ZAMBOANGA, Philippines — For the past six years, a little known special operations campaign in the Philippines’ restive southern provinces has applied theoretical counterinsurgency models in a real-world scenario.
Launched shortly after U.S. forces invaded Afghanistan in 2001, joint special operations task force Philippines (JSOTF-P) is a part of Operation Enduring Freedom, the name applied to the Central Asian campaign.
The task force — without engaging in direct combat — has advised and assisted the Armed Forces of the Philippines. They in turn, have pushed Islamic extremist factions into smaller territories, “neutralized” key leaders and prevented them from exporting their violent tactics beyond the nation’s borders, U.S. officials said. Most of the first-generation leaders who trained with Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan have been captured or killed.
The task force’s commanding officer, Col. William Coultrup, said in a briefing room at the operation’s headquarters at Camp Navarro, that the operation’s two overarching goals are denying the terrorist groups sanctuary and creating a credible counterterrorism force within the AFP.
“If we weren’t here, terrorist training camps would have a chance of flourishing in this area, and that’s what we’re trying to prevent,” Coultrup said. “All you need is a few good trainers who can create the next round of suicide bombers,” he added.
But both U.S. and Filipino officials acknowledge that hand-in-hand with military achievements and increased security, economic development must follow for the local populations to reject extremist ideology.
There is still considerable work to be done. The Philippine military’s equipment has deteriorated significantly since the United States was asked in the early 1990s to abandon its bases in this former colony. Whether the central government in Manila can deliver a better standard of living to these long-neglected and impoverished provinces remains to be seen.
“Our ultimate goal is to work ourselves out of a job,” said Coultrup.
The camp is a small, tightly secured compound located within a larger military base in Zamboanga City. Spread throughout the main islands of Mindanao, Basilan and the Sulu archipelago that forms a chain into the Sulawesi Sea, about 500 to 700 U.S. personnel are working with the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).
U.S. personnel do not engage in combat operations. They have the right to self-defense, but they are not put in situations where that would occur. “They don’t go on patrol,” Coultrup insisted.
There has only been one combat related death, which occurred in the first year — 2002.
Rather than traditional military support, the task force provides small unit training to make Philippine soldiers and marines more professional.
Prior to 2002, the AFP might have used a “sledgehammer” approach to react to terrorists.
The reaction on Basilan Island last summer to an attack which resulted in the deaths and beheadings of 10 marines is one example of how the AFP is changing and shows how so-called “indirect” actions can lead to success, Coultrup said.
In the past, the AFP might have sent in multiple battalions to kick down doors, further aggravating the local population and creating a cycle of violence. This time, the local commander killed local citizens with kindness. He used civil military operations — medical and dental clinics and engineering projects — and face-to-face meetings with local leaders to create a more positive atmosphere. The improved relations resulted in better intelligence and tips that allowed for “surgical strikes.” As a result, many of the perpetrators of the attack have been killed or taken into custody, he said.
Other indirect methods in the special operations toolkit are being used. Civil military operations — sometimes known as civil affairs — provide services and promote effective local governance. Psychological operations — known here as military information support teams — combat ideology, spread “wanted” posters of terrorist leaders, and explain that peace — not conflict — will bring prosperity to the region.
“If the population has more trust in their military, then they’re more likely to go to them for security than to the militants,” Coultrup said.
The southern Philippines is a predominantly Muslim region in a Christian nation.
Abu Sayyaf Group and the Indonesia-based Jemaah Islamiyah, whose leaders have found refuge here — are aligned with al Qaida and use violence to promote their radical Islamist goals. However, two less extreme separatist groups, the Moro National Liberation Front and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front — have grievances that long pre-date the rise of Bin Ladinism.
“The Muslims feel they are third-class citizens of this country,” said radio host Salvation Acerat, who works for the MIST team.
Reports by organizations such as Human Rights Watch, the International Crisis Group and Rand Corp. detail the long history of neglect that have given rise to extremism. Rand, in “Ungoverned Territories: Understanding and Reducing Terrorism Risks,” puts the Sulawesi-Mindanao arc in this category where central governance has little influence.
“Both Central Sulawesi and the Muslim areas of Mindanao have been historically isolated from the centers of political power in Jakarta and Manila and generally neglected by the central authorities,” the report said. Porous borders with piracy, armed militias, terrorists and separatist groups are the results.
Jon Lindborg, mission director for the U.S. Agency for International Development, in an interview at the U.S. embassy in Manila, said the area is rife with the poverty that can breed extremism.
Health, education, and access to infrastructure remain issues, but the central government is making renewed efforts there. The problem of endemic poverty took hold over decades, and won’t be solved overnight, he said.
In some regions there are as many as 100,000 school-age children not receiving any education.
“If you have young males, particularly, who aren’t in school, who don’t have jobs, you know where that goes,” he said.
USAID spends about $80 million per year in the Philippines, of which about 60 percent is focused on the Mindanao region, he said. These numbers have remained flat during the past five years.
