Where Did the U.S. Go Wrong in the Philippines? A Hard Look at a ‘Success’ Story


Since the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, U.S. Special Operations Forces have been involved in training and assisting their Philippine counterparts. This has been hailed as a successful mission, with a small footprint, an acceptable price tag, and few Americans returning home in body bags. And yet, 17 years later, I and other analysts of Philippine security issues are still writing about ungoverned space, the proliferation of radical groups, and endemic corruption within the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). I routinely speak with regional officials who continue to express frustration that the deteriorating security situation is spilling over into other countries. While Islamic State militants have been able to plan and execute attacks in Malaysian and Indonesia, the Philippines is the only place in Southeast Asia where pro-Islamic State militants held territory. If the U.S. special operations effort is going so well, then why are things so bad?

How did this happen in a country where the United States invested considerable blood and treasure to improve armed forces’ capabilities, and which has been held out for years as a success story for the counter-terrorism paradigm of working “by, with, and through” partner forces? Although the armed forces did improve thanks to U.S. security cooperation, they remain under-resourced and plagued by endemic corruption. Moreover, the Philippines is still plagued by a host of political problems and socio-economic infirmities.

But a real assessment of how this supposed counter-terrorism success devolved over the course of just a few years must focus on America’s own errors. The United States failed to understand how terrorist groups grafted onto or simply took advantage of the ungoverned spaces created by indigenous insurgencies. It emphasized counter-terrorism over counter-insurgency, and thus failed to appreciate the thing that mattered most: governance. And while the U.S. assistance program was not large by Department of Defense standards, it created moral hazard and a culture of dependency in the Philippines.

The operation had many tactical counter-terrorism successes, but these were bound to be ephemeral because of the many shortcomings of the U.S. approach, including, most importantly, the failure to think strategically. 

By, With, and Through

Working “by, with, and through” foreign counterparts has been an increasingly important part of the U.S. counter-terrorism effort since 9/11. This approach often involves using small numbers of U.S. Special Forces to train, advise, assist, and provide intelligence. In addition to serving as a force multiplier, this approach is also meant to get host governments to take ownership of their own internal security problems, and deal with poorly governed spaces that offer terrorist organizations sanctuary.

Few cases of U.S. counter-terrorism assistance are regarded as successful as the Philippines. The 2002 National Security Strategy laid out a plan to degrade, diminish, and defeat terrorist organizations, and identified the Philippines as a place where a minimal investment in training, logistics, and intelligence sharing could neutralize a regional terrorist threat, while also enhancing the capabilities of the Philippine security forces. The Department of Defense has long held up the Joint Special Operations Task Force – Philippines, established in 2002, as a model of U.S. security and counter-terror assistance programs.

In 2015, the RAND Corporation released a glowing report on the task force, providing a host of metrics including the number of terrorists killed or captured and number of attacks, and tried to correlate these to the amount of assistance the United States had provided to the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). In many ways, this effort harkened back to the same metrics the U.S. military used during the Vietnam War: body counts, number of militants captured, weapons seized, and declines in attacks or bombings.

I spent some time with the special forces in the Philippines and have analyzed their operations for 17 years. In many ways they did everything right: The force was small, never more than 500 to 600 men. They were deployed in small units and embedded with their Philippine counterparts, whom they trained and provided with intelligence. Though U.S. forces had rules of engagement that allowed them to fight back in self-defense, they were not involved in offensive combat operations. They trained the Philippine armed forces to use civic action projects to try to win over a leery local Muslim population who mistrusted the national government and military after years of egregious human rights abuses and institutional prejudice.

The special forces worked exceptionally closely with the U.S. Embassy, coordinating their actions and messaging. Their coordination with USAID to implement meaningful development programs was excellent. They were teamed with intelligence and law enforcement. The task force’s budget and resources, by Department of Defense standards, was modest. In short, they went in light and with a small footprint, committed to improving the capacity of their treaty ally, using an inter-agency framework.

