Small Wars Journal

Has Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines Been a Success?

Fri, 04/05/2013 - 3:30am

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. 

About the Author(s)

Lieutenant Commander Mark Munson is a Naval Intelligence officer currently serving on the OPNAV staff.  He has previously served at Naval Special Warfare Group FOUR, the Office of Naval Intelligence, and onboard USS ESSEX (LHD 2).  In 2010 he deployed as the Intelligence Officer for Task Force Archipelago, the Naval Special Warfare component of Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines.  The views expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect the official viewpoints or policies of the Department of Defense or the US Government.



Wed, 04/10/2013 - 2:28am

In reply to by HeavyMG

So what do you think "needs to be done", by Americans at least, in the Philippines?


You, obviously, have much free time to verbally (and grammatically)astound one another, as you babble back and forth and still, what needs to be done remains so. What is next? The PhD? A second, perhaps? Thank you for your emboldened commentary, now get back to work. There are too many dog-faces sucking mud while you whine....


Sun, 04/07/2013 - 8:16pm

In reply to by JasonT

Somewhat depressing news from the conference, but not unexpected. I don't get invited to those, bit too far outside the box. Area analysts have a strong incentive to play up the connection to AQ and "global jihad", which keeps the area in the public eye and keeps the conference invitations rolling in. Certainly there are individuals and groups in the area with those connections, just as there are individuals and groups involved in KFR and miscellaneous banditry. I'm not sure that any of them really deserve to be called "Abu Sayyaf" in the sense of linear continuity with either the original AJ/Khalifa/Abdul Asmad ASG or the subsequent Tilao/Gandang criminal incarnation. The name persists mostly because it's recognizable and gets a reaction. The problem is not "the ASG" per se but an entrenched culture of violence that takes both material and political outlets, generally closely linked.

I'm not sure it's entirely accurate to say that "nearly all internal conflict in the Philippines is now material based". Money's never far from the surface, but it's not always the only factor. One common thread in Mindanao is that both the rank and file Muslims that fight for MILF, MNLF, etc and the Lumad that form the backbone of the NPA soldiery are threatened by displacement and marginalization by a horde of immigrants. Another common thread is the lack of a functioning justice system: without attachment to an armed group you and your family are fair game for anyone. Both the Lumad and the indigenous Muslim groups see their respective armed groups, political or not, as protection from landgrabbing politicians, intrusive settlers, resource extraction corporations, etc. Of course the leaders of the armed groups have to support their guys, and they are always after money, cutting deals wherever they can, often with their nominal enemies.

I'm not all that impressed with the "Bayanihan" plan. It reads like US product for a reason: it's well known here that telling Americans what they want to hear opens the gates to the kingdom of heaven, or at least to the US treasury, which is close enough to being the same thing. The plan still focuses on the traditional threats with a lot of lip service to "hearts and minds" concepts. Little mention of the desperate need to control corruption and collusion in illicit business within security services, and little mention of the even more desperate need to crack down on the illegal activities and armed groups associated with local and regional politicians. Without that, the rest won't go far.

My own observation is that the military in my area seem to behave better than they once did, though there are still issues. The people's attitude toward them still ranges from dislike to loathing, and nobody wants them around. People are generally more sympathetic to the NPA, not for political reasons, more on "enemy of my enemy" grounds. They don't like having NPA around either, though, as having NPA around brings the military around. There's no longer a sense that the NPA is needed to defend against mining companies, probably the leading perceived external threat, as the communities (justifiably) feel able to manage that threat on their own.

On the peace agreement in the south... I'm not as optimistic as some. At best it's a means to an end. It may open a window of opportunity, but both the national and regional/local governments will have to act decisively to exploit that window and try to break up the pattern of "big man" politics and bring those with power within the rule of law, or the Bangsamoro Autonomous Entity will be little more than ARMM 2.0. I don't see the political will or the capacity to make that happen.

For the US presence, my sense is that what can be accomplished by outside intervention has been, and that it would not be a bad time to think about phasing down, before some genius comes up with an opportunity for mission creep.

Mark Munson

Sun, 04/07/2013 - 12:03pm

In reply to by JasonT

As an answer to your question regarding the possible causal role played by JSOTF-P in the ability of the Philippine Government and MILF to sign the recent Bangsamoro agreement....I think it's pretty fair to say that US presence/involvement discouraged the large foreign presence in the MILF camps that had been such a problem in the past. Indonesians and other members of the various Southeast Asian groups aren't living en masse in the various Mindanao camps anymore, and those few that are left are pretty much stranded without anywhere else to go in the region. Having said that, such an assessment gives short shrift to the Indonesians, who've done so much to degrade networks such as JI without having an enduring 600-man US SOF presence on their soil.

