U.S. Counterinsurgency in Iraq: Lessons from the Philippine War
Tom Donnelly & Vance Serchuk
November 3, 2003

This piece first appeared in the America Enterprise Institute's National Security Outlook.

The strategy of guerrilla war is to pit one man against ten, but the tactic is to pit ten men against one.--Mao Tse-Tung

Since sweeping Saddam Hussein's regime from power this spring, U.S. forces in Iraq have been confronted by an amorphous guerrilla resistance, concentrated around the so-called Sunni Triangle. While growing numbers of Iraqis are working with coalition soldiers, provisional authorities, and international aid workers to lay the foundations for a democratic society, insurgents are waging a determined campaign of terror against them. To prevail, the U.S. military must develop an effective counterinsurgency strategy. History offers several precedents on how to do so.

In conceptualizing the complex set of tactical and strategic challenges posed by postwar Iraq, "counterinsurgency" has always been a popular buzzword. In fact, it was only a few days after coalition tanks rolled across the Kuwaiti border in March that a British fusilier on the road to Basra warned the Washington Post that the conflict "has taken on more of a counterinsurgency feel."[1]

With American soldiers repeatedly ambushed in the areas around Baghdad this summer, the Pentagon also began to reorient its postwar operations toward counterinsurgency. In June and July, it launched a series of large-scale raids--Operation Peninsula Strike, Operation Desert Scorpion, and Operation Soda Mountain--designed to seize weapons caches, demolish guerrilla infrastructure, and prevent Baathists from regrouping. Implicit in the sweeps was a recognition that the U.S. military had underestimated the tenacity of the Iraqi irregulars--having initially assumed the violence to be nothing more than the last gasps of a dying regime--and that American soldiers were now facing a "classic, low-level insurgency."

But what does this mean? For many journalists and defense analysts, unfortunately, counterinsurgency operations continue to be viewed through an ideological prism stuck in the 1960s. In place of measured analysis, the term provokes a rush of damning stereotypes: shadow wars in the jungles of Southeast Asia, waged in the absence of oversight and rife with human rights abuses; wrenching, disorienting conflicts in which allies become indistinguishable from enemies, and strengths indistinguishable from weaknesses. Counterinsurgency, in short, becomes code for a kind of war that cannot be won-a fatalistic conviction neatly captured in a dispatch from the Knight Ridder News Service this July:

The pattern of attack and counterattack looks like classic guerrilla warfare, in which a weaker foe attacks in the place of his choosing, then melts into the population. The harder an occupying force pounds back, the more it alienates the populace, creating communities that accept, if not actively support, armed resistance.

The Americans learned it the hard way in Vietnam, the Russians in Afghanistan, the British in Northern Ireland, and now, it seems, the same scenario may be unfolding in Iraq.[2]

Like most stereotypes, however, this depiction of counterinsurgency is simplistic and misleading. While these campaigns may lack the clarity of two opposing armies clashing on a barren plain, they most assuredly can be won. In fact, the United States has repeatedly triumphed in what Max Boot has called "the savage wars of peace."[3]

The Bush administration is making significant strides in Iraq, and its courageous decision to recommit resources there has set the stage for further progress. At the same time, as the Pentagon struggles to secure victory against the guerrillas and, indeed, determine what "victory" in this context even means, it is useful to examine the "small wars" of our past. Rather than imagine Iraq as postwar Germany or Japan, military planners and policymakers would do well to study the lessons of the Philippine War (1899-1902), perhaps the most successful counterinsurgency campaign waged by a Western army in the past 200 years.

Free Man's Burden

A first-term Republican president takes the country to war, justifying the invasion and occupation of foreign territory with a joint appeal to strategic imperative and human rights. Democrats cry imperialism, egged on by a "who's who" of celebrities and intellectuals. They claim the White House has committed an act of aggression on the basis of doctored intelligence and at the instigation of a group of irresponsible, hawkish ideologues. And while major combat operations are swiftly and decisively concluded in America's favor, with only a handful of casualties and an attendant swell of patriotic pride, U.S. forces are subsequently dragged into a violent counterinsurgency campaign against an elusive band of insurrectionists. Predictably, the war soon becomes the central issue of the president's reelection campaign.[4]

Sound familiar? Present-day Iraq, of course, or the Philippines a century ago.

