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Vol. VI, No. 46      Dec. 24 - 30, 2006      Quezon City, Philippines








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Political Killings, Part of U.S.-Phil. Counterinsurgency Strategies

Extrajudicial executions, meant to create terror among the populace, are main fare in U.S.-directed counterinsurgency strategies in Vietnam and El Salvador during the latter part of the 60s and early 80s respectively. It is now being seen with increased intensity in Iraq and the Philippines.  It is not surprising though, as Iraq, together with Afghanistan, is the first front in the U.S. “war on terror” and the Philippines is the second front.

Posted by Bulatlat

U.S. strategies for counterinsurgency were developed from its experiences in pacification campaigns against American Indians and the Fil-American War; partisan and guerrilla operations in German or Japanese occupied territories during World War II (unconventional warfare); and later, American experience in the Philippines, Korea, and Indochina. With the early pacification campaigns, the U.S. army used punitive actions and suppression campaigns employing conventional methods.  Partisan and guerrilla operations led to the development of unconventional warfare and covert/special warfare which involves psychological operations[1] including assassinations, hostage-taking, propaganda, and sabotage operations. Counter-guerrilla tactics were developed and made more sophisticated with the latter experiences.

These strategies were first described in the 1951 manual of the U.S. Army Operations against Guerrilla Forces (FM 31-20) and the 1960 Special Forces manual, Counterinsurgency Operations.[2]   

It combined the traditional approach to counterinsurgency, the use of conventional warfare methods, to that of guerrilla tactics. These are implemented by what U.S. manuals called as counterorganization for counterinsurgency.  Among the formations and their tasks are,

  •  regular units of the military who are assigned the task of punitive operations, resettlement and suppression campaigns directed against the local population;

  • army-trained civilian self-defense forces, such as the Civilian Armed Force Geographical Unit (CAFGU), who are formed to provide security, surveillance and intelligence;

  • elite special forces to match elite guerrilla forces and to lead paramilitary units; and

  • paramilitary units, dressed like guerrillas, for intelligence, counter-subversion, and psychological or special/covert operations. One type of paramilitary unit is the small-unit “hunter killer team,” like the Nenita command of the Philippines headed by Col. Napoleon Valeriano of the Philippine Constabulary in the 1950s, which conducted long range reconnaissance with the mission to “hunt and destroy” the adversary. Another form of paramilitary unit is the anti-communist vigilante group formed from a tribe, religious, or political minority much like what was done in the Philippines during the late 1980s under the “total war” of the Aquino regime such as the Alsa Masa, Tadtads and Pulahans. [3]

U.S. counterinsurgency operations was originally envisioned to have four phases, namely, Phase 1 organization of local auxiliary counterinsurgency forces and population control; Phase II offensive operations to destroy large guerrilla formations, food control and resettlement, and designation of free fire zones; Phase III intensified efforts to isolate guerrilla forces; and Phase IV. Rehabilitation.

After the experience of the U.S, in counterinsurgency operations against the Hukbong Mapagpalaya ng Bayan (HMB or People’s Liberation Army) in the Philippines, another element was added, that of civilian operations or civic action. This also reflected a development in the counterinsurgency strategy of the U.S. synthesizing the “Winning the Hearts and Minds” theory with that of the “Cost-Benefit or Carrot and Stick” theory. From this developed the four phases of clear-hold-consolidate-develop contained in Oplan Bantay Laya as well as Oplan Lambat Bitag.

Two underlying principles are integral to U.S. counterinsurgency operations. First, the guerrilla/terrorist assumes an illegal status and therefore his life is forfeit if apprehended. Second, the guerrilla uses terror to subjugate the local population and can therefore be effectively neutralized by the use of counterterror by the counter-insurgent. 

"Terror Operations," by the counterinsurgent includes assassinations, disappearances, and mass executions. These terror operations were implemented by the U.S. and its puppet armies in many countries in subsequent decades, and remained as a hallmark of the counterinsurgency state in the 1980s.[4]

Justification for terror operations can be read in U.S. training manuals.  The 1965 U.S. Army Psychological Operations manual (FM33-5) stated that unconventional warfare against the enemy should have a multiplier effect by creating an atmosphere of fear. Fear was being created to force the local population to transfer loyalties from the insurgent to the counterinsurgent; to create a disincentive to discourage the local population from providing resources to the insurgents; and to make the supporters and the insurgent themselves lose confidence on the strength of their own army. These terror operations were carried out overtly or covertly.