I think the long and difficult history of a grand bargain with MILF and the Moros as a whole illuminates what you and Dayuhan identify as the root cause of so many of these problems in the Philippines...the institutional importance of patronage politics. What had prevented an agreement with the MILF for so long was that the Muslim-majority provinces had already been "given" to the MNLF in the form of the ARMM, so there was no reward for the MILF to lay down arms. If the new Bangsamoro agreement just takes the ARMM from the MNLF and gives it to the MILF, then it is much more likely to fail due to the ethnic cleavages within the Moro community that drove the MNLF/MILF split than opposition from opponents of the Aquino government in Manila. The ongoing shenanigans in Sabah, with Jolo-based allies of Nur Misauri trying to embarrass the government, may be the first example of an MNLF/Tausug strategy to embarrass the government and delegitimize the agreement.

Dayuhan, this comment is spot on: "The fundamental challenge of bringing peace to Mindanao and surrounding islands is not bringing rebels and bandits within the rule of law, it's bringing the government and its representatives within the rule of law, and the US can't do that."

I just came from a global security conference where PI was often raised. Even in an audience of experienced operators there remains a one dimensional view of the conflict environment i.e. still a jihadist / Islamic fight. Even one of the leading counter terrorism experts based in Singapore (with previous claims to have got close to AQ in the early days) lectured us on how ASG remains linked to AQ, rather than having transformed into another criminal enterprise with a focus on KnR.

Its ability to exist because of the violent nature of Big Man politics was not raised as a factor. Only one person determined that nearly all internal conflict in the Philippines is now material based. Relative deprivation is the most significant driver of conflict and constantly shifting relationships. I am told that even paving the local road to get crops to the market and opening a Jolly Bee has a stabilising effect on ASG members. Shows you have committed they are to real Jihad!

The recently developed Philippine Government Internal Peace and Security Plan “Bayanihan” program reads like a US DOS / USAID manual. From what I know on the ground, in areas where AFP field guys are dedicated to rolling it out, there have been positive transitions in the mindset of the local population. Yet, this goes to Dayuhan’s point, it is working because there is the presence and the application of law abiding, dedicated AFP and government officials. Could this be another broader sign of positive influence from the US strategy on the Philippines?

More importantly, even though Bayanihan has all the hallmarks of a US approach is it being implemented with 100% Philippine initiative and problem solving, rather than another Western contrived template being rolled out.

How does the author of this paper align his general argument with the fact that the GOP and the MILF have embarked on the best peace agreement to date? Could this have happened without the presence, training, influence etc of the US and their behind the scenes assistance to eliminate the influence and presence of foreign jihadists? Hasn’t the US assistance created the space for at least the leadership of the MILF and the GOP to determine a fresh way forward? Yes, there have been peace agreements in the past however, the current framework signed last October, is the most promising. A good indication is that any attempt by the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) to disrupt the process, has been swiftly dealt with by the MILF and the AFP. Probably also the significant economic / taxation benefits that will flow to the ARMM have made the MILF leadership more determined than before.

Are we at risk of trying to find the perfect model when we all know it is a mission impossible task? The US is tasked with working through a local government with imperfect resources and understanding, challenging cultural dynamics, constantly changing Commanders, restrictive operational rules and changing direction from political and government leaders as well as constantly shifting alliances between villages and the population. We also need to accept that settling disputes through violence is a constant theme in the Philippines and this should not be seen as a blotch on the OEF-P as curtailing the overall culture of violence was never part of the mission.

The use of the 2010 election violence as an indicator of poor performance from the US mission, is a little unfair.

There will be an election in May this year. A gun ban has been in place since the end of 2012. Since January this year over 30 people have been killed and over 20 wounded in election related violence, including the deaths of a sitting mayor, governor candidates and staff. The elections are still over eight weeks away.

Also was it ever part of the OEF-P mission to address the social and economic problems in Southern Philippines? Yes this is a critical factor in permitting insurgency of and armed groups to thrive, but it would have been mission-creep if this had been become part of OEF-P’s objective. We already know about the effect of this from Afghanistan.

As an aside, from what we experience, the two single biggest threats to internal peace and security in PI are the NPA and the heavily armed, well connected armed groups and criminal bandits. Both providing further examples of “minimal alliance networks” - this certainly exists where the NPA are able to roam.