The history of the latter conflict properly begins with the Spanish-American War of 1898, which was to be, in Secretary of State John Hay's memorable phrase, a "splendid little war." Its prime purpose was to secure Cuba's liberation from Spain, which was weak and reviled by Americans for its brutal, repressive policies on the island.

Yet the war on Spanish imperialism did not commence in the Caribbean. Instead, thanks to the machinations of Undersecretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt, it began on the other side of the world with Commodore George Dewey's devastating attack against the Spanish armada in Manila Bay. As a result, when the Treaty of Paris was concluded in December of that year, President William McKinley was stuck with the question not only of what to do with Cuba, but also with the Philippines, a fractious archipelago that many Americans couldn't even find on a map.[5]

To be sure, the United States had a compelling strategic rationale to annex the islands. The Philippines were prime real estate for coaling stations, necessary to project naval power in the Pacific and coveted by the Germans, French, British, and Japanese, all of whom dispatched warships to shadow Dewey's fleet. With a rogue's gallery of imperialists waiting to devour the archipelago, Americans were understandably reluctant to sail away.

But neither superpower rivalry nor narrow self-interest can fully account for the energetic U.S. commitment to transform internal Filipino politics, as codified in President McKinley's decision to pursue a policy of "benevolent assimilation." In February 1899, a week before the Senate voted to annex the islands, McKinley delivered a speech in Boston explaining why the country should shoulder this considerable political, economic, and military burden. Standing beneath portraits of Washington, Lincoln, and himself (as well as a banner that read, "Liberators," lest anyone miss the theme), the president argued his case:

I cannot bound my vision by the blood-stained trenches around Manila-where every red drop, whether from the veins of an American soldier or a misguided Filipino, is anguish to my heart-but by the broad range of future years, when . . . [Filipinos] shall for ages hence bless the American republic because it emancipated and redeemed their fatherland, and set them in the pathway of the world's best civilization.[6]

While McKinley's decision to sacrifice American lives for the betterment of the Philippines may have pleased Teddy Roosevelt and other progressive expansionists of the day, it was also politically risky. The president's stated goal was, by the standards of the time, not much less ambitious than George W. Bush's commitment to establish a beachhead of freedom in the heart of a hostile Middle East.[7]

Indeed, even as McKinley spun his dream of Filipino-American amity, U.S. soldiers were falling into a war against the nationalist forces of Emilio Aguinaldo, who had proclaimed himself dictator of the islands. Although the U.S. Army quickly established its superiority over Aguinaldo's more numerous troops in conventional combat, overrunning entrenchments that were "beautifully made and wretchedly defended,"[8] it proved a pyrrhic victory. The number of U.S. "boots on the ground"--while adequate to win the war--was insufficient to secure the peace:

[With a force] numbering only some 26,000 troops, of which less than half could be spared for active operations in Luzon, [Commander of U.S. forces Major General Elwell S.] Otis could not occupy the territory his forces moved through so easily. Time and time again, his soldiers trudged through the rice paddies and hills, fought a few skirmishes with Aguinaldo's forces, occupied a provincial capital or key city, and then withdrew to Manila. The arrival of the monsoon in late May found the Army exhausted.[9]

This dearth of manpower was exacerbated by General Otis's decision to postpone a request for additional troops, out of a mistaken belief that the war was essentially over. By the time reinforcements finally arrived in November 1899, the insurrectos had taken full advantage of the operational pause to lay the groundwork for protracted guerrilla warfare. Just as the enlarged U.S. force wiped away the last remnants of the rebel Republican Army, the insurgents dissolved into the villages and countryside, where they cut telegraph wires, ambushed U.S. Army convoys, and murdered Filipinos willing to work with the American civil government. Gangs of thieves also proliferated, exploiting the lack of civil order to establish their own criminal fiefdoms.

