If you look at what the U.S. military is doing in the Philippines, you get the sense that someone has been able to figure out that you can apply successful Counterinsurgency (COIN) tactics to certain types of operations. It doesn’t work if you need large numbers, I would say. It doesn’t work if you have the Indiana National Guard kicking down huts and shooting dogs for sport. It doesn’t work if you’re firebombing suburban shanty towns. And, perhaps, it doesn’t work if you’re killing by remote control from the air.
It began not long after 9/11, another front in an unfolding global war on terror. A deployment of US Special Forces arrived here to train, equip, and share intelligence with Philippines troops battling Islamic militants in a lawless crossroads of Southeast Asia.
Eight years on, US and Philippine commanders can point to successes: 15 of 24 high-value targets have been captured or killed. Militants are holed up in shrinking enclaves on a chain of far-flung islands. Terror attacks on major cities, once prevalent, have fallen off dramatically.
But the Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines (JSOTF-P), as the US mission of about 560 troops is called, also offers a lesson in how long it takes to uproot militant groups and the fragility of any gains in Mindanao, a violence-torn region that has seen many false dawns.
This fragility may keep US forces here for longer, trying to shepherd aid projects, plug holes in the underfunded Philippine military, and close down sanctuaries for terrorist groups with global aspirations, however atrophied by recent setbacks.
“Even though they’ve been reduced, until you can neutralize them and prevent these safe havens, the concern is that they will regenerate later on,” says Col. William Coultrup, the JSOTF-P commander, and a veteran of Special Forces operations in global hotspots.
The United States could keep 500 or 600 men deployed to the Philippines on a regular basis indefinitely. That’s a small footprint, and, according to this article from 2007, that’s by design:
When US troops arrived in the southern islands in December 2001, a decade after closing its bases in the Philippines, critics assailed the move. They predicted a return of permanent US camps in its former colony, and a repeat of the sleazy bars and clubs still surrounding its former bases near Manila.
More alarming to US ears were dire warnings of resistance from Muslims whose island communities were to be rid of militants by US-assisted Philippine troops. Observers warned that the foreign presence could inflame the situation, as well as revive memories of a bloody US military campaign in the early 1900s to subdue Muslim-inhabited Mindanao.
Today [March, 2007], these warnings mostly ring false. About 450 US soldiers are still here, based inside Philippine military command centers in Zamboanga and the nearby island of Jolo. But the expected nightlife boom hasn’t happened. Nor have militants taken the fight to the foreigners deployed here, though a US serviceman died in a bomb attack on a restaurant in 2002.
US officers say their small footprint in Mindanao, as well as a focus on joint development projects and counterinsurgency training of the Philippine Army, have smoothed their path. But further challenges lie ahead as US troop, and their Philippine counterparts who are notorious for human rights abuses, continue pursuing Muslim insurgent cells on the islands.
How did this come about?
One measure of the US approach can be found on Basilan, where US troops first deployed in 2002. At the time, the extremist group Abu Sayyaf had turned the island, a 30-minute ferry ride from Zamboanga, into a no-go zone with a string of abductions, bombings, and beheadings.
Commander Steve Kelley, a naval engineering reservist, says it was a tough mission. “It wasn’t a warm welcome,” he recalls. But humanitarian projects, including the construction of an 80- kilometer (50-mile) coastal road and a series of mobile clinics, won residents over. “It was a huge turnaround,” he says. Local officials say the improved security has restored normalcy.
Normalcy—and a small footprint. Those are important aspects of any attempt to engage in COIN and to provide relief for a people under siege.
Let me add one thing that I know will meet with criticism. In my opinion, success in the Philippines also comes with an operational decision to forgo the use of armed drones. I have found this:
Two civil-registered unarmed MQ-1s are operated by the Office of the National Security Advisor in the Philippines since 2006.
I realize that there could very well be armed Predator drones in use in the Philippines, and that I could be wrong on this. You certainly don’t hear about them, to the extent you do with Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen or Pakistan. There’s a definite effort out there to brag about the kills these aircraft make. If we were actively making kills in the Philippines, why wouldn’t we have heard about it? I think there is a definite connection between the lack of drone kills and the improved relations between the people and the United States military.
It doesn’t take much for people to become enraged at us—and one or two errant Hellfire missiles could make a huge difference for a local population. Might we have a case here where using drones would work against us, rather than for us, in terms of containing and rolling back an Islamic Fundamentalist insurgency? Are the insurgents there different from those in Afghanistan? Of course. No one would confuse an insurgent from the Philippines with a pushover, however. They have their own history, and it isn’t half bad. I am not entirely anti-drone. I’m saying that, with their heavy-handed use comes pushback. Pushback will always be there. What kind of pushback do you want?
We are having some success with a better strategic view in the Philippines; we’re not hung up on fly-by kills, body counts and strongarm tactics, apparently. Even the cows seem to like us over there.