Bill M.

Sun, 04/07/2013 - 11:05pm

I definitely prefer to see articles along this line that float important questions and promote critical thinking compared to articles that champion a particular approach. JSOTF-P was an appropriate model (maybe not the best one) based on the situation, one that was very successful during the early years at the tactical level. That doesn't mean is a model for FID in other countries like Yemen, or that it is applicable when you oust a government and become an occupying power as the coalition did in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet we shouldn't throw the baby out with the bathwater because there are valuable lessons from this operation that can be adapted in different situations, also important lessons on what not to do, which is to design an operation without agreed upon phases to a transition back to a normal security cooperation environment.

Dayuhan wrote, "Neutralizing the conditions that support continued violence and the potential spread of terrorist sentiment is simply not within the capacity of US forces". That's true, and if we develop mission statements and endstates that specify or imply that we're signing up for that, then we risk signing up for commitments without end, commitments that tend to lose to their strategic value over time and actually bring into question the successes we had.

I somewhat critical of our strategic approach and tend to think we have lacked strategic clarity, which is one reason Commanders have come up with fuzzy end states (which more appropriately should be called transition phases) that in some respects have left us floundering with no clear goal collectively with our partners. This supports the argument made by some strategic thinkers that the US government no longer thinks clearly (assuming it ever did) and that it uses words imprecisely. The "you know what we mean" approach doesn't cut it. What do we mean? How are we going to achieve that? Why is it important? What are we trying to enable our partners to do? Will using the same approach and simply staying longer facilitate doing so, or hinder progress? The answers won't be found in reviewing statistics, but in open and frank talks with all involved, most importantly the Filipino people.

I think the author has in fact identified the crux of the issue when he wrote, "US-backed counter-insurgency or counter-terrorism has done little to address the long-festering socio-economic problems of the southern Philippines." That prompts the question, can the U.S. government do this? If so how? If the government can't, then what is a realitic objective for U.S. assistance?

JSOTF-P performed superbly at the tactical level using the indirect approach, and it worth noting that we are in fact conducting foreign internal defense (FID), and that FID is a whole of government mission to assist a host nation with "their" internal defense and development (IDAD) program. That means addressing the full spectrum of relevant systems (political, economic, financial, security, information, etc.) in a way that results in enduring transformation within the government, not just tactical success at the tip of the spear.

The USG in my opinion makes our FID missions less effective when they focus on particular threat group such as ASG in the Philippines, or the Drug Cartels in Columbia. This prevents a more holistic view incorporating the host nation's perspective, and in many cases hinders or even prevents effective transformation at the government level, because we're focused on the tip of the spear on a tactical threat and miss the overall context that may have led to underlying conditions. Top down is critical for enduring success, more effort must be directed at the national level. You don't need a JSOTF to do this, for the military we can work through the Office of Security Cooperation, or in the case of the Philippines the Joint U.S. Military Advisory Group (JUSMAG) that is in the capital. JSOTFs are normally developed to focus the joint force on tactical challenges such as a crisis response, while other command and control arrangements should be pursued to support FID (once the tactical problem is reduced beyond immediate threat, assuming that is the issue when we first provide support). Some spectulate, and I tend to agree that we never would have needed to form a JSOTF if we didn't largely disengage from the Philippines approximately a decade prior to the 9/11 attacks for a wide range of reasons. If we really want to enable on small print approaches, then that means persistent engagement that assists nations develop the means to prevent problems from rising to this level.

I think a comment on nation building is relevant to the discussion, because it is the relatively recent focus on nation building that has led us away from clearer thinking. Dayuhan wrote elsewhere that "we can't build nations because nations grow," which means we aren't going to build a nation during our doctrinal 6 phase involvement. At best we can pull weeds (tactical operations direct against adversaries), help plant some seeds (economic and political advice), and fertilize the soil (information and economic assistance), but in the end the people have to go through a process, one that will take decades. It took us over a hundred years to get to the Civil Rights Act, yet we think foreign nations can transform into mature nations in a matter of years under our watchful assistance. We see failur, or not good enough, when there are a handful of criminal events or minor terrorist attacks, but if we put it in perspective by reviewing the crime stats of most U.S. states we have an aha momement and realize that some level of violence is normal part of every society regardless of how undesired it is.

Most Commanders in JSOTF-P understood FID and attempted to influence a more whole of government approach to consolidate tactical gains, but only had the power of their ideas to do so. In the Philippines I think others in the U.S. government outside the military fell short.