When the task force wound down in early 2015, the United States left a skeletal force of some 200 special operators who remained to provide some intelligence capabilities. The training and logistics support programs largely ended; though larger bilateral trainings, such as Balikatan, continued to be held annually.

A Worsening Security Environment

Despite the rave reviews, the end of the task force coincided with the rapid deterioration of the security situation. The Abu Sayyaf terror group, which the United States had helped pacify in Basilan, returned, actively challenging government forces there and across Sulu. Meanwhile, a botched counter-terrorist operation in January 2015 led to the collapse of peace talks with the largest insurgent group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), all at a time when groups were increasingly jumping on the Islamic State bandwagon. With the Joint Special Operations Task Force — Philippines not standing over them, the AFP was first complacent, then overwhelmed by the magnitude of the threat.

In March 2016, the Abu Sayyaf began a maritime kidnapping campaign. Within a year it had taken 70 sailors and fishermen from six countries, briefly shutting down intraregional trade. Since 2016, Abu Sayyaf militants have kidnapped and beheaded foreigners, killing Canadian, German, and Malaysian nationals, and staged abduction raids into Malaysia’s Sabah state. While trilateral maritime patrols with Malaysia and Indonesia have had some success, all three countries have limited resources and capabilities. In April 2017, the Abu Sayyaf attempted their first hostage-taking raid into the comparatively secure Visayan region.

Also starting in April 2017, pro-Islamic State militants from the Maute Group and Abu Sayyaf group militants sieged the city of Marawi for five months. That they were able to infiltrate over 600 men and enough arms and ammunition to sustain them was an abject intelligence failure. While Philippine security forces fought bravely, their lack of urban training hampered the effort to liberate the city. Some 12 casualties were the victims of friendly fire incidents from aerial operations.

As the Islamic State suffered huge setbacks in Iraq and Syria during this time, it called on militants to travel to the island of Mindanao to establish new pockets of control. The Philippines remains beset by militant groups who render large portions of the country weakly governed or not governed at all, threatening the security of many other Southeast Asian states. Independent researchers Angelica Mangahas and Luke Lischin told me that between January 2016 and March 2018, there were some 254 attacks that could be attributed to pro-Islamic State groups. In that time, there were some 730 incidents by all groups in Mindanao alone, that, not including the Marawi siege, accounted for nearly 1,500 deaths.

Today, the southern Philippines still draws in militants from all over the region. Malaysian security forces have diverted considerable resources to Sabah, to counter the logistics cells helping to move militants in and out of the Philippines from Indonesia and Malaysia. After years of improvement, regional security forces now see Mindanao as a font of regional terrorism.

The test of any counter-insurgency is whether the overall political situation where insurgents operate has improved sufficiently such that people are less willing to take up arms against the state. I have studied several independent data sets from the World Bank, The Economist, Freedom House, Fragile State Index, Global Rule of Law Index, Reporters without Borders, and others. Each data set has its own limitations and methodologies, but taken together they paint a remarkably similar picture: governance, democracy, rule of law, professionalization of security forces, and media freedoms have all declined during 17 years of U.S. assistance. They portend more, not less, political violence, a trend that is only accelerating under the murderous leadership of President Rodrigo Duterte, who has transformed the security forces into an unaccountable extrajudicial killing squad, responsible for over 20,000 deaths.

In light of the devolving security situation, the United States revved up operations and assistance to the Philippines. On Sep. 1, 2017, U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis authorized Operation Pacific Eagle-Philippines, described as a “comprehensive campaign to assist the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) in their fight against violent extremist organizations.” The commitment was once again open-ended, with the department simply saying it would “terminate when the AFP no longer requires U.S. military assistance to address its internal terrorist threat.”

While the AFP has reiterated its commitment to combatting the pro-Islamic State groups, it has reverted to tactics the United States tried so hard to wean them off of. More often than not, these tactics, such as the use of field artillery, prove counterproductive causing more civilian casualties and engendering more mistrust of the government.