There are positive signs that the region is turning around. Zamboanga was the fastest growing region in the Philippines in 2006, which Lindborg attributes to better security. The infant mortality rate has been cut in half during the last five years.
The $50 million per year USAID spends on the region for a target population of about 7 million does have an impact, he said. USAID has been working there since 1996 when the Moro National Liberation Front signed a peace agreement. The agency then helped 20,000 soldiers demobilize and transition to civilian life.
Some broke away and formed the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which is currently participating in peace negotiations. USAID stands ready to carry out a similar demobilization program for up to 10,000 combatants, if and when a peace agreement is signed, he said.
The Philippine military also has an image problem with extrajudicial killings and junior officers who occasionally threaten the elected government with coups.
These extrajudicial killings are more closely associated with the government’s decades long battle with the communist New People’s Army and its political wing, the National Democratic Front, rather than separatists or terrorists in the south.
The slow judicial process is partly to blame, said U.S. embassy spokesman Lee McClenny. The average case takes seven years to make its way through the moribund courts, which leads people to take justice into their own hands.
Nevertheless, members of the Philippine military have allegedly been involved in some of these politically motivated killings. Human Rights Watch estimated that 800 activists and journalists were killed during the past six years. U.S. embassy officials believe the number is lower — only several hundred.
McClenny said that all members of the military, from privates to officers, undergo human rights training. Some members of the military have been arrested. But Human Rights Watch noted that as of July 2007, none have been convicted.
The New People’s Army is the central government’s number-one security priority rather than terrorism in the south, McClenny said. If the AFP applies training learned from U.S. forces to fight against the communists, that’s fine with the U.S. government. The group is on the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations.
Coultrup added that the task force does not provide the Philippine government support in this long-term struggle.
The Philippine military, meanwhile, has to contend with funding problems.
Since the closure of U.S. bases in 1991, the military’s capability has dropped, said Paul Watzlavick, the embassy’s chief of political and military affairs.
The AFP is fighting the New People’s Army nationwide, and the separatists groups in the south. At the same time, forces often are called to assist in natural disasters. Earthquakes, floods, typhoons, volcanic eruptions — about 40 percent of the secretary of defense’s time is devoted to natural disaster response, Watzlavick said.
The biggest need is for helicopters, he said. One AFP spokesman said the Army’s fleet of UH-1 Hueys stood at about 90 when U.S. forces departed in 1991, but today only about 40 are in working condition. These aircraft cover a nation of 116,000 square miles and 7,107 islands. The Air Force has about five large transport aircraft.
The United States contributes about $60 million in foreign military sales and foreign military financing per year. In nearly every budget bill, these funds are cut dramatically, but Sens. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii; and Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, get them put back in, he added.
The Philippine military “wants to be self-reliant at some point,” Watzlavick said. “They have relied a lot on us through the years.”
In the Mindanao region, no one interviewed would put a timetable as to when U.S. special operations forces would work themselves out of a job.
One AFP spokesman said he thought U.S. forces would be needed in the southern Philippines for 20 years. The joint chiefs of staff and the Congress have extended the mission “indefinitely.”
One of the biggest contributions by the United States is the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets, which include a P-3 Orion maritime surveillance aircraft, small tactical unmanned aerial vehicles such as Scan Eagles and Ravens, and what he called “national intelligence assets,” a common euphemism for spy satellites.
“We share [information] immediately with our AFP counterparts. Everything that the P-3 sees, we let them see,” Coultrup said.
The armed forces need sturdy, low-maintenance items such as boats that can patrol littoral waters and swamps, and reliable helicopters such as the Huey.
Brig. Gen. Ruben Rafael, a regional commander of AFP special operations forces, said he needs third generation night vision technology. He made a request from higher headquarters more than a year ago, but it is still “in the pipeline,” he’s been told.
“We understand it’s expensive to provide one unit for each soldier in a battalion, but normally special operations forces have this kind of equipment,” he said. There are only four helicopters available in Zamboanga, which must cover all the Sulu island chain, he added.
Despite the progress, and as more and more territory on the islands becomes amenable to the AFP and attitudes of the residents towards terrorists and separatists change, there are reminders that the conflicts remain. In December, five marines were killed in a skirmish with a break-away Moro Islamic Liberation Front commander in Sulu. And the AFP has recently banned foreign journalists from visiting nominally secure forward operating bases on outlying islands, citing security concerns.
Coultrup said there has been progress with the Malaysian brokered peace negotiations between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the Philippine government. However, intelligence suggests that if an accord is signed, some disgruntled commanders will break away and continue to fight.
Abu Sayyaf Group numbers are down sharply from 2002, but they still have about 500 combatants, he said.
McClenny said the task force is having an enormous impact in assisting a key U.S. ally.
It costs about $32 million per year to support about 500 personnel. “That’s about a half a day in Iraq,” he said.
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