Sun, 04/07/2013 - 8:47pm

In reply to by Mark Munson

Possibly I focused to an excessive extent on a single paragraph, for which I apologize. The claim that cooperation was a consequence of civil-military operations and a general "hearts and minds approach" has been repeated too often, and the emphasis on that without acknowledgement of the severe conflict within the ASG and between the ASG and its support network over ransom distribution has become a bit of a hot button for me, and I may be seeing repetition where reference was meant.

Another element rarely referenced by American sources but often referred to by locals is an explosion in methamphetamine use among the ASG rank and file during the period of major ransom payments, something that did not endear them to the communities.

Mark Munson

Sun, 04/07/2013 - 12:01pm

In reply to by Dayuhan

I'm being a little thin-skinned here, but I think you've attributed arguments to me that I spent half of the piece questioning and/or disproving. There isn't much literature out there on JTF-510/JSOTF-P, but what there is tends to accept that it has been an unalloyed success. My assertion that the US has used CMO to encourage cooperation with the locals is pretty uncontroversial...the claim that such an approach worked is a quote from a JTF-510 participant, and I don't necessarily agree with it except in a very specific tactical context during 2002. The crux of my argument is that while the US has had ten years of training various AFP units (refraining from arguing about whether that's been done in a particularly efficient way), it's not really clear that such an effort has had anything to do with addressing the real problems.

There are a few comments here that have achieved the status of mantras, accepted without question by virtue of repetition. They can be summed up in this paragraph:

<i>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. </i>

It is to some extent true that the US presence has helped to "secure the population". In the predominantly Christian towns there might be a perception that the populace is more secure from rebel or terrorist attack. In the predominantly Muslim sections there's also a perception that the US presence helps secure the population, but in a quite different way. One of the first things you hear from Basilan Muslims is that they like having the Americans around because when the Americans are around the Filipino soldiers are less inclined to kick them around. Americans may have helped to improve security for locals, but in the Muslim areas at least they provided security from our allies, not from our enemies. Nobody I've talked to believes that will continue after the Americans leave, but nobody will know until that happens.

The claim that civil-military projects and interaction won the support of locals and led them to provide information is way oversimplified. The surge in ASG manpower and local support for the ASG had nothing to do with jihadi sentiment or even loathing for the Government and its armed forces. It was about money, provided by large ransom payments. The collapse of the ASG also had a lot to do with money. Lots of promises were made in the heyday of the kidnap spree: everyone from local officials to traditional leaders to villages who provided food or kept quiet about a hostage presence was promised a cut. When money came in the division was rarely (if ever) as promised. That left a whole lot of angry resentful people. When the ASG was ascendant they kept that anger bottled up for reasons of personal security, but once the tactical momentum changed, it was time to settle scores, and there were lots of scores to settle. A village head that squealed on an ASG leader was not doing it because he'd suddenly had an epiphany and realized that the Americans were nice and the Philippine Government were the good guys. He was doing it because that ASG leader had cut him out of what he thought was his share of the pie, and he wanted someone else to take revenge for him.

The use of the oft-repeated data point about ASG strength declining as a metric for success illustrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the landscape. I recommend study of the work of anthropologist Thomas Kiefer, particularly the work on what he called "minimal alliance networks" (Kiefer focused on the Tasug but the same pattern prevails in other local groups).

The basic unit of armed force in the area is a small cluster of men, often of the same village or clan, led by what I call a Little Big Man. Being a Little Big Man has perks, but also responsibilities: you have to keep your guys supplied with food, girls, ordnance, and above all money. In pursuit of these, the groups routinely switch allegiances to whoever will support them. There's little ideology involved beyond an abiding dislike for the national government, and even that won't keep them from cooperating with officialdom if there's money to be made. These networks will cooperate at times of imminent threat, but cooperation is likely to be fleeting. The point is that while the ASG may have dropped from 2500 men to 200, the other 2300 are not off the table, they've just hung their hats elsewhere for the moment. They're still there, still armed, and still prepared to follow whoever provides money, charisma, or both.

The effort to break the local armed populace down into neat little .ppt boxes labeled "MILF", "MNLF", "ASG" and the multiple private armed groups is never going to give a clear picture of an inherently ephemeral situation where armed men shift alliances freely and often maintain multiple alliance simultaneously.

To assess the success or failure, we compare results to goals, referring to this statement of goals:

<i>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."</i>

The first goal has to some extent been achieved. Leadership has been degraded, and the area is a lot less safe for "foreign jihadists" than it once was, though they do still circulate.

