by Mark Munson
United States military personnel have been deployed to the Philippines for over a decade, participating in military operations known as Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines (OEF-P). These troops, primarily Special Operations Forces and their support staff, have assisted the Philippine military in their fight against Muslim insurgents on the island of Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago. While the terrorist networks targeted by Philippine military units supported through OEF-P have been greatly degraded over the last ten years, the impact of US military presence on Philippine internal security and the strategic relationship between the two states remains unclear. While the Abu Sayyaf Group is much less of threat, security gains in the southern Philippines have been mixed at best.
In May 2001 two missionaries, Martin and Gracia Burnham, and another American, Guilllermo Sobrero, were kidnapped from a resort on the Philippine island of Palawan by members of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG). Founded in the early 1990s, the ASG was an offshoot of the separatist Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). The September 11 attacks against the US a few months later, however, elevated a kidnapping by a criminal group with terrorist ambitions into the key event in the Southeast Asian front of a larger conflict due to ASG’s pretensions of being part of Al Qaeda’s global jihad. The increased American sense of urgency resulting from the kidnapping was demonstrated when President Bush assured his Philippine counterpart, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, that the United States would help “in any way she suggests.”
The US Military and Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines
The results of that promise are still evident in the Philippines over a decade later, despite the rescue of Gracia Burnham (her husband was killed during the rescue) and death of the leader of the raid, Aldam Tilao AKA Abu Sabaya, in 2002. The current US force in the Philippines participating in ongoing operations is the Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines (JSOTF-P). Its mission statement is simple:
“At the request of the Philippine Government, JSOTF-P works together with the Armed Forces of the Philippines to fight terrorism and deliver humanitarian assistance to the people of Mindanao. U.S. forces are temporarily deployed to the Philippines in a strictly non-combat role to advise and assist the AFP, share information, and to conduct joint civil military operations.”
The American forces deployed as part of JSOTF-P do not engage in combat themselves, but rather train and guide the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to better prosecute the fight against violent groups such as the ASG. Colonel William Coultrup, a former JSOTF-P commander, once described its “desired end state” as one in which “leadership and safe havens” for foreign jihadists “have been neutralized and the conditions for their presence no longer exist."
The initial group of US personnel actually arrived from Special Operations Command-Pacific (SOCPAC) in 2001 before the Burnhams were kidnapped, and were tasked with “advising and assisting the Armed Forces of the Philippines” against ASG on the island of Basilan, the home of senior leaders such as Abu Sabaya and the suspected location of the hostages after they had been kidnapped. According to another former JSOTF-P commander, Colonel David Maxwell, the initial team from SOCPAC was a Mobile-Training Team formed of US Special Forces (SF) operators tasked with training a “Philippine light reaction company (LRC) drawn from the ranks of the Philippine army's special forces and scout ranger organizations.” After September 2001, US Pacific Command (PACOM) drafted a plan which included “the deployment of about 160 American SF advisers to Basilan to train, advise, and assist AFP units.” This unit was known as JTF-510, and arrived in February 2002, with its headquarters in Zamboanga City. JTF-510 eventually evolved into what is now known as JSOTF-P, incorporating a wider scope of Special Operations personnel and occasional support by conventional military units such as Navy surface vessels and aviation assets such as P-3 maritime patrol aircraft.
OEF-P as a Success and the Basilan Model
Although the US forces participating in OEF-P over the last ten years have been based in a variety of locations across the southern Philippines, including the islands of the Sulu Archipelago (Basilan, Jolo, and Tawi Tawi) and much of Mindanao itself, the island of Basilan has often been the focus of operations from the beginning. American advisors, working closely with host-nation forces at the tactical level, have encouraged the improvement of security for locals and conducted Civil Military Operations to entice the populace to share information regarding the location of insurgents. Using the resultant close ties with local residents and acting upon information they provide, Philippine military units were soon able to conduct operations against the ASG that were “intelligence-driven and surgical.” This approach became known as the “Basilan Model” in the American and Philippine militaries and provided a recent real world case study as American counter-insurgency doctrine was revamped for use in Iraq and Afghanistan. The tactics employed on Basilan, especially in the initial era of JTF 510, entailed an “aggressive increase in AFP patrolling,” denying “Abu Sayyaf its habitual sanctuary and curtailing the group's movement,” as well as rigorous training of AFP units in order to improved their ability to conduct combat operations. American members of JTF-510 felt that these tactics were successful, resulting in the locals being more willing to support US-enabled AFP operations. One operator felt the population had clearly changed its attitudes towards the ASG and both AFP and US troops, noting that “by the time we left, they were our friends. That led them to question everything the guerrillas had told them about Americans.”
