The newly installed commander of the 150,000-strong armed forces, Army Lt. Gen. Noel Clement, has vowed to crush the Maoist-led New People’s Army guerrillas to bring an end to 50 years of insurgency in the country.

It seemed the task was doable. The less than 3,000 armed but ill-equipped communist insurgents were waging protracted guerrilla warfare in the country’s poor yet resource-rich rural areas, particularly in the eastern seaboard frequently visited by typhoons.

They thrived in the profitable and lucrative provinces where most of the large banana, pineapple and sugar plantations were located, or deep in the jungles and mountains where minerals like gold, silver, copper and nickel were extracted.

The military only needed to concentrate its territorial infantry units and special forces to hunt down and fix the “enemies,” and leave highly developed urban areas and other less problematic provinces in the western seaboard to the 200,000-strong national police and part-time soldiers belonging to the Citizens’ Armed Forces Geographical Units (Cafgus) supervised by highly trained units of the Army Special Forces Regiment.

The military had developed the best counter-insurgency strategy through its long experience battling the communists since the Hukbalahap days in the 1950s. Former presidents Ramon Magsaysay and Carlos Garcia were successful in breaking agrarian-based guerrillas in the post-war period, but Ferdinand Marcos allowed the resurgent Maoist rebellion to grow at the height of his dictatorial regime. It peaked at 25,000 guerrillas by the time he was ousted by a popular uprising in 1986.

It was during the administration of a former general, Fidel Ramos, when the insurgency declined, as the rebels’ strength dwindled to about 5,000 armed fighters.

The military’s “fly-trap” strategy under Operation Plan “Lambat-Bitag” and his wholistic anti-insurgency campaign “CCHD” (Clear-Consolidate-Hold-Develop) was a classic method that “drained the pond to catch the fish.”

What went wrong? The Asian financial crisis that swept Asia in the late 1990s and the election of Joseph Estrada gave the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and its armed wing, the New People’s Army (NPA), extra oxygen to regroup, recruit and rebuild. Military estimates of rebels’ manpower grew to more than 7,000 armed fighters by the time Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo assumed office.

Corruption and the deteriorating human rights situation during her nine-year rule kept the insurgency going until Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino’s six-year term, due to his hardline approach in the peace talks with the communist’s National Democratic Front (NDF).

There were high hopes of a negotiated peace deal with the rebels under President Rodrigo Duterte, who proclaimed himself as the first socialist president of the country. Three years after, he turned into the worst enemy of the CPP-NPA-NDF, committing himself to ending the insurgence before he steps down in June 2022.

He now wants the organization and its members to be legally declared a terrorist group and has gone back to basic counter-insurgency operations and re-implementing the “whole-of-nation” approach to fight the insurgents, acknowledging that the best strategy to win the war was not through a military solution alone.

During Ramos’s time, government welcomed the communists’ participation in the country’s political processes. The sedition law, Republic Act 1700, was abolished and the Left embraced the party-list system.

Duterte imposed more stringent measures, proposing to re-enact the sedition law and run after the legal front organizations of the rebels.

The success of any counter-insurgency campaign depends largely on the civilian government’s role, not the military. There must always be right-hand and left-hand approaches, but the larger part should come from the civilian sector, to remove the root cause of why poor people in the countryside take up arms and wage rebellion.

As long as there is injustice, inequality, ignorance, corruption, neglect and poverty, the government will never defeat an insurgency and the Armed Forces will not achieve strategic victory over a handful of ill-trained and ill-equipped guerrilla forces.

But the reforms should not only come from the civilian government. The military has to do its own house cleaning. There are structural reforms needed to make the military leaner and meaner in fighting the state’s “enemies.”

The Armed Forces must professionalize its ranks and personnel management system. It must cease to be the government’s largest manpower agency. Nearly 70 percent of annual defense spending goes to salaries and allowances of soldiers. There is hardly any budget left for maintenance and operating expenses and capital outlay, which leaves the military very little money to upgrade and modernize its platforms and weaponry.

When the military enlists a soldier at age 18, he or she usually stays in active duty until he retires at the mandatory age of 56 years old. In other armed forces, only officers retire from the service while enlisted personnel leave the service several years later after learning technical skills that may land them a job in in the private sector.  It is very rare in the US, German, British, Israeli and even in some rich Southeast Asian countries to see an enlisted man or a non-commissioned officer retiring at 56 years old.

In most professional armies, soldiers should be fit to march, hike and run several miles for several days and they are required to constantly train and prepare for battle. Of course, a 25-year-old soldier can fight better than a 50-year-old soldier who may suffer from some ailments.

The Armed Forces must design an enlistment system that requires soldiers to serve up to their 30s or 40s, placing older men and women in the reserve force.

It will also be best for senior and top commanders to be given full three-year terms as chief of staff or as area commanders. This will allow them to pursue their own programs. It will scrap the revolving-door policy of senior commanders assigned to top positions as political accommodations and serving for less than a year (as a short as 69 days).

This practice will only encourage political patronage or “bata-bata,” corrupting the promotion and assignment system in the professional armed forces. It was among the reasons there was unrest in the military organization during the Marcos period as well as during the Arroyo presidency.

In the Armed Forces, field grade officers from the rank of lieutenant to major are promoted based on the number of years in the service. As they went up the pyramid, it became natural for many to look for political benefactors – congressmen, senators, or even Cabinet members – to help push them up and probably secure assignments and positions.

Since 2016, when Duterte came into office, most senior positions were given to officers who had served in Davao before, or those the president knew personally before when he was mayor. In fairness to the president, the practice was also employed by other politicians who had ascended to the highest position in the land.

It’s about time the Armed Forces is insulated from politics. Officers should ban the practice of looking for sponsors and benefactors or “padrinos.” Graduates of the country’s premier military institution, Philippine Military Academy, should avoid “adopting” as “mistahs” all politicians and businessmen who they believe could help advance their personal interests and careers.

In the same way, politicians should refrain from cultivating close relations with officers.

Respect the seniority list and promote meritocracy in the service. Senior commanders will gain more respect and trust if they are selected based on performance, not on political connections. This simple reform can probably help defeat the communist insurgency as well.