Neutralizing the conditions that support continued violence and the potential spread of terrorist sentiment is simply not within the capacity of US forces. This is not and never has been about "development" or "government services". Local governance is still dominated by an utterly corrupt and toxic clique of "Big Man" warlords and their clans, often acting in concert with local security forces and driven primarily by self-interest. The fundamental challenge of bringing peace to Mindanao and surrounding islands is not bringing rebels and bandits within the rule of law, it's bringing the government and its representatives within the rule of law, and the US can't do that. As long as the twin demons of big man politics and unresolved tension between settler and indigenous communities remain, the conditions for continued or resurgent violence will be present.

Move Forward

Sun, 04/07/2013 - 12:07am

In reply to by Dayuhan

<blockquote>For the Texas analogy, how peaceful would Texas be if it were policed by 70,000 Afghans trying to impose an Afghan version of what Texas ought to look like.</blockquote>

Thanks Dayuhan and a pretty good point with some caveats.

In the CATO Institute video, I took notes on some of the Ambassador's points. Relative to 2002, Afghanistan has a:

* 5 times larger GDP
* 8 million in school vs. the prior 200K, many that are girls
* Literacy up from 15% to 35% and climbing
* Life expectancy of 60 years vs. the prior 44
* Phone usage of 66% vs. virtually zero before

It appears that many Afghans already decided they would prefer to look more like America and the rest of the West in some respects. I'll add my own points.

* Over half the Afghan population (the far less radical half that would not embrace al Qaeda, ISI, or Arab intervention) has never objected to our assistance in helping Afghanistan look more like an Islamic version of little America.
* The ANSF has finally begun to emerge as a force that would never allow the Taliban to retake most of Afghanistan, thus returning a sharia-like environment that would re-attract terrorists and jihadists.
* New and repaired roads facilitate trade, and potential exists for enhanced mining, electricity development, and trade with neighbors.
* 58% of the less radical population that is not Pashtun now controls its own destiny and rules its own provinces while the Kabul government is tolerated/ignored as largely irrelevant and will be replaced in 2014.

Let me further paraphrase the ambassador when he stated that in a RAND study of 20 societies with military interventions where peacekeeping or peace enforcement were involved, 16 of 20 interventions succeeded in bringing peace. Of those interventions, Afghanistan had a measly 15% improvement in democratization, but was 2nd from the top in economic growth, 2nd from the top in government improvement, and at the top in human development.

He further noted primary lessons of Balkan peacekeeping that involved Muslims and therefore could have been a pretty fair model for Afghanistan. The three primary lessons with my own observations added were:

1) Go in big...did not happen until 2009 allowing a Taliban resurgence and the appearance of an occupation despite multi-national participation

2) Recognize that indigenous security organizations will have disintegrated or been discredited, requiring rebuilding of new ones...check

3) Involve neighboring societies, which we did and continue to do to a large extent to include Russian and northern route interests, Pakistan, Iran, India, and China, not to mention NATO countries to include Turkey.

If Texas evolved to be half-controlled by radical Islamists who invited terrorist Hezbollah in that subsequently smuggled a nuclear IED into Washington D.C. and smuggled drugs into the rest of America, while prohibiting women from going to school, placing IEDs on Interstates, and imposing sharia law:

* I suspect half of Texas would not mind federal force involvement in eliminating the unwanted problem even if the other half of newly radical Texans did mind
* If Mexican forces were involved as part of the coalition of the willing, I also doubt many would object, and we would no doubt reciprocate with forces in Mexico to assist them.


Sat, 04/06/2013 - 7:35pm

In reply to by Move Forward

There has never been any fear that the Philippine Muslim population would "win an election or defeat the Philippine Armed Forces", though that population did achieve an effective stalemate with the Philippine Armed Forces, a situation that still prevails in some areas. The concern was that the area's ungoverned spaces would evolve into refuge and breeding grounds for terrorist groups.

I don't see any relevant analogy between Mindanao and Iraq or Afghanistan. Comparing assistance to an existing government fighting an existing insurgency to regime change followed by the imposition of a government of our choice is like... well, apples and oranges doesn't quite do it. More like apples and pickup trucks.

For the Texas analogy, how peaceful would Texas be if it were policed by 70,000 Afghans trying to impose an Afghan version of what Texas ought to look like.


