the perception.

In southern Basilan the material intensity of Islamic culture became overpowering for the first time on my journey south, with a profusion of headscarves, prayer beads, signs for halal food, and a grand new mosque in Tipo-Tipo, paid for, it was said, by Arabian Gulf countries. I had entered an Islamic continuum, in which the Indonesian islands of Java, Borneo, and Sumatra seemed closer than Luzon.

Though I would learn more about Operation Enduring Freedom, one thing was already obvious: America could not change the vast forces of history and culture that had placed a poor Muslim region at the southern edge of a badly governed, Christian-run archipelago nation. All America could do was insert its armed forces here and there, as unobtrusively as possible, to alleviate perceived threats to its own security when they became particularly acute. And because such insertions were often in fragile Third World democracies, with colonial pasts and prickly senses of national pride, U.S. forces had to operate under very restrictive rules of engagement.

Humanitarian assistance may not be the weapon of choice for Pentagon hardliners, who prefer to hunt down and kill "bad guys" through direct action rather than dig wells and build schools—projects that in any case are possibly unsustainable, because national governments like that of the Philippines lack the resolve to pick up where the United States leaves off. I had the distinct sense that the work of Special Forces on Basilan had merely raised expectations—ones the government in Manila would be unable to meet. But nineteenth-century-style colonialism is simply impractical, and the very spread of democracy for which America struggles means that it can no longer operate without license. An approach that informally combines humanitarianism with intelligence gathering in order to achieve low-cost partial victories is what imperialism in the early twenty-first century demands.

The Basilan operation was a case of American troops' applying lessons and techniques learned from their experience of occupation in the Philippines a hundred years before. Although the invasion and conquest of the Philippine Islands from 1898 to 1913 became infamous to posterity for its human-rights violations, those violations were but one aspect of a larger military situation that featured individual garrison commanders pacifying remote rural areas with civil-affairs projects that separated the local population from the insurgents. It is that second legacy of which the U.S. military rightly remains proud, and from which it draws lessons in this new imperial age of small wars.

The most crucial tactical lesson of the Philippines war is that the smaller the unit, and the farther forward it is deployed among the indigenous population, the more it can accomplish. This is a lesson that turns imperial overstretch on its head. Though one big deployment like that in Iraq can overstretch our military, deployments in many dozens of countries involving relatively small numbers of highly trained people will not.

But the Basilan intervention is more pertinent as a model for future operations elsewhere than for what it finally achieved. For example, if the United States and Pakistan are ever to pacify the radicalized tribal agencies of the Afghan-Pakistani borderlands, it will have to be through a variation on how Special Forces operated in Basilan; direct action alone will not be enough.

Moreover, as free societies gain ground around the world, the U.S. military is going to be increasingly restricted in terms of how it operates. An age of democracy means an age of frustratingly narrow rules of engagement. That is because fledgling democratic governments, besieged by young and aggressive local media, will find it politically difficult—if not impossible—to allow American troops on their soil to engage in direct action.

Iraq and Afghanistan are rare examples where restrictive rules of engagement do not apply. But in most other cases U.S. troops will be deployed to bolster democratic governments rather than to topple authoritarian ones. Therefore unconventional warfare in the Philippines provides a better guidepost for our military than direct action in Iraq and Afghanistan.


By the time I left the Philippines, the postwar consolidations of Iraq and Afghanistan were in jeopardy. Both the Pentagon and the American public had thought in terms of a decisive victory. Yet the fact that more U.S. soldiers had been killed by shadowy Iraqi gunmen after the dismantling of Saddam Hussein's regime than during the war itself indicated that the real war over Iraq's future was being fought now, and Operation Iraqi Freedom of 2003 had merely shaped the battle space for it.

In Afghanistan, too, a rapid and seemingly decisive military victory had been followed by a dirty and bloody peace. Small-scale eruptions of combat, with few enemy troops visible, were now a permanent feature of the landscape. They were something the United States would have to get used to, whichever party occupied the White House.

Warlordism, always strong in Afghanistan, had been bolstered in recent decades by the diffuse nature of the mujahideen rebellion against the Soviets, the destruction wrought by fighting among the mujahideen following the Soviet departure, and the bureaucratic incompetence of the Taliban itself, which was more an ideological movement than a governing apparatus. An Afghan state barely existed even before the U.S. invasion of October 2001. Thus, barring some catastrophe such as the fall of a major town to a reconstituted Taliban, or the assassination of President Hamid Karzai, discerning success or failure would be a subtler enterprise in Afghanistan than in Iraq. The continued turmoil in the greater Middle East, and my desire to observe Army Special Forces in a more varied role than what I saw in the Philippines, led me on a two-month journey to Afghanistan in the fall of 2003.

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Robert D. Kaplan is a correspondent for The Atlantic. This article, part of an Atlantic series, will appear in somewhat different form in Imperial Grunts: The American Military on the Ground, to be published this month by Random House.

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