The Philippines should be in a much stronger position. It has had one of the fastest growing economies in the region for several years. It has seen increases in trade and investment; government revenue streams are stronger. Yet governance continues to worsen.

The Problems With U.S. Counter-Terror Efforts in the Philippines

So what went wrong? There were several problems with the U.S. approach. First, it was too reliant on decapitation, or manhunt efforts to kill or capture terrorists. No matter how many suspects were neutralized, the organizations were always able to quickly regroup and recruit anew, especially in a region plagued by endemic corruption, surging population growth, un- and under-employment, popular mistrust of the government, and deep-seated grievances. As such, counter-terrorism gains were not sustainable.

Arresting so many suspected terrorists also had a blowback effect. The government never implemented a disengagement program in the prisons. This problem was compounded by overcrowded jails where vulnerable prisoners were alongside charismatic terrorist leaders who sought to give people a new spiritual raison d’etre that would help them atone for their misdeeds. Prisoners had nothing but time to radicalize until they escaped in a jailbreak, which became almost routine during this time.

The third problem was moral hazard. Even though U.S. forces went in with a small footprint, they created a culture of dependency. The United States provided the AFP with roughly $50 million a year in counter-terrorism assistance between 2002 and 2016, a significant amount for the AFP, whose total 2017 budget was only $4.4 billion. Although the force’s budget, in constant 2016 dollars, has increased by 90 percent since 2002, it still is insufficient for the host of internal and external security threats that the Philippines faces after decades of chronic underinvestment and senior-level corruption.

No one believed the institutional transformation of the AFP would happen quickly. And there is no doubt that the force is better than it was when the U.S. started its counter-terrorism assistance in 2002. But this is a very low bar. After 16 years of a robust assistance program, $3.9 billion in counter-terrorism assistance and operations, not to mention other security sector modernization funding, we should see more tangible gains.

With its open-ended assistance program, the United States in many ways incentivized corruption. What motivation did the AFP have to take the lead against small groups such as the Abu Sayyaf? Not only did the armed forces continue to get funding regardless of the results it produced, many field commanders were in fact getting kickbacks from the group’s hostage-taking. The number of times the Abu Sayyaf miraculously broke out of encirclements was breathtaking. Unlike in Indonesia, where the US and Australia funded a new and elite counter-terrorism police force, the US continued to work with under-resourced and corrupt security forces with egregious human rights records.

Corruption within the AFP remains endemic. By 2011, nearly 50 percent of Filipinos polled by Pulse Asia said that the force was corrupt; the worst of any institution in the survey.

It’s also worth noting that many AFP decisions undermined the U.S. training program. When the United States provided training to small units that started to have real tactical successes, the immediate reaction of the armed forces leadership was to break up those units in the hope that those individuals would take their training back to their units. Moreover, because of the armed forces’ mandatory retirement age and the system of seniority, the senior leadership constantly turned over. AFP commanders lasted on average under one year. Even if some legitimately benefited from U.S. training, no one had a chance to make their mark.

No Strategic Vision

But America’s biggest failing was to treat the wrong problem and to do so through a narrow tactical lens that failed to account for the political environment. The United States was focused on combatting terrorism, rather than helping the host government conduct a more holistic counter-insurgency. Narrow counter-terrorism was exactly what the Philippines wanted, as it enabled the government to avoid the tough reforms necessary to address the long-running insurgencies and ungoverned spaces. This is most obvious when one looks at the case of the MILF.

In 1996 the group began providing sanctuary and training camps for Al Qaeda’s regional affiliate, Jemaah Islamiyah. What eventually cut the group’s ties to Jemaah Islamiyah was a peace process with the government that began in mid-2003. Once the peace process began, the al-Qaeda affiliate became a liability, and many, though not all, were forced out of MILF-controlled territory.

A peace agreement was signed in 2014, but in the midst of deliberations by Filipino lawmakers over the implementing legislation, a police unit launched a raid into MILF-controlled territory in January 2015, bypassing the normal ceasefire coordinating mechanisms. The death of 44 police aborted all congressional deliberation. It was a tactical encounter, with strategic costs.