Sat, 04/06/2013 - 12:58pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones


You touch on the fundamental flaw in the prevelant thinking about COIN -- that properly employing the right mix of forces will somehow makeup for a government's inability to address the grievances of a discontented populace. A government unwilling to accomodate its citizens is doomed for trouble. Perhaps this should be a consideration before embarking on any effort to assist a foreign power.

Robert C. Jones

Sat, 04/06/2013 - 11:03am

In reply to by Move Forward

Move Forward,

Ahh. You raise the critical point. Everyone seems to take the position that Amb Dobbins does: In essence "We had the political framework right - the problem is what blend of military tactics will then defeat the insurgency."

That is the classic, fundamental flaw. Here is what I would tell Amb Dobbins: "Sir, the political framework we established virtually guaranteed a revolutionary insurgency response by the half of Afghan society that our initial military operations disempowered and the leaders of that movement who took sanctuary in Pakistan. No amount or type of military operation, or development or capacity building for that matter, can cure the political disaster we have created. The constitution that so many applaud is a legal guarantee of a Northern Alliance monopoly on governance and power in Afghanistan. Worse, it perverts and converts traditional Afghan patronage into a veritable Ponzi scheme of centralized corruption, where few leaders at District or Provincial lever are apt to have any degree of local legitimacy, and where all leaders from District level up are in competition with each other to shake down the people and provide patronage payments back up to Kabul. Sir, you have broken this so hard that no amount of military force or foreign money can fix it. Own that."

Then the military did not help, because the military wants to convert all forms of violence into some form of "war." It is my professional position that revolutionary insurgency, which is purely intra to a state system, is much more a form of civil emergency rather than a form of warfare, regardless of how violent it might become, how much external support it might receive (or from whom), or what tactics the insurgents might apply. So off the military ran in search of the right mix of tactics to "win" the "war."

Equal fault lies in both laps, those of the politicians and diplomats, and those of the Generals. But the political screw-up that happened first created an unwinnable situation for any follow-on military operation. The politicians and diplomats set the military up for the same long, drawn-out failure in Vietnam as well.

Which brings us back to the Philippines. In the Philippines we did not insert ourselves at the political/diplomatic level and destroy host nation sovereignty and legitimacy as we did in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Not this time, anyway. Certainly the overall history of the US in the Philippines made those same mistakes in the past. This is why I applaud the Philippine government for not allowing excessive US influence and intrusion into their own internal problems, and equally why I applaud the Philippine government for owning up to their own contributions to the friction with the populace in the south and enacting the Bangsamoro program. I would encourage them to look equally at other segments of their society that are artificially excluded from full opportunity, not because of religious difference, but simply because of the "Us" elites vs. "Them" everybody else cultural framework that Spain left behind here, as they did every other place in the world, that they colonized. That will be the harder pill for governance in the Philippines to ultimately swallow and address.

Until we collectively reframe how we think about these types of conflicts - particularly in the modern age where such conflicts are harder to suppress and more likely to bring terrorist violence back onto the homelands of those who stick their noses into other people's problems - we will struggle to find the success we seek.

Move Forward

Sat, 04/06/2013 - 10:58am

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

First, I want to post a link to a CATO Institute event I watched most of last night on C-Span that is available at this link:

While I missed Rajiv Chandrasekaran's opening statement, I saw most of the comments by former ambassador James Dobbin and COL Gian Gentile which are well worth seeing. Both made great points and COL Gentile is more effective as a speaker (than writer), with great hand movements, clear points, and interesting voice inflection.

However, it was Ambassador Dobbins that I thought prevailed in most areas. His response to the raiding mentality (decried by MG McMaster) and the less is more philosophy was to point to the lack of success in early OEF when "less" was policy. "Less" also was the rule in OIF and the post "Mission Accomplished" stability operations environment. Returning to OEF, less was problematic when many coalition forces tried to defeat the Taliban with less...the Brits, Canadians and so on and invariably had to be bailed out by larger US forces with more airpower and general purpose forces.

COL Gentile made the point that if we had left both OIF and OEF soon after "mission accomplished" that there would have been far less loss of life and a quicker return to normalcy. The obvious response offered by Ambassador Dobbins was that "raiding" (and its corollary of stay behind SOF-only) does not end civil war, stop genocide or ethnic oppression, prevent nuclear proliferation, or eliminate government inadequacies or general purpose security force weaknesses. Iraq and Afghanistan clearly are not fixed today because Shiite-Sunni-Kurd problems and tensions between the Northern Alliance ethnicities and Pashtuns remain. However, at least trained host nation security forces are now available which would not have been the case if we had bailed out early after "mission accomplished."