In the face of these formidable obstacles and less than a year from a presidential election, the U.S. military--undermanned, in a hostile environment, thousands of miles from home--developed a bold counterinsurgency strategy that effectively pacified the Philippines. How did they do it?

Keep It Local

War, Clausewitz famously wrote, is the continuation of politics by other means, and counterinsurgency is the most overtly political kind of war.

Like an effective political campaign, counterinsurgency should be animated by an overarching and clearly-defined vision that endows the endeavor with a distinct purpose. At the same time, however, counterinsurgency is waged, won, and lost at a grassroots level. This is because guerrillas, in the face of a competent conventional force, are usually unable to establish a system of countrywide command-and-control; by necessity, tactical decisions devolve to the regions, cities, and towns, where there is greater pressure to adapt to local realities.

This localization can be witnessed both in the Philippines a century ago and Iraq today, where American soldiers encounter radically different strategic challenges as they move from region to region, town to town. L. Paul Bremer, head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, has rightly stressed that 90 percent of the attacks in Iraq occur in 5 percent of the country; in the Philippines, too, there was no fighting in most of the archipelago. Instead, the insurrection was confined almost entirely to the island of Luzon and, even there, conditions varied drastically among different military districts.

In the provinces of southwestern Luzon, for example, resistance to the American occupation was fierce. The region was predominantly Tagalog, the ethnic group associated with the insurrection, and it was here, in early 1900, that the rebel leadership of the Republican Army ordered its soldiers to disperse into the villages. Military historian Brian McAllister Linn explains:

The guerrillas [in the southwest] were well led and able to establish a strong infrastructure in the Army-occupied towns. The Tagalog composition of the population and the support of the native elite gave the guerrillas much more popular support than elsewhere in Luzon. Early [U.S.] attempts at civil government, native police, or social reforms were countered by guerrilla infrastructures and terrorism.[10]

As in the outlying towns of the Sunni triangle like Falluja and Ramadi--the very last part of Iraq to which coalition soldiers were deployed--the creation of a robust guerrilla infrastructure in southwest Luzon was also enabled by the late arrival of the U.S. Army in the area. This gave rebel leaders almost a year to prepare for their guerra de emboscadas ("war of ambushes").

Even as the U.S. Army struggled against insurgents in southwestern Luzon, conditions in the island's northern provinces were entirely different. There, the resistance failed to attract widespread support from the ethnically mixed population, which provided the Americans with a reliable corps of supporters and informers. As in much of northern and southern Iraq today, local elites felt threatened by the insurrectionist project and actively opposed the guerrillas' attempts to establish support networks inside their towns. Confined to the countryside, rebel operations were limited to harassing tactics that, while a nuisance, failed to mount a serious challenge to the U.S. occupation.

Wisely, the U.S. military did not attempt to impose a uniform solution over this checkerboard strategic landscape but instead modified its tactics to fit local circumstances. Admittedly, this was less the conscious decision of U.S. Army Headquarters in Manila than an inevitable consequence of American force posture on the islands, in which troops were dispersed across some 400 garrisons. As Max Boot argues: "While the men complained about life in the boondocks . . . their very isolation forced them to become well acquainted with their area and the people who lived there. This in turn gave them good intelligence, the prerequisite for effective counterinsurgency operations."[11]

The first lesson of counterinsurgency, then, is to encourage innovative, adaptive military leadership at the local level, rather than trying to micromanage the conflict from afar. Although the Defense Department has been roundly condemned for failing to develop a comprehensive, integrated plan for postwar Iraq, it bears noting that the Philippine counterinsurgency was successful precisely because it did not unfold as a unified campaign, run from Washington or Manila, but rather, as a handful of semi-autonomous, regional counterinsurgencies waged in cooperation.