Boosters of the US mission in the Philippines have used several different arguments to claim it as a success. Strictly in financial terms, US operations in the Philippines have been efficient compared to those in other countries. The difference between US operations in the Philippines and Afghanistan is stark, with approximately $50 million per year needed to sustain 600 personnel in the Philippines, compared to the campaign in Afghanistan, which was costing $2 billion per week by 2011. It’s also been much cheaper than Iraq and Afghanistan in terms of lives, with 17 US killed (3 dead in attacks on Jolo and in Zamboanga City, the rest in a helicopter crash and other accidents) over ten years.
The quality of life for residents of Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago has also arguably improved. In addition to Civil Military Operations events providing medical, dental, and veterinary care, as well as construction of public works, the improved security environment on Basilan has enabled better medical care overall through an expanded hospital and new women’s clinic. A branch of the popular Philippine fast food chain Jollibee even opened up in the island’s largest city, Isabela City, an important signifier that it had joined the ranks of “normal” Philippine cities.
The ASG as a network has clearly been degraded by US-enabled AFP operations. Always less a jihadist group in practice than a criminal gang with a special focus on kidnapping-for-ransom, ASG is now estimated to number about 500 fighters, a decrease from 1,200 in 2002. There are also no evident operational ties with the larger Al Qaeda network, although that absence could also be attributed to Indonesia successfully crippling its own Jemaah Islamiyah, whose members often served as the link between Al Qaeda leadership in Afghanistan/Pakistan and various groups in Southeast Asia, or the elimination of most of Al Qaeda’s senior leadership over the years. ASG’s senior leadership has been devastated, with fifteen of twenty-four named “High Value” leaders targets captured or killed by 2011. 2006’s “Operation Ultimatum” on Jolo resulted in the death of Khadaffy Janjalani, younger brother of ASG’s founder and leader of the group during the 2001 kidnappings.
These successes were achieved by more capable AFP units that had been trained and mentored by the US. Counter-terrorism aside, it has also been argued that US operations in the Philippines have been a success by providing a framework for improved military cooperation between the Philippines and the US. Those ties had frayed following the closure of the major US bases in the Philippines during the early nineties. While many Filipinos still dislike the US military presence, ten years of operations in the south have set a new precedent for combined US-Philippine military cooperation. This relationship could prove strategically useful to the US as it re-prioritizes its global military commitments, with a greater emphasis on the Pacific.
The Basilan Model as a Failure?
In spite of these documented successes (killed or captured ASG leaders and a significantly smaller sized terrorist group, some improved economic development, improved military-to-military ties between the Philippines and US), security on islands such as Basilan has fluctuated wildly since 2002, with periods of relative quiet interspersed with outbreaks of kidnapping and conflict between the Philippine military and various local groups. Critics have argued that the AFP drew down its forces on Basilan too quickly in 2004, and that the resulting vacuum was exploited by ASG members, who were able to return to Basilan after having fled to nearby Mindanao and Jolo. Unable to pressure the enemy everywhere in their various havens across the archipelago, the AFP and their US supporters could do nothing more than to chase them from island to island.
Despite the initial successes of 2002-2004, there have been multiple ASG-linked terrorist attacks in the Philippines since, and multiple outbreaks of violence and clashes with the military on islands such as Basilan (although the ASG itself was not always responsible for this violence). In 2004 fourteen people were killed and 116 injured following a bomb attack onboard SUPERFERRY 14 while it traveled from Manila to Mindanao, in an attack attributed to ASG and linked groups. ASG was also blamed for multiple bomb attacks in Manila and Mindanao on Valentine’s Day 2005 in which eleven people were killed. In 2007 a bomb attack against the Batasang Pambansa, the building in which the Philippine House of Representatives meets, killed six people, including Wahab Akbar, the representative for Basilan and former Basilan governor. Akbar, who had a particularly complex history with the various insurgent and Islamist groups in the region (he had been a MNLF deputy commander and was accused of being one of the ASG’s founders), was allegedly targeted by rival Basilan politicians on Basilan.
Basilan itself has been the site of much combat between Philippine troops and the locals. In July 2007 fourteen AFP Marines were killed in Al Barka, a Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) stronghold in the southeastern part of the island. Although blame has been attributed to the Marines entering a MILF-controlled area without proper coordination with MILF leaders (per a pre-existing arrangement between the MILF and Philippine government), incidents such as these have recurred in recent years.