The May 1961 U.S. manual on “Operations Against Irregular Forces” defined “overt irregular activities” to include terrorism by assassination, bombing, armed robbery, torture, mutilation, and kidnapping; provocation of incidents, reprisals, and holding of hostages; and denial activities, such as arson, flooding, demolition, use of chemical or biological agents, or other acts designed to prevent use of an installation, area, product, or facility. “Covert irregular activities,” on the other hand, included espionage, sabotage, dissemination of propaganda and rumors, delaying or misdirecting orders, issuing false or misleading orders or reports, assassination, extortion, blackmail, theft, counterfeiting, and identifying individuals for terroristic attack.

To prevent the terror tactics from backfiring on the counterinsurgent, U.S. and French experts in counterinsurgency instructed that these must be carried out by “professionals.”  According to the manuals, these “professionals,” referring to paramilitary units, mercenaries, or special units assigned as death squads, must not be identified with the counterinsurgents trying to win the hearts and minds of the population.

An example of a simple terror tactic was the “Eye of God” developed by U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Edward Geary Lansdale when he was assigned in the Philippines in the 1950s under the auspices of the JUSMAG. The “eye of God” was used by soldiers in areas identified as supportive to the HMB.  The soldiers would enter the area and warn villagers that supporters of guerrillas would be punished. During the night special operation units posted drawings of eyes on walls facing the house of suspected supporters of HMB guerrillas.  A similar tactic was used in Vietnam in the early 60s but with certain ramifications.

Selected Vietnamese troops were organized into terror squads and assigned the task of working with rural agents in penetrating Viet Cong— held areas. Within a short time Viet Cong leaders—key members of the clandestine infrastructure—began to die mysteriously and violently in their beds. On each of the bodies was a piece of paper printed with a grotesque human eye. The appearance of “the eye” soon represented a serious threat. The paper eyes, 50,000 copies of which were printed by the U.S. Information Service in Saigon, turned up not only on corpses but as warnings on the doors of houses suspected of occasionally harboring Viet Cong agents. The eyes came to mean that “big brother is watching you.” The mere presence of “the eye” induced members of the Viet Cong to sleep anywhere but in their own beds. It was an eerie, uncertain threat.[5]  

The current practice of the AFP of painting red crosses on doors or walls of suspected NPA sympathizers is a variation of this tactic.

Perfecting counterinsurgency strategies and tactics

Counterinsurgency strategies and tactics were further developed by the U.S. Armed Forces with its experiences in Vietnam where U.S. troops acquired extensive experiences in advising and actually participating in counterinsurgency operations.

In Vietnam, the U.S. employed its most modern weapons in its conventional warfare operations while also giving full play to counterguerrilla tactics through Special Forces units.

They employed napalm bombs to raze forests and deprive the Vietcong of cover. U.S. ground troops joined combat operations and patrols with South Vietnamese troops. At the same time, Special Forces units such as the Green Berets conducted counterguerrilla tactics and operations. One such counterguerrilla operation, which was part of the U.S. pacification campaign was Operation Phoenix.

During Operation Phoenix in Vietnam, the CIA funded, designed, and advised Provincial Reconnaissance Units (PRU).  Each province in Vietnam had a PRU and each PRU had a U.S. adviser from Special Forces units.

U.S. intelligence units provided names of suspected Vietcongs for neutralization to PRUs. Each PRU was given a quota which according to reports reached a high of 1,800 persons per month.

Two U.S. Navy SEALS, Lt. John Wilbur and Barton Osborn, who served as advisers to PRUs, testified that PRUs were ordered to kill suspected members of the Vietcong infrastructure in villages.[6] Sometimes, Wilbur said, it was much easier to shoot somebody rather than wait for intelligence operations to bear fruit especially since they were working on a monthly quota.   

Mark Zepezauer in his book, The CIA's Greatest Hits: Called Operation Phoenix, described Operation Phoenix as, “…an assassination program plain and simple. The idea was to cripple the Nationalist Liberation Front (NLF) by killing influential people like mayors, teachers, doctors, tax collectors-anyone who aided the functioning of the NLF's parallel government in the South.”