In Iraq, too, it is vital that U.S. policymakers resist the temptation to treat the insurgency as monolithic. Pacification tactics that prove effective in Mosul may be radically inappropriate in Basra. But cultivating a network of informers and gauging the public mood cannot be accomplished at a distance or on the fly. Instead, it requires U.S. troops--like cops on the beat or politicians on the campaign trail--to engage in sustained, personalized interaction with local inhabitants. As one U.S. soldier recently told the New York Times: "You've got to be on the ground to get the truth."[12]

Going Native

The Philippine War also illustrates the extent to which the success of a counterinsurgency is ultimately defined by the degree and intensity of indigenous support it is able to secure, whether by carrots or sticks. Progress is best measured neither by the number of engagements with the enemy nor in casualties inflicted or sustained. Rather, the path to victory is marked by gradual transfers of power from the occupying force to responsible and sustainable institutions of self-governance.

Here, the localization of an insurgency becomes both its tactical strength and its strategic weakness. In the short term, it is obviously easier to win hearts and minds in some places (e.g. Kurdistan) than in others (e.g. the Sunni Triangle). In the face of a hostile or apathetic population, counterinsurgency is almost certain to be--in Secretary Rumsfeld's words--a long, hard slog. But localization also means that U.S. troops, once they have pacified a friendly town or region, can leverage the political institutions and elites established there against more recalcitrant areas. At the same time, conventional forces can be funneled away from self-governing regions into hot spots, gradually ratcheting up the pressure against the insurgents.

In the Philippines, for instance, the Army was able to recruit cadres of local supporters in northern Luzon--drawing on ethnic groups hostile to the Tagalogs--but faltered in its attempts to replicate these successes in the southwestern provinces. Long after the rest of the island had been pacified, bonds of family, community, and ethnicity continued to frustrate American efforts against insurrectos there: "Officered by the local elite and recruited from a small area . . . the scattered [rebel] forces could quickly assemble, strike, and disperse, secure in the knowledge that local inhabitants, many of whom were relatives of friends, would deny all information to the American pursuers."[13] Consequently, Army operations were limited to constant patrols and "roundups":

Operating at night, a patrol would make a quick march, surround a barrio, and then conduct an intensive house-to-house search for weapons, supplies, suspects, and correspondence. . . . The inhabitants were interrogated, often by a paid interpreter or former guerrilla, and suspects were marched away to jail.[14]

If this description sounds strikingly similar to U.S. operations in the Sunni Triangle, it is because--for all the technological innovations of the past century--the fundamentals of counterinsurgency have remained remarkably constant. Then, as now, it is a manpower-intensive operation highly dependent on effective intelligence gathering and human interaction.

For precisely this reason, U.S.-led patrols--while effective in disrupting large-scale guerrilla infrastructure and stalemating the insurrectos--were insufficient to decisively crush the insurgency in southwestern Luzon. Desultory attacks against U.S. forces continued, along with terrorism that specifically targeted Filipinos working with American authorities; attempts to hold municipal elections stumbled, as "the edge of a bolo and the hand of an assassin are the price [any native] would pay for . . . holding office under American rule."[15]

Rather than scale back the American presence or hand over the unruly provinces to Filipinos ill-prepared to pacify them, the U.S. Army, under General Arthur MacArthur, exploited the relative calm in other regions to redirect troops into the southwest. MacArthur also issued General Order 100--the U.S. Army code of warfare promulgated during the Civil War--as part of a new campaign "based upon the central idea of detaching the towns from the immediate support of the guerrillas in the field."[16]

MacArthur's tactics placed particular pressure on recalcitrant local leaders, threatening their economic and social power while simultaneously dangling incentives for cooperation. In the latter respect, the counterinsurgency campaign was aided by the emergence of the Federalist Party, a nationwide political movement that championed the progressive modernization of the Philippines along American lines. The Federalistas offered incontrovertible evidence of the political and economic advantages of working with the Americans, and because many were former revolutionaries themselves, they proved highly adept at arranging defections. By June 1901, the U.S. Army had also deployed Tagalog units in the southwest that had been recruited in other provinces, effectively undermining the ethnic dimension of the insurgency. Thus, when one of the last rebel leaders finally surrendered, he attributed his decision not only to the dogged pursuit of U.S. troops, but also "the persecution of the insurgent soldiers by the people [and] the search for myself by the people."[17]