If war is an extension of politics, as MG McMaster repeatedly re-asserted in several recent think tank appearances, then adequate force must be present to actually <strong>solve</strong> the political problem. Simply breaking it without fixing it (ala Colin Powell) and leaving solves nothing as witnessed by the Arab Spring that broke Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, and Syria and shows no signs of solving anything...even with SOF and raiding US airpower involvement. Neither did the no-fly zone solve the problem of Saddam Hussein. Neither would seapower and raiding airpower alone solve problems with North Korea or a PLA invasion of Taiwan or East China Sea islands.

Returning to your point, I attempted to draw parallels between Texas and Afghanistan. Both are similar in size and somewhat alike in population and differences in ethnic background (due to border violation) and drug smuggling problems. One has established infrastructure, affluent GDP, and heavy law enforcement presence...yet has its world rocked by illegal immigration, border drug violence, and recent assassinations of DAs. Yet it can deal with it because adequate security forces are available to cover the large area and large urban populations. They don't attempt to solve the problem only with Texas Rangers. Neither can or could (in a counterfactual sense) SF/SOF alone have solved a much more violent and insurgent/drug/criminal-filled Afghanistan.

The Mindaneo Muslim population is roughly the equivalent of the population of Kabul in a slightly larger geographical area than that of Kabul. The ARMM region apparently has been offered a greater degree of autonomy for its smallish Muslim population relative to the far larger Christian majority. Obviously, the population of Kabul could not overthrow the rest of Afghanistan if it was Muslim and hypothetically just Pashtun, while the remainder of the country was notionally Christian and had a Northern Alliance ethnicity. The historically flawed notion that insurgency is insurgency is just dumb. Every situation is unique but the number of insurgents relative to those who aren't should be a primary consideration when deciding whether SF/SOF or raiding will work vs the need for a larger security force assistance force.

Unless you are prepared to fully solve the problem by dividing ethnicities ala the former Yugoslavia or going in with adequate force. Dobbins stated that we had 50 times the force in the Balkans per capita (60K troops for 3 million Bosnia population) than the 8,000 troops in Afghanistan at the end of 2002 that were supposed to secure 30 million Afghans and train the host nation forces. With those numbers you may as well not even go...which I think was COL Gentile's primary point about using US forces. Rajiv's point relayed from a state department employee who lived in Afghanistan and Iraq for 7 years was that perhaps the surge was unnecessary, but some level of credible force would need to be present for a sustained period of time. Dobbins said that once all elements are in place to sustain a society that would be 7 years. The problem was none of those conditions existed after "mission accomplished" in either country which was what drove the need for a surge and a "leave-the-FOB" strategy which is only possible with adequate forces for platoon-sized COPs in multiple areas.

MG McMaster's recent think tank comments point to war as a primarily human endeavor with most humans living on land. His counter to Gentile and others is that unless you are prepared to mass sufficient force to interface with and protect all of a war-torn or disintegrating nation-state's people, you are never going to solve the problem that sent you there in the first place.

You can bomb or secure sea lanes to your heart's content but unless you solve problems on the ground where people actually live, you haven't solved a thing. Neither should we believe that smallish SF elements can train 200,000 man Armies rapidly and secure populations over Texas-size areas without secured overall populations and bases for supporting airpower/aerial supply and overflight rights.

Robert C. Jones

Sat, 04/06/2013 - 7:26am

In reply to by Move Forward

Move Forward,

I have to confess, I have read your response to my post 3 times and am not sure what your point is. When I refer to "less" I am speaking about what an intervening power does in their efforts to help some partner or ally in dealing with an insurgency. You seem to have taken that I was speaking of the insurgent? Not sure.

But while insurgeny is a form of democracy, (if "war is the final argument of kings" then conversely, "insurgency is the final argument of the people.") insurgency certainly does not require a majority to prevail. It only takes "enough," whatever that turns out to be depends on a wide range of factors.

"Less" strategically is when the government recognizes their role in driving a population into conditions of insurgency from which insurgent groups can rise and find support and sanctuary. The insurgent organization is invariably the mere tip of a much larger iceberg of popular discontent. The Civil Rights acts the US passed were far more effective than launching into generations of ever increasing security force operations designed to keep an ever more revolutionary African American population in check. That is strategic COIN. Nip the problem of poor governance in the bud and work to ensure that people across a population share equally in the benefits and burdens of being part of some system of governance. This is what the Bangsamoro program is in the Philippines.