In El Salvador, and the rest of Latin America, American counterinsurgency experts claimed to have proved the correctness of U.S. strategy and doctrine.[7] "The El Salvador experience," Victor Rosello writes, "generally validated the US Army's Foreign Internal Defense doctrine in countering insurgency.”[8] In addition, it enabled U.S. counterinsurgency experts to devise strategies and tactics to deal with the “urbanization” of the insurgency.

Seven training manuals prepared by the U.S. military and used between 1987 and 1991 for intelligence training courses in Latin America and at the US Army School of the Americas (SOA), where the US trains Latin American soldiers, contain description of tactics such as executing guerrillas, blackmail, false imprisonment, physical abuse, using truth serum to obtain information, and paying bounties for enemy dead. Counterintelligence agents were advised that one of their functions is "recommending targets for neutralization."[9]

And the targets for “neutralization” or other punitive actions were very broad.  These included "local or national political party teams, or parties that have goals, beliefs or ideologies contrary or in opposition to the National Government", or "teams of hostile organizations whose objective is to create dissension or cause restlessness among the civilian population in the area of operations. The manuals described universities as “breeding grounds for terrorists,” and identified priests and nuns as terrorists. It advised intelligence units to infiltrate youth groups, student groups, labor unions, political parties, and community organizations.

 Even elections were identified in these manuals as “insurgent activities.” It stated that insurgents "can resort to subverting the government by means of elections in which the insurgents cause the replacement of an unfriendly government official to one favourable to their cause"

Death squads were used extensively in El Salvador. In 1963, the U.S. government sent 10 Special Forces personnel to El Salvador to help General Jose Alberto Medrano set up the Organizacion Democratica Nacionalista (ORDEN)-the first paramilitary death squad in that country. They gathered intelligence and carried out political assassinations in coordination with the Salvadoran military. [10]

At a November 1989 press conference, Cesar Vielman Joya Martinez, a soldier in the First Infantry Brigade's Department 2 (Intelligence), revealed that certain military units in Department 2 carried out "heavy interrogation" (a euphemism for torture) after which the victims were killed. The job of his unit was to execute people by strangulation, slitting their throats, or injecting them with poison. He admitted killing eight people and participating in many more executions. He stated that the Brigade Commander had sent written orders to carry out the killings and that the use of bullets was forbidden because they might be traced to the military.[11]

 Martinez said that they gave reports of the abductions and tortures they did to a U.S. adviser sitting in a desk next to his.  Another Salvadoran soldier, Ricardo Castro, revealed that he held monthly briefings with then deputy CIA chief of station in El Salvador Frederic Brugger.  He said that he had attended trainings given by U.S. advisers on torture techniques.  He also said that in December 1981, he came to know of a massacre of 600civilians in Morazan province which was led by a U.S. trained Salvadoran major.

The use of death squads in counterinsurgency is not also new in the Philippines.  The Nenita command which formed by Col. Landsdale in the 1950s was a death squad. Likewise vigilante groups which Maj. Gen. John Singlaub, a U.S. military adviser and a high profile CIA operative, helped form were also involved in killings of civilians.      

Counterinsurgency and the “war on terror”

After The World Trade Center attacks in 2001, the U.S. went into war-footing.  It subsumed its goals and plans in a National Security Strategy, which guides the political, military, and economic policies of the U.S.  From this is based the goals contained in the Quadrennial Defense Review.

The 2006 QDR revealed that U.S. military operations had and would stress on unconventional, irregular, foreign internal defense, counterterror and counterinsurgency operations. Consistent with this, all units of the U.S. Armed Forces would be trained in these types of operations to free the Special Forces which would, in turn, prioritize the conduct of trainings to surrogate armies and conduct special operations. Consistent with this thrust, U.S. Special Forces would be increased by 15 percent. It would also increase Psychological Operations and Civil Affairs units by 3,700 or 33 percent.

With the strategy of pre-emption, the CIA and Special Forces units are given a free hand in conducting assassinations and renditions of suspected “terrorists.”

The counterinsurgency and counterterror strategies and tactics described in the previous section were developed by Special Forces and are in line with the current thrusts and stresses of the U.S. Armed Forces. The only difference is that these types of operations, such as assassinations and abductions, which used to be part of clandestine operations, are now openly acknowldeged by the Bush regime.  This makes overt and covert operations less distinct and official policy and operations more blatantly brutal.   

