Forgotten Front: To Counter Terrorism, Philippine Army Takes Lessons from U.S. Forces

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ZAMBOANGA, Philippines -- For the past six years, a little known special operations campaign in the Philippines' restive southern provinces has applied theoretical counterinsurgency models in a real-world scenario.

Launched shortly after U.S. forces invaded Afghanistan in 2001, joint special operations task force Philippines (JSOTF-P) is a part of Operation Enduring Freedom, the name applied to the Central Asian campaign.

The task force--without engaging in direct combat--has advised and assisted the Armed Forces of the Philippines. They in turn, have pushed Islamic extremist factions into smaller territories, "neutralized" key leaders and prevented them from exporting their violent tactics beyond the nation's borders, U.S. officials said. Most of the first-generation leaders who trained with Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan have been captured or killed.

The task force's commanding officer, Col. William Coultrup, said in a briefing room at the operation's headquarters at Camp Navarro, that the operation's two overarching goals are denying the terrorist groups sanctuary and creating a credible counterterrorism force within the AFP.

"If we weren't here, terrorist training camps would have a chance of flourishing in this area, and that's what we're trying to prevent," Coultrup said. "All you need is a few good trainers who can create the next round of suicide bombers," he added.

But both U.S. and Filipino officials acknowledge that hand-in-hand with military achievements and increased security, economic development must follow for the local populations to reject extremist ideology.

There is still considerable work to be done. The Philippine military's equipment has deteriorated significantly since the United States was asked in the early 1990s to abandon its bases in this former colony. Whether the central government in Manila can deliver a better standard of living to these long-neglected and impoverished provinces remains to be seen.

"Our ultimate goal is to work ourselves out of a job," said Couhrup.

The camp is a small, tightly secured compound located within a larger military base in Zