While the Moro Rebellion lasted roughly from 1903 to 1913, it’s perhaps more accurate to describe the insurgency by Muslim southern Filipinos—dubbed Moros by the Spanish—as a 600-year struggle for religious autonomy and independence that has never really ended.
In 1903 U.S. commanders in the Philippines weren’t hamstrung by the lack of forces or resources that have hindered them in subsequent conflicts. Nor was the force itself inexperienced. American troops had been fighting Filipino nationalist insurgents in the northern Philippines since the 1898 end of the Spanish-American War.
On the southern island of Mindanao, the Moros weren’t a major concern. Under the terms of the 1899 Bates Agreement, the Moro leaders (datus) who recognized American sovereignty retained power and stayed neutral in the fight between American and Filipino nationalist forces. But when that insurrection ended in 1902, the United States sought to expand its control of Moro territory, imposing a military government as part of the annexation of the Philippines. The Moros rebelled to defend their autonomy and culture against what they saw as a foreign, and Christian, assault.
Maj. Gen. Leonard Wood, the first U.S. military governor, tried to establish a layered government down to the local level, believing exposure to the American system would win converts. But Moro attacks on U.S. outposts forced him to fight back, with limited success. Succeeding Wood was Maj. Gen. Tasker H. Bliss, who introduced economic and social reforms while restraining U.S. troops. The strategy made headway— but only in American-controlled areas.
When Maj. Gen. John Pershing took the reins in 1909, he concluded that too many U.S. troops were being kept in garrison. He dispersed units deep into Moroland and more broadly engaged the datus, whose several thousand combatants were armed mostly with primitive weapons and whose leaders operated in what amounted to individual fiefdoms. Pershing also began disarming the Moro groups with an “acquiesce or fight” approach.
Pershing’s strategy worked: American authority was established, the rebels were crushed and generally peaceful years followed. Indeed, the Moro Rebellion is often cited by military theorists as America’s most striking success in counterinsurgency.
Yet the desire for independence reappeared 55 years later with the 1968 founding of the Moro National Liberation Front. An eight-year uprising challenged President Ferdinand Marcos, who used martial law, the arrest of opposition leaders and military force to quell the insurgency.
The global emergence of Islamic extremist groups, however, has in the Philippines seen formation of such violent antigovernment factions as the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and Abu Sayyaf. Fighting continues in the south, and the United Nations estimates the conflict has killed as many as 20,000 people since the 1970s.
■ Study local culture and identify key leaders. Theirs are the most important hearts and minds to win.
■ Decentralize. Send uniformed troops into the countryside to negate insurgent influence among the people.
■ Learn from others. Pershing built on his predecessors’ experiences and added his own refinements—an approach today’s counterinsurgency advocates have taken.
■ Provide or facilitate good governance. It’s far easier to defeat an insurgency when locals trust their government more than the insurgents.
■ Kill the holdouts. The stiffest resistance is not going to capitulate and must be militarily defeated.
■ Patience is a virtue. Insurgencies are persistent and incredibly difficult to eradicate.
Originally published in the March 2011 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.