Evidences of this type of counterinsurgency operations can now be seen in Iraq.

Since June 2004, people suspected of being hostile to the regime and their supporters were being kidnapped and killed by police commandos from the notorious Wolf Brigade.  It is the most notorious and best known death squad created, funded and directed by U.S. advisers. A majority of its officers and personnel served in Saddam Hussein’s Special Forces and Republican Guard—veterans of killings, torture and repression.[12]

Foremost among the U.S. advisers are retired Colonel James Steele and former DEA officer Steven Casteel who are both veterans of the dirty war. Steele served in El Salvador. In El Salvador, Colonel Steele commanded the U.S. Military Advisor Group, training Salvadoran forces between 1984-86. Steven Casteel worked in Colombia with paramilitaries called Los Pepes that later joined forces to form the AUC in 1997.  These were responsible for most of the violence against civilians in Colombia. Casteel was instrumental in forming Special Police Commandos, known as the Wolf Brigade, in his capacity as senior advisor to the Iraqi Interior Ministry. [13]

Wolf Brigade operatives “came in white police Toyota Land Cruisers, wore police commando uniforms, flak vests and helmets” and were armed with 9mm Glock pistols.” Their links to the U.S. military are confirmed by their equipment. Glock pistols are standard issue for many U.S. law enforcement officers.  The same type of sidearms was issued to Iraqi police by the U.S. military.

On September 8, 2005 the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq issued a human rights report stating that, “Corpses appear regularly in and around Baghdad and other areas. Most bear signs of torture and appear to be victims of extrajudicial executions.... Serious allegations of extrajudicial executions underline a deterioration in the situation of law and order…. Accounts consistently point to the systematic use of torture during interrogations at police stations and within other premises belonging to the Ministry of the Interior.” [14]

On January 16, 2005 USA Today reported that Isam al-Rawi, a geology professor who heads the Iraqi Association of University Lecturers, has been cataloguing assassinations of academics in occupied Iraq and has documented 300 of them. On January 14, 2005, the Newsweek reported that Interim Prime Minister Allawi, a former agent of both the Iraqi Mukhabarat and the CIA, has been a principal proponent of applying the “Salvadoran option” in Iraq.[15]

The Associated Press tallied a total of 539 persons killed by the Wolf Brigade from April to Octrober 7, 2005. When Casteel was asked regarding the killings, he blamed insurgents “impersonating” police commandos.

With these, it is no wonder then that the same counterinsurgency strategy and tactics dubbed the “dirty war” which was employed in Vietnam and El Salvador are now being seen with increased intensity in Iraq and in the Philippines. After all, Iraq, together with Afghanistan, is the first front in the U.S. “war on terror” and the Philippines is the second front. Bulatlat


[1] The 1962 U.S. Army manual of Psychological Operations (FM33-5) defines unconventional warfare as “inherently psychological” so that psywar operations must be included in each stage of special forces operations.

[2] Michael McClintock, “Instruments of Statecraft: U.S. Guerrilla Warfare, Counterinsurgency, Counterterrorism, Pantheon Books, 1992

[3] Abner Bolos, Death Squads, the CIA and Political Killings in Central Luzon, Bulatlat, May 28-June 3, 2006

[4] Ibid

[5] Department of the Army, “Human Factors Considerations of Undergrounds in Insurgencies,” Army Pamphlet 550-104 (Washington, D.C.: GPO, September 1966), p. 184.

[6] Tim Cavinder, “The Coup and the Phoenix: Spanning a Decade of Covert Operations

[7] Steven Metz, “A Flame Kept Burning: Counterinsurgency Support After the Cold War

[8] Victor M. Rosello, "Lessons From El Salvador," Parameters, 23 (Winter 1993-94), 102

[9] Lisa Haugaard, Textbook Repression: U.S. Training Manuals Declassified, Covert Action Quarterly magazine, September 1997

[10] David Kirsch, “Death Squads in El Salvador: A pattern of U.S. Complicity, Covert Action Quarterly, Summer of 1990

[11] Ibid

[12] Steven Harris, “Who’s Behind the Active Death Squads Running in Iraq, Al Jazeera, July 20, 2006

[13] Nicolas J.S. Davies, “The Dirty War in Iraw,” Z Commentary Online, November 2005

[14] Ibid

[15] Ibid



© 2006 Bulatlat  Alipato Media Center

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