Of the many similarities between Donald Trump and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is the question of when one should take him at his word. Prone to bluster, he was serious about implementing wide-spread extra-judicial killings against suspected drug users but many of his statements regarding the future of US-Philippine security arrangements have amounted have so far amounted only to hot air. After the collapse of peace talks last month, Duterte vowed last week to wipe out the New People’s Army (NPA) once the Marawi campaign is complete. It is anyone’s guess as to whether he is bluffing or not.
A doctrinaire Maoist insurgency, the NPA has proven itself a remarkably resilient organization. Born from a merger between remnants of the 1950s Huk Rebellion and Sison, the NPA is heir to a leftists insurgency dating back to anti-Japanese resistance fighters. While the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) is quick to note that the NPA commands a force only that is only a fraction of the size of its peak in the 1980s, their estimate of approximately four thousand armed cadres is roughly equal to the number of insurgents the Taliban deploys for combat in Afghanistan.
The confusion over whether or not Duterte is planning a new, ostensibly final, offensive against the NPA has taken some by surprise. His term began with an NPA cease-fire, and many of his anti-American tirades and insults towards Obama showed a sympathy for causes of both leftist and Islamic insurgents in his home province of Mindanao. Even after the NPA attacked his hometown of Davao, Duterte offered to integrate NPA commanders and their soldiers into the AFP at the same rank if they surrendered to fight Islamic insurgents instead.
It is hard to game out the consequences if Duterte is not bluffing. A first order question is whether the AFP is capable of launching a large-scale offensive against the NPA. An estimated 800 Muate Group fighters have held back an AFP counter-offensive in Marawi for two months now. Opening a new nation-wide front against the NPA would take the AFP out of one difficult battlefield – an urban center – and into interior mountain jungles. The fight would take them away from paved roads, armored personnel carriers, and artillery. In what might be a tacit acknowledgment of the AFP is over-stretched, it was the commander of the Philippine National Police (PNP) rather than the AFP that announced the offensive.
Like most long-lasting insurgencies, the NPA’s resilience is based in no small part in its adaptability. If the past is any guide, there is real possibility that the NPA ranks might swell with recruits if Duterte is seriously committed to the group’s elimination. Where ideology drives the NPA leadership, the recruits that fill up its ranks are motivated by grievances and injustices. Despite good-faith efforts at reform, the AFP is still a thinly stretched, underpaid, under-equipped, and under-trained organization that is still trailed by allegations of human rights abuses wherever it deploys. The situation is even grimmer if the PNP, widely suspected of being behind the 7000-9000 extra-judicial killings over the past year, is leading the offensive.
More Filipinos have died from Duterte’s drug war in his first year in office than died during the entirety of the Martial Law period under Marcos. Marawi, Duterte’s second front on domestic enemies, exposed the weaknesses of the AFP, produced thousands of refugees, wrecked a city, and saw the return of martial law. Opening a third front, against the NPA, risks opening new battlefields across the entire archipelago with virtually no chance of either a quick or decisive outcome. Like the drug war, it threatens to turn a management if persistent – if sometimes deadly – nuisance into a sustained bloodbath that once again targets some of the most marginalized demographics in the country.