View Full Version : US troops’ ‘unconventional’ presence

01-14-07, 08:34 AM
US troops’ ‘unconventional’ presence

NOW that the US Marine convicted of raping a Filipina is in the custody of US Embassy officials, the United States has announced that it will push through with the "Balikatan" training exercises involving US and Filipino troops scheduled next month. It had earlier cancelled the exercises to protest the Philippine courts’ refusal to release Lance Cpl. Daniel Smith to US authorities while his case is on appeal.

Yet unknown to many, a contingent of US Special Operations Forces that had been stationed in the southern Philippines since January 2002 is clearly staying on despite the "Balikatan" exercises’ cancellation.

While the US and Philippine governments maintain that these troops are not doing anything beyond training Filipino soldiers and conducting humanitarian projects, questions persist regarding their actual mission here. In 2002, a petition was lodged before the Philippine Supreme Court claiming the US troops about to be deployed here were going to war "under the guise of an exercise." But while the Court agreed with the petitioners that US troops are indeed constitutionally banned from engaging in an "offensive war" in the Philippines, it held that whether they are actually going to do so was "a question of fact" that had to be proven first.

Five years after the deployment and in the midst of the uproar over Smith, new and accumulated information on the actions of US troops in the Philippine south provide grounds for revisiting this question.

It is important, however, to first draw a distinction between US soldiers who join the regular joint training exercises in various parts of the country and those who are part of the Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines (JSOTF-P). Media coverage and public discussion on the presence of US troops in the country have tended to lump those who take part in the JSOTF-P with those who take part in the exercises, but there are important differences.

For instance, while participants of the regular training exercises come from different branches and services of the US military, those under the JSOTF-P are drawn specifically from the Special Operations Forces (SOFs), or those units that, as their name implies, conduct "special operations." According to the SOF’s own definition, "special operations" are those "conducted in hostile, denied, or politically sensitive environments" and that require "covert, clandestine, or discreet capabilities." The US Army Field Manual — a guide for military missions and procedures — meanwhile says that SOFs are the "force of choice" for "dynamic, ambiguous, and politically volatile situations."

The number of participants in the training exercises is also publicly disclosed prior to each exercise. In the case of the JSOTF-P, however, this information has been withheld. Various media reports place the number of troops deployed to the southern Philippines between 160 and 350, but it isn’t clear what the actual figure is for a specific period. US embassy spokesman Matthew Lussenhop has said that it "wouldn’t be above 100." But US Lt. Col. Mark Zimmer, JSOTF-P public affairs officer, also said it varies "depending on the season and the mission."


Too, many of the exercises are conducted inside military training camps or other designated training areas, and are done so with no specified target or enemy in mind. By contrast, the JSOTF-P has been operating in an area in which combat with forces seen as hostile to the Philippines government has ensued and is still ongoing. The exact coverage of its area of operation remains unclear, but the JSOTF-P has been explicit in targeting "terrorists," in particular the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), and lately, the Jemaah Islamaiah, both of which are listed as "designated foreign terrorist organizations" by the US State Department.

In truth, from the very start, US and Philippine officials announced that the deployment was part of the US-led "global war against terror." The JTF’s deployment here was even labeled by the US military as "Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines" (OEF-P), signifying that the nature and the goal of the deployment was in the same league as the original "Operation Enduring Freedom" – the invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001.

Finally, the regular training exercises are close-ended and usually last for no more than a week or two, after which the participating units return to their home bases. But the JSOTF-P’s stay has been indefinite. Contrary to then National Security Adviser Roilo Golez’s assurance in 2002 that the US troops would "be gone" after six months, the troops remain. US and Filipino officials are mum about any exit date. In an interview last March, Capt Eddie Paruchabutr, then JSOTF-P information officer, could only say, "It’s continuous as long as we are allowed to stay."

In writings meant principally for internal US military consumption, JSOTF-P members reveal how they actually understand the nature of their mission in the Philippines. For example, in an article for the US Army Combined Arms Center’s Military Review journal, the first commander of the JSOTF-P, Col. David Maxwell said their mission was "to conduct unconventional warfare in the southern Philippines through, by, and with the AFP (Armed Forces of the Philippines) to help the Philippine government separate the population and destroy the terrorist organization." Their key tasks included "denying the ASG sanctuary," "surveilling, controlling, or denying ASG routes," and "surveilling supporting villages and key personnel."

In an apparent rebuff to the Supreme Court, Maxwell also pointed out that – contrary to the justices’ reading – the Philippine constitution "does not prohibit combat operations." According to Maxwell, the "correct reading" of the charter would show that it proscribes only the stationing of forces, not combat operations. Reappointed as JSOTF-P commander in October 2006, Maxwell described the operations he led as being conducted "under the guise of an exercise."


