President Obama's new agreement with the Philippines will give U.S. troops greater access to military bases across the Pacific island nation. But it's not the only major military transition underway there: Just as more conventional U.S. forces are likely to flow through the Philippines, the United States is pulling back on its long-running and secretive special operations mission there, reducing the number of commandos and altering the focus for those who remain.
The mission was launched in January 2002, just months after the 9/11 terror attacks, to help the Philippine military hunt Islamist extremist fighters in the region. Navy SEALs, U.S. Army Special Forces and other U.S. commandos zeroed in on southern islands such as Mindanao and Basilan, which are home to the terrorist group Abu Sayyaf and were identified as a potential breeding ground for terrorists looking to launch attacks against the United States. There typically were some 600 U.S. commandos on the ground training and advising the Philippine military, but the number has been reduced in the last year to less than 400, and more cuts are expected, a U.S. special operations official told Foreign Policy.
The U.S. forces' primary mission wasn't to fight, but the American commandos have still found themselves in bloody situations on occasion. At least 17 U.S. troops have died there, including 10 in a helicopter crash in 2002, one in a restaurant bombing in 2002, and two in a roadside bombing attack in 2009. More recently, U.S. troops with Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command launched an Oct. 18, 2011, rescue mission alongside their Philippine counterparts after Philippine commandos were ambushed during an attempted raid on a village on Basilan. Six Philippine troops were killed and about a dozen were wounded, U.S. military officials said. No U.S. forces were wounded or killed, but some of the Philippine casualties were reportedly beheaded.
The ongoing withdrawal of U.S. commandos is a major move for the Pentagon because the mission in the Philippines is widely viewed as a model for how "foreign internal defense" should work, said Linda Robinson, a special operations analyst with the Rand Corporation that has consulted with the military frequently. Under the concept, the Pentagon sends small amounts of highly trained troops to a foreign country that wants U.S. help and is willing to do the bulk of the fighting itself rather than sending in large numbers of American forces.
"The thing that made the Philippines such a good model was they maintained constant touch with the Philippine government and forces they were training," Robinson said. "They didn't come and go; they had them there consistently."
It's also a bit of a gamble. The Philippine military continues to clash with insurgents groups across the island nation. On Tuesday, for example, local commanders in Zamboanga City said their marine corps forces had captured a fortified Abu Sayyaf camp on Sulu, another island. The assault was launched hours ahead of Obama's arrival in Manila. The extremist group is believed to have numerous captives hidden on Sulu in jungle compounds. The U.S. unit overseeing special operations in the country is known as Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines, and has headquarters on a Camp Navarro, a Philippine base in Zamboanga City, an urban center on Mindanao.
Still, Admiral Samuel Locklear, the chief of U.S. Pacific Command, told Foreign Policy that Philippine security forces have advanced to the point that they don't need as much U.S. assistance as they did a decade ago. Additionally, the government in Manila wants to pivot to build a civilian police force that can maintain security in volatile areas, rather than using the military to hold the line. That will require fewer U.S. special commandos, with many of those remaining focused on training the police force to safeguard the southern islands in the future, the admiral said.
"We're not going to walk away from our support of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, but we'd like to broaden it in a way that is consistent with the way forward that the Armed Forces of the Philippines sees it," Locklear told Foreign Policy. "... We don't necessarily need a 600-man train-and-assist mission down there to try to teach them how to do something that they now know how to do."
A U.S. special operations spokesman said the relationship between U.S. commandos and the Philippine military has progressed to the point where they ask for help less frequently, and make specific requests when they do that usually involve crunching surveillance data, using aviation, or launching medical rescue missions. Within the last year, an additional adjustment was made so that advising occurs at the "task force level," meaning the majority of the advising now focuses on tasks carried out by senior officers, like planning and scrutinizing intelligence. It's a sign that commanders believe their rank-and-file troops have picked up the skills U.S. commandos have taught.
The positioning of the special operations forces in the Philippines came in handy last year in the immediate aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan, which roared across the island nation on Nov. 8, 2013, with winds of more than 200 mph. U.S. special operations troops were among the first to respond, transporting more than 23,000 pounds of relief supplies and evacuating 201 displaced civilian shortly after the storm. They also conducted dozens of aerial "assessment patrols" using aircraft to gauge the damage on the ground so relief workers would know where to focus their efforts, special operations officials said.
U.S. Navy photo