Although the United States repeatedly has said that it supports the peace process, it largely accepted the Philippine position, placing the onus on the MILF. Washington has done little since 2015 to raise the cost for the Philippines to follow through, and the peace process — until very recently — has been stalled.

As the Philippine Congress refused to pass implementing legislation, in the midst of a national election, cells declaring allegiance to the Islamic State were proliferating across the southern Philippines. Today, central Mindanao has at least four different pro-Islamic State groups including the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, Ansuar al-Khalifa Philippines, and the Maute Group. They were able to take advantage of frustration and disillusionment with the MILF leadership, and mistrust of the government.

The MILF leadership acknowledges they are powerless to stop the defections or compete with these groups for new recruits. Until a peace agreement is concluded, the group has neither the incentive, will, nor, increasingly, the capacity, to police its territory. While there has been some recent progress towards the implementation of the peace agreement, the MILF is a weaker, less cohesive organization and will have a much harder time implementing its end of the deal. The Mautes and Abu Sayyaf are regrouping and recruiting anew, taking advantage of the government’s botched reconstruction of the city, which will only deepen animosity towards the government from its 400,000 displaced people. Meanwhile, Mindanao continues to draw foreign militants.

While the Philippines continues to conduct counter-terror operations, more often than not, their tactics – which the U.S. tried to wean them off of – have fuel the proliferation of extremist groups and created a more complex security landscape for a military that is already challenged and under-resourced.

The Counter-Terrorism Trap

For 17 years, the United States has fallen into the same trap it has created for itself repeatedly since 9/11. It has enabled corruption in host-nation security forces, focused on counter-terrorism instead of counter-insurgency, allowed the government to pursue policies that are inimical to U.S. security interests, turned a blind eye to failures of governance, and focused on tactical successes while losing sight of strategic objectives.

First, the failure to root out corruption has created moral hazard: There is simply no incentive for the AFP to ever finish the job. Open-ended commitments ensure that America will be played, and it seems to be repeating this mistake.

Second, the United States has framed the Philippines as a counter-terrorism problem, not a counter-insurgency problem. It lost sight of the fact that indigenous insurgencies were what created the ungoverned space that terrorists utilized. And the United States backed aggressive counter-terror operations that led to the collapse of a peace process at a critical time.

Third, although few insurgencies are ever defeated on the battlefield, the United States was unwilling to use its leverage to push the Philippines into a negotiated settlement when it mattered most. U.S. reticence continued, even as the security situation on the ground worsened and the Philippine government and Congress continued to stall on the peace process. If the host government doesn’t have the political will to solve core grievances, no amount of assistance can help them.

Fourth, the United States never held the Philippine government to account when its rule of law, democracy, and political institutions were constantly being degraded. Even if U.S. security assistance had gone well and the decapitation strategy had worked, these gains were meaningless given that the underlying political context was so much worse. With legal and political channels and protections weakening, what is to preclude significant portions of the population from taking up arms against the state?

Fifth, the United States focused on short-term tactical successes, rather than the big picture: ungoverned space in which terrorists could regroup, train, and execute attacks. After several years of improvement, Mindanao is once again a black hole for regional security.

The experience in the Philippines should raise serious questions about counter-terrorism efforts that are declared successful. The case is a cautionary tale about the much-touted light footprint approach and, more generally, about America’s ability to influence political and security conditions in a host country with more deeply rooted problems. If the United States can’t influence the actions of a treaty ally that is dependent on American aid and professes to share U.S. interests, it shouldn’t expect to achieve anything better elsewhere.


Zachary Abuza is a Professor at the National War College, and the author of Forging Peace in Southeast Asia (2016). Follow him @zachabuza. The views are the author’s alone, and do not reflect the opinions of the National War College or US Department of Defense.

Image: U.S. Army/Staff Sgt. Christopher McCullough