Maxwell’s description is shared by members of the 1st Special Forces group who wrote a history of their unit’s engagements in the Philippines for Special Warfare, the bulletin of the US Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School. According to their own account, their unit took part in "the ongoing unconventional warfare operations…" Dr. C.H. Briscoe, the command historian of the US Army Special Operations Command, interviewed soldiers "who participated at all levels of operations." In 2004, he wrote how their mission "transformed from unconventional warfare to foreign internal defense and development." The ensuing ground campaign, said Briscoe, was best described by referring to the "counterinsurgency model."

Eric Wendt, also writing for the same publication, cited the Joint Task Force’s actions as "a superior example of successful counterinsurgency." Similarly, Cherilyn Walley, another US military historian, noted how the Special Forces in the country turned "from performing tactical missions to implementing the counterinsurgency model that had been practiced by the American military in Vietnam." An analyst writing for the National Bureau of Asian Research observed, "(A)lthough US training of Philippine forces in both Luzon and Mindanao is labeled counter-terror, in fact, the effort seems to be more counterinsurgency against the paramilitary forces of the Abu Sayyaf and the MILF [Moro Islamic Liberation Front]."

The terms "unconventional warfare," "foreign internal defense," and "counterinsurgency" are rarely, if at all used, by US and Filipino officials in publicly describing the JSOTF-P’s work. But they are the words of choice of members of the US military writing on their own mission in the Philippines. In US military jargon, "unconventional warfare" and "foreign internal defense" are among the key missions of SOFs. Considered their raison d’etre, "unconventional warfare" refers to all those operations that SOFs conduct "through, with, or by indigenous or surrogate forces who are organized, trained, equipped, supported, and directed in varying degrees by an external source." This covers "guerilla warfare, subversion, sabotage, intelligence activities, and unconventional assisted recovery."

The operations under "foreign internal defense" refer to those activities conducted "to organize, train, advise, and assist host-nation military and paramilitary forces." According to the US Army Field Manual, this mission’s goal is to ensure that the kind of assistance the United States gives to its host’s troops "support US national interests." "Counter-insurgency" covers all those "military, paramilitary, political, economic, psychological, and civic actions" performed by a government to defeat internal enemies.

US and Philippine officials portray the US troops role as passive "advisers" indirectly engaged in the operations from a distance. But reports indicate that their role has been more active and direct. From the beginning, the US troops were authorized under the terms-of-reference between the US and Philippine governments to fire back if shot at. Under this arrangement, US Special Forces have "intentionally ventured into known Abu Sayyaf territory in an attempt to reassure locals while also dissuading the rebels from operating openly, as well as possibly tempting them to confront the Americans militarily," noted an analyst with the Washington D.C.-based Center for Defense Information.


Even as "advisers," Briscoe observed that the "guys were in thick of it" and were anxious to "get in the fight." He said the US troops "expected to shoot or to be shot." Such an expectation would not seem misplaced for, as one writer for a war veterans’ publication pointed out, "Though the Philippines (sic) constitution prohibits foreign soldiers from fighting within the island nation, US troops are exposed to the same risks they would see in combat." In fact, in a June 2002 incident reported by the Los Angeles Times and confirmed in the Army magazine, US Marines exchanged gunfire with alleged ASG members. Another incident reportedly had at least one US soldier "killed in action," though not during a patrol. In March 2006, a Huey helicopter carrying US troops to Sulu was attacked by unidentified assailants.

US officials describe the Special Forces’ role as "training, advising, and assisting" Filipino troops. During the on-the-job training against hostile forces, giving advice, helping, and actually being part of the action may well have overlapped. As Walley explained in her 2004 Special Warfare article, "Security-assistance missions preclude the trainers from being combatants or from performing duties in which they are likely to become combatants. But the trainers’ credibility and effectiveness as teachers mandated that they accompany the AFP troops on their graduation exercise, of which combat was an integral part." Briscoe, for his part, pointed out that while their primary role was to train, their "unspoken" mission later changed to include "facilitating the rescue" of ASG hostages. He said this entailed assuming a more assertive and central role in the planning, decision-making, and execution of the operations.

At first, the US troops were allowed to operate only at the battalion level, which left them frustrated. At one point, several US media reports said, former US Pacific Command chief Adm. Dennis Blair "tried to get too aggressive" while others in the military pressed for a "longer and more intense mission." JSOTF-P commander Maxwell also argued that confining the troops at the battalion was a "strategic error." But then US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld later authorized US troops to operate at the company level and join patrols "as often as possible." This set-up is similar to the US war in Afghanistan, where Special Forces troops joined and commanded 120-member companies of the Northern Alliance