Yet even after the elimination of top rebel commanders, guerrilla infrastructure in southwestern Luzon proved sufficiently localized, personalized, and informal for small bands of the most ideologically driven partisans to persevere. For such dead-enders, it was America's "civilizing mission that inspired much of the viciousness of the war: the Army's mission of making the Filipinos passively accept United States authority ran directly counter to the revolutionaries' determination that the people should actively support independence."[18]

In Iraq, too, the development of new elites and institutions will certainly serve to constrain and weaken the insurgency, hopefully to the tipping point. At the same time, progress in fostering a democratic, representative, and tolerant society is unlikely to diminish the fervor with which the most loyal corps of Iraqi Baathists and international Islamists battle its emergence. Even as we push for an independent political and military authority in Baghdad, we should not be so na•ve as to think that its creation will make every last insurgent lay down his arms or permit every last U.S. soldier to return home; to the contrary, our success will only intensify the hatred and desperation at the ideological heart of this movement-along with our responsibility to combat it.

The Real Strategic Center of Gravity

This, in turn, leads to the last lesson of the Philippine war: that counterinsurgency is a test of American political leadership as much as of its military might. In such campaigns, the "real" strategic center of gravity is U.S. public opinion.

The classic guerrilla strategy is not to win, but to hold out and prevent the other side from winning. In the Philippines, insurrectos hoped "to protract the war until either the U.S. Army broke down . . . or the American public demanded a withdrawal."19 In the words of Brigadier General Samuel Sumner, theirs was a policy of "negative opposition."[20]

In Iraq, too, it is surely the feverish hope of insurgents that a steady stream of American casualties will fray American resolve, whether in the West Wing over the coming months or at the ballot box next year. Today, as in the Philippines a century ago, counterinsurgency is proving to be a bloodier affair than conventional combat. While 379 U.S. soldiers were killed in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War in 1898, more than 4,200 Americans died in the fight against the insurrectos. Yet these casualties--which dwarf American losses in Iraq--did not translate into political defeat for the McKinley administration. In fact, although guerrillas escalated their attacks on U.S. troops in the fall of 1900 in the hope of influencing the presidential election, the stratagem backfired on both sides of the Pacific. Not only did the rebel offensive provoke the U.S. Army to redouble its counterinsurgency efforts, but the American public rallied around the flag and returned McKinley to the White House with the largest electoral margin in nearly thirty years.

As President Bush ponders the political ramifications of his Iraq policy for next year's election, he would do well to procure an advance copy of Christopher Gelpi and Peter Feaver's compelling new book, Choosing Your Battles: American Civil-Military Relations and the Use of Force. In it, Gelpi and Feaver argue persuasively that the American public is more "defeat-phobic" than "casualty-phobic." In other words, they are more worried about losing a war than losing soldiers in order to win a war.[21] The consequences of this are vitally important in formulating a successful counterinsurgency against insurgents in Iraq.

Because victory in such campaigns is rarely accompanied by imagery as satisfying or explicit as the American flag fluttering over an enemy capital or U.S. troops toppling statues of hated despots, it is critical for the Bush administration to continue to articulate the importance of the U.S. mission in Iraq and explain the nature of the progress we are making there. In particular, it should strive to put an Iraqi face on this project--not just in Iraq, but at home.

At the same time, the Bush administration should not attempt to obscure or downplay the challenges that remain before us, either in its public pronouncements or internal calculations. Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, hit precisely the right note during a press conference in early October when he stated, bluntly but honestly: "As long as we are here, the coalition needs to be prepared to take casualties."[22]

The Bush administration's references to "a generational commitment" in Iraq are likewise welcome, insofar as counterinsurgencies seldom end quickly. In the case of the Philippines, President Roosevelt declared victory on July 4, 1902, by which time resistance on Luzon had been largely crushed. But even as political and military authority shifted from the United States to Filipinos themselves, the continuing presence of U.S. troops was essential to maintaining peace and order there. More than a century after "winning" the Philippine War, American soldiers are working with their Filipino counterparts to coordinate a counterinsurgency campaign against Abu Sayyaf, an Islamist terrorist group based in the southern Philippines with ties to Al Qaeda.

