Advisors In -- Out

1st Special Forces Group (Airborne)
Thursday, 20 June 2002


SF on Philippine Patrols Until  31 July Exit 

The Bush admnistration has approved a short-term plan to expand the role of U.S. Special Forces advisers in the southern Philippines, allowing them to go on jungle patrol with Philippine troops. But U.S. authorities will not press for extending the operation beyond its scheduled expiration on July 31, defense officials said yesterday.

The move represents a substantial scaling back of an operation that, when announced late last year, was hailed by the Bush administration as an important new front in the war on terrorism. Indeed, by the spring, when it had grown to about 1,200 American troops, the operation constituted the war's largest deployment outside Central Asia.

But the focus on helping Philippine forces crush the ragtag militant Muslim group Abu Sayyaf has proven more of a sideshow to the worldwide counterterrorism campaign. It has been marked by a botched effort to rescue two American missionaries held hostage by Abu Sayyaf and the failure to eliminate the rebels.

The biggest gains for the United States have appeared to come more in political than military terms, in the form of much Philippine appreciation for the road-building, well-digging and other economic and humanitarian assistance that accompanied the counterterrorism training. Indeed, the U.S. initiative is widely credited with breathing new life into the U.S.-Philippine alliance, battered a decade ago when American forces were evicted from island bases.

In recent weeks, U.S. military commanders in the region, as well as Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz, who visited the Philippines this month, have spoken enthusiastically of the importance of a continued U.S. military commitment. But Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has expressed concern about tying the Pentagon to a longer-term military role there at a time of competing demands for counterterrorism operations in such places as Georgia and Yemen, not to mention the possibility of U.S. military action against Iraq.

Pentagon officials said yesterday that only a small U.S. military contingent would remain in the Philippines after the troops withdraw. They said that President Bush has left the door open to extending the lower-level counterterrorism training if the Philippine government requests it. But they expect such training will likely be incorporated into routine, periodic U.S.-Philippine military exercises organized by the U.S. Pacific Command.

"The feeling is this can be done through our normal security assistance program," said one defense official briefed on the plan. "It won't require large numbers of boots on the ground advising Philippine troops."

At the start, the Philippine operation was presented as part of a larger U.S. plan to ensure that Southeast Asia does not become a new base for terrorists flushed out of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Adm. Dennis Blair, the recently retired commander of U.S. military forces in the Pacific and a chief architect of the plan, portrayed the initiative as a chance to attack what he called a "seam of lawlessness" stretching from Indonesia to Burma and linking terrorist groups with drug kingpins, smugglers, pirates, money launderers and other organized criminals.

"The administration's war on terrorism provided a timely rationale for getting more deeply engaged in the Philippines, which is something Blair and others had wanted to do," said another defense official.

Militarily, the operation centered on assisting a long-stalled Philippine campaign to hunt an estimated 80 to 200 Abu Sayyaf rebels in the jungles of Basilan island and rescue three hostages, including a Philippine nurse and American missionaries Martin and Gracia Burnham. But the effort proved more challenging than U.S. and Philippine military commanders expected. Despite the arrival of sophisticated U.S. intelligence-gathering equipment, many of the rebels eluded capture, fleeing to neighboring Mindanao and other islands.

A hostage rescue attempt earlier this month, triggered when Philippine forces happened across several dozen rebels on Mindanao, ended in the slayings of Martin Burnham and nurse Ediborah Yap. Gracia Burnham was freed but was wounded in the leg.

While U.S. and Philippine authorities have declared the Abu Sayyaf group significantly weakened, if not defeated, its real value in the war on terrorism has been questionable from the outset.

U.S. officials have cited the funneling of ransom payments by Abu Sayyaf to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda terrorist network. But these occurred years ago, and the rebels appear to be little more than a criminal gang of self-proclaimed Muslim separatists whose tactics of kidnapping for ransom and beheading of some victims are shunned by other, larger Islamic separatist organizations in the southern Philippines.

"The Abu Sayyaf link was always very tenuous," said Derek J. Mitchell, a specialist on Asian affairs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "It was always a convenient excuse to come to the aid of an important ally in need."

Said a Senate staff member briefed on the U.S. operation: "This has not been about striking a blow in the war on terrorism. This has been about helping a treaty ally that has a real security problem and that certainly needs counterinsurgency assistance. But if the underlying U.S. aim is to enhance the Philippine government's ability to deal with a variety of threats, then we're talking about a much longer U.S. commitment."

Several Capitol Hill sources said the administration likely would have received congressional support for extending the operation had it been sought. But in the Philippines, the U.S. involvement has remained a politically sensitive issue.

A U.S.-Philippine agreement, signed in February, limited the U.S. operation to six months and confined the training by 160 Special Forces advisers to Philippine troops on Basilan. Further, the U.S. advisers were restricted initially to training only at the battalion level. The agreement did allow for extending the training to the company level and out into the field. Pentagon officials had planned to start this phase in March or April.

SF List, SFAHQ.com, Bradley Graham with the Washington Post and PK contributed to this story. 

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