Kidnap-for-ransom and violence on Basilan also picked up in late 2008 and early 2009. In 2008 twenty-six people were injured after a grenade was detonated outside the much-heralded Isabela City Jollibee. Clashes between the AFP and local groups in late 2008 displaced 3,000 villagers. In January 2009 three International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) employees were kidnapped. The nadir in 2009 was a mass escape from a jail in Isabela City in which at least 31 prisoners from the ASG and MILF were freed by attackers who allegedly broke through the wall. The most prominent of the escapees was Dan Laksaw Ustaz Asnawi, one of the senior leaders of the MILF unit on Basilan, the 114th Base Command, who had been blamed for the 2007 ambush of the Marines in Al Barka.
A month before the 2010 national elections, violence on Basilan was topped off by a coordinated set of attacks in Isabela City, resulting in at least thirteen killed and fifteen wounded on 13 April. While Basilan-based ASG or MILF elements received most of the blame (a brother of Furuji Indama, one of the senior ASG leaders on Basilan was believed killed in the attack), one of the losing candidates for governor, Ungkaya Pukan mayor Joel Maturan, accused another losing candidate, Mujiv Hataman, of masterminding the attack as part of a plot to discredit the Basilan governor and Isabela City mayors, both of whom ultimately retained their seats (and happen to both be Wahab Akbar’s widows).
Violence continued in 2011 and 2012, even after responsibility for Basilan shifted from a Brigade commanded by and primarily composed of AFP Marines to a Philippine Special Operations Forces-led unit. In October 2011 nineteen soldiers were killed in Al Barka in circumstances similar to the 2007 ambush, while entering MILF-controlled areas in search of fugitives. Another nineteen troops were killed in July 2012 in Sumisip, the mountainous area in the center of the island.
What is the True Impact of US Operations in the Southern Philippines?
Evidence of improved security aside, it’s unclear whether the Basilan model can be repeated in other countries. As the Economist observed, the US “is unlikely to find other partners as perfect as the AFP, which is modeled on America’s armed forces. Filipino officers speak English, know and admire America, once the colonial power, and can bond with their comrades over beer and karaoke. Try that in Yemen.”
Success in the Philippines may also have been not as important in terms of combating terrorism in Southeast Asia than events in neighboring Indonesia. There has been little direct US involvement in Indonesian counter-terror efforts, but authorities there have been able to crush Jemaah Islamiyah and eliminate its senior leaders such as Dulmatin, one of the masterminds of the 2002 Bali bombing who also served as a link between Al Qaida and the various jihadist groups in the Philippines. Dulmatin lived on Mindanao between 2003 and 2007, but was only killed in 2010 after his return to Indonesia.
Despite the emphasis on security for the locals and improved infrastructure through Civil Military Operations, US-backed counter-insurgency or counter-terrorism has done little to address the long-festering socio-economic problems of the southern Philippines. The Muslims of the Sulu Archipelago and Mindanao are still much poorer than their Catholic countrymen. In October 2012 the Aquino government signed an agreement with the MILF which would provide a new framework for developing self-government for Muslims in the south (replacing the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, the result of previous negotiations with the rival MNLF in 1996). It’s unclear whether the new agreement will be the key to peace in the region, or will founder due to conflicts between the MILF and MNLF. It is also unclear whether US-enabled counter-insurgency had any role in pushing Philippine President Benigno Aquino towards attempting to resolve the decades-long crisis (it is likely that an agreement with the MILF would have been an administration priority regardless).
It was noted above that OEF-P could be seen as a strategic success because it established a framework for continued and enhanced US military presence in the Pacific. However, it could be argued instead that the Philippine government, concerned with a “rising” China, would have sought a closer military relationship with the US regardless of whether US troops had helped prosecute a military campaign against domestic insurgents for a decade. While Presidents Bush and Arroyo may have had a close relationship, based in large part by their shared priorities regarding the war against terror, a reasonable argument could be made that a close US-Philippine security relationship would have been pursued by the Obama and Aquino administrations due to converging geopolitical interests, regardless of the relationship between their predecessors.
Ultimately, Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines can be judged as a mixed success at best. It provided a sense of urgency which motivated efforts to eliminate havens exploited by foreign jihadists to seek shelter among their co-religionists in the Philippines. Despite success at degrading Philippine terrorist networks, however, much of the resulting security gains have been transitory, and the social and economic problems causing decades of violence in Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago are still in place.