The End of an Era in the Philippines?
Last week U.S. Pacific Command announced that the Joint Special Operations Task Force – Philippines (JSOTF-P) would be phased out and replaced by “a dozen or so advisers” forming a “PACOM Augmentation Team.” And with JSOTF-P’s departure, the basis of the U.S.-Philippine relationship is changing.
JSOTF-P and its predecessors have been in place since 2001 (a team of advisors was dispatched to the Philippines by Special Operations Command Pacific in 2001, before September 11, and a unit known as JTF 510 was in place until it was replaced by JSOTF-P). Headquartered in Zamboanga City, at its height around 600 Special Operators and enablers trained and advised Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) troops fighting Muslim terrorist groups on Mindanao and throughout the Sulu Archipelago (the islands of Basilan, Jolo, and Tawi Tawi).
Claims that this U.S. military involvement in the Philippines has been a success are numerous, but other assessments provide a more nuanced perspective. While membership of the Al Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf Group has declined from the early 2000s (the current estimated number of fighters is estimated at 300, down from high of approximately 1200), violence in the southern Philippines has cycled up and down over the last decade even High Value Targets have been killed or captured.
The Philippine government signed a peace agreement in 2012 with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), one of the major armed groups claiming to represent the interest of the Philippines’ Muslim population, known as the Moros. Since that time, the focus of U.S.-Philippines relationship has moved past terrorism. This is perhaps best embodied in the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement announced with great fanfare during President Obama’s visit to Manila this spring. It represents a shift in the relationship from one centered around fighting terrorism to a way for the U.S. to stage and rotate its military through the Philippines as a way to “rebalance its forces in Southeast Asia.”
The relationship between the U.S. and the Philippines was exceptionally close during the administrations of Presidents Bush and Arroyo because of a shared commitment towards fighting terrorism. While some have claimed that the fourteen year-long efforts of JSOTF-P laid the foundation for future military cooperation with the Philippines, realists can argue that a Philippines wary of a “rising” China would have sought a closer military relationship with the U.S. regardless of the JSOTF-P experience. They might argue that converging geopolitical interests have pushed the current Obama and Aquino administrations together, as the Philippines seeks to balance against China.
Lieutenant Commander Mark Munson is a Naval Intelligence officer currently serving on the Navy staff. In 2010 he deployed as the Intelligence Officer for Task Force Archipelago, the Naval Special Warfare component of Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines. The views expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect the official viewpoints or policies of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.
Image Credit: JSOTF-P Public Affairs