It is neither cynical nor defeatist to acknowledge that the U.S. military commitment to help Iraqis secure their country against the enemies of democracy may prove to be similarly enduring.


There is one respect in which the Iraqi insurgency differs considerably from that which unfolded in the Philippines. The insurrectos of the latter conflict had a clearly defined political agenda that they aggressively marketed to their fellow citizens. Rebel commanders distributed public letters arguing their case, appealing to sentiments of patriotism, nationalism, and self-sovereignty. Their message, quite simply, was that the Philippines should be ruled by Filipinos, without interference from an unelected colonial government.

Today, by contrast, it is the United States that is attempting to create an Iraq that is ruled by Iraqis, while it is insurgents who wish to reassert the tyranny of an unelected minority over the rest of their country. Perhaps this is why there is no political wing to the Iraqi insurgency; no Baathist equivalent to Emilio Aguinaldo or Ho Chi Minh; no videotaped messages left behind by the suicide bombers for broadcast on Al Jazeera. Their cause hides in the shadows; its only public manifestation is violence. Indeed, the most unusual feature of this insurgency is its steadfast refusal to articulate any set of principles before the world. Thus, in the face of such nihilistic terrorism, the United States has an ideological advantage absent in many "small wars" of our past. In the Iraqi counterinsurgency, a great deal of history remains to be written.


1. Captain Jim Bowen of the British Signal Corps explained: "The buzzword here is 'asymmetrical battle'. . . . Instead of going in like last time with a clenched fist, we're kind of poking. Unfortunately, we've got many years of experience in Belfast [with this sort of operation]," Keith B. Richburg, "British Forces Confronted by Guerilla Tactics," Washington Post, March 25, 2003.

2. Tom Lasseter, "Grim Signs of Guerrilla War," Philadelphia Inquirer, July 2, 2003.

3. The phrase is taken from third stanza of Rudyard Kipling's poem, "The White Man's Burden," first published in McClure's magazine in February 1899.

4. Warren Zimmermann, First Great Triumph (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002), p. 386.

5. As a humorist of the time put it, it was difficult for President McKinley to annex the Philippines because he didn't know where they were. Zimmermann, p. 354.

6. Zimmermann, p. 327.

7. The architects of the Bush Doctrine can credibly claim to be the intellectual heirs of Roosevelt and Lodge insofar as they--like the Republican progressives of a century ago, and unlike the political realists that dominated the Nixon and first Bush administrations--have articulated a vision of foreign policy in which America's strategic interest and its moral duty as a superpower are bound together.

8. Brian McAllister Linn, The U.S. Army and Counterinsurgency in the Philippine War, 1899-1902 (University of North Carolina Press, 1989), p. 12.

9. Linn, p. 12.

10. Linn, p. 165.

11. Max Boot, The Savage Wars of Peace, (Basic Books, 2002), p. 127.

12. Raymond Bonner, "For G.I.'s in Isolated Town, Unknown Enemy Is Elusive," New York Times, October 21, 2003.

13. Linn, p. 133.

14. Linn, p. 139.

15. Linn, p. 125.

16. Linn, p. 24.

17. Linn, p. 159.

18. Linn, p. 20.

19. Linn, p. 16.

20. Linn, p. 151.

21. Princeton University Press, 2004.

22. Alex Berenson, "U.S. Soldiers Are Ambushed by Guerillas in Iraqi Town," New York Times, October 3, 2003.

Tom Donnelly is a resident fellow at AEI and a senior fellow at the Project for the New American Century. Vance Serchuk is a research assistant at AEI.