To be certain, Mr. Karzai and his GIRoA /Northern Alliance Cronies have absolutely NO intent of investing in any such strategic compromise in Afghanistan so long as they think they can hang on to the monopoly of power that we have created and sustained for them.

Move Forward

Fri, 04/05/2013 - 10:02pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

<blockquote>Tactically: The various organized insurgent groups (MILF, MNLF, ASG; even the UW group of the JI) are best seen as symptoms of larger problems in the populaces they draw upon and represent.</blockquote>

Heck, I know hardly anything about the Philippines. Can someone provide an explanation of how landlocked AfPak OEF applies to a group of Pacific islands with 95 million people, 90% of which are Christian? The small groups you mention above are hardly a threat to taking power it would seem.

Even when I look up Mindanao, I see an island with 25 million plus...nearly the population of Afghanistan, yet the ARMM region has only about 3 million Muslims....again not a group likely to win an election or defeat the Philippine armed forces even if we were nowhere around.

As for less is more, I ask you to consider recent events in Texas, with white supremacists possibly killing a few government leaders. Add to that nearby drug dealers and ample folks who ignore the border and go back and forth at will. Now take away the 70,000 Texas law enforcement officers, the DEA, border patrol, and replace them all with a couple of hundred Texas Rangers. Think peaceful Texas would be peaceful for long? See parallels with shadow governments and poppy growers who kill/threaten Afghan leaders as a way of life...and have thousands available to carry out such threats via the Taliban vs a few white prisoners?

Less is only more in architecture and even that is stereotypical.

Robert C. Jones

Fri, 04/05/2013 - 1:46pm

Depending on the metrics one applies, and the perspective one holds, one can find success or failure either one in any situation - where in truth perhaps neither exists.

This is a mission that I have a personal and professional investment in, and one that I have had the benefit of working behind the scenes with many of the major shapers and implementers of our role there. What follows is my own personal assessment of this mission:

The Strategic Success: OEF-P in some small way has shaped the way for the government of the Philippines to evolve in their own perspective and approach to the problem of the disconnect between those populaces of the Southern Philippines and the systems of governance that affect their lives. The recently adopted Bangsamoro program is a landmark, strategic COIN initiative on a level commensurate with the three major Civil Rights bills pushed through by the Johnson Administration to address similar conditions of insurgency among the African American populace in the 1960s. This is huge. Johnson's actions turned the corner for America to formally recognize and seek to address the shortfalls and inequities of governance that were serving to push a major segment of the populace into a growing insurgency. Similarly the Bangsamoro program is a major sea change in the government of the Philippines to do the same. I wish them well. This is true strategic COIN at its finest. OEF-P did not create this, but it help to shape the conditions to allow this to happen.

Tactically: The various organized insurgent groups (MILF, MNLF, ASG; even the UW group of the JI) are best seen as symptoms of larger problems in the populaces they draw upon and represent. Not as some "threat" to defeat. In fact, efforts to defeat such groups invariably drive the roots they grow from deeper into the rich soil of that broad, popular base. To look for attrition or reduced activity by these groups as a result of military action is, IMO, a poor and misleading metric. One can always suppress such groups for some period of time in some small place. But that is not victory.

The real tactical success is that the security forces of the Philippines, in their working with OEF-P, have evolved in how they treat the people they interact with and in how they operate in the course of their mission. They did not change because we built their "capacity," or because we "mentored" them. They changed because the realized that what we were doing with them, leading by example and always respecting their sovereignty, actually worked better. That when they operated in the manner we suggested their job was easier and violence against them was reduced. There is much cultural inertia to overcome, but success has a way of building upon itself. Time will tell.

But why such successes in the Philippines and not the same in places like Iraq and Afghanistan? Because we never made it our "war" and we never subjugated the sovereignty of the host nation to that of our own; and equally because we never co-opted the legitimacy of the host nation populace for a legitimacy born of our foreign military power. Trust me, many US military commanders chaffed and agonized at their inability to violate Philippine sovereignty and legitimacy in the name of increasing our tactical effectiveness. But they were constrained by law from doing so. The hot pursuit of tactical success by a foreign power is the fast road to COIN failure by the host nation involved. Less is more.

Of note, that is not among the "Strategic Lessons Learned from a Decade of War" captured by the US military. Primarily because we still confuse tactics for strategy and believe that no matter how egregiously one violates the fundamental strategic principles of intervention that the sum of tactical successes can somehow overcome those strategic sins. History repeatedly tells us that is a false hope. But our doctrine captures those false hopes as "victories"; after all, that is what our tactical metrics clearly validate.