The Complex

U.S. Commando Mission in Philippines Getting Overhaul

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

National Security

Top Afghan Watchdog Says U.S. Withdrawal Complicates Efforts to Fight Fraud

The top watchdog overseeing the deeply flawed U.S. reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan has warned for months that his agency's ability to fight corruption and fraud will be drastically curtailed as the Pentagon continues to bring troops back home. But it turns out, the problems will be worse than even he thought. Officials with the watchdog organization plans to hire Afghan inspectors to help check up on U.S.-funded projects, but they acknowledge that won't be enough to ensure the reconstruction efforts are free of waste and abuse.

John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, told Foreign Policy on Thursday that a February meeting with officials from other government agencies, think tanks, and nongovernmental organizations left him deeply pessimistic about his auditors' ability to find ways of ensuring proper oversight as the war winds down. Sopko's agency, commonly known as SIGAR, pressed for information on how the other organizations do so-called third party monitoring of U.S.-funded projects elsewhere in the world. The government agencies and private institutions typically hire local residents in the countries where they are working to serve as de facto auditors, but warned him that those efforts often don't work as planned.

"I'll be honest with you: Maybe I was hoping for a silver bullet," Sopko said during an interview in his Virginia office just outside Washington. "The results are kind of mixed. People have thought of ideas and applied it, but they're not always as good as they're promised to be. I didn't walk away with an answer, and we're still mucking around trying to find one."

The comments come as senior U.S. officials in Washington and Kabul grapple with what a U.S. military presence may look like in Afghanistan after 2014, when President Obama says he will withdraw the remainder of U.S. combat troops from the country. Reuters reported Monday that the White House is considering chopping the residual force due to remain there afterward to less than 5,000 troops - less than half of what senior U.S. military commanders say they need. At the same time, U.S. officials anticipate spending another $20 billion in Afghanistan.

Sopko said he has not yet determined how a drawdown to that size will affect his agency's work after 2014. But SIGAR is likely to adopt a multi-prong approach for oversight after 2014 that includes contracting the work out to private companies, reviewing projects remotely through geospatial imagery and other technology, and recruiting Afghan civilians who already have worked for the U.S. government to perform inspections for SIGAR. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, in particular, has employed a bevy of Afghans to work for the organization in the past, but is letting many of them go as it reduces its operations.

"They've already been cleared," Sopko said of their ability to work for the United States. "They've already been polygraphed and all that. We're talking about hiring more people like that to supplement our inspections staff, which is made up of U.S. employees."

SIGAR was established by Congress in 2008 to expose waste, fraud and abuse in the U.S. war in Afghanistan, with a primary emphasis on development projects that have cost hundreds of billions of dollars in the last decade. Sopko took the reins at SIGAR in July 2012,

jump-starting an organization that had a reputation for being inept and poorly managed. His predecessor, Arnold Fields, came under fire on Capitol Hill and resigned in 2011 under pressure. Since Sopko has taken over, however, SIGAR has maintained a frenetic pace, pumping out reports and letters that underscore mismanagement and occasionally embarrass U.S. military commanders and diplomats.

Despite the troop drawdown, the agency's size has remained steady so far, with about 200 employees spread across Afghanistan and Washington. However, the inability to find an easy answer on how to oversee reconstruction efforts after most of the troops go home at the end of this year also will mean it will cost more money to do so, Sopko said.

"It's going to be tougher, it's going to be more costly," he said, "And we're going to have to remind Congress that it's probably not going to be as good as all of the audits we're doing now."

Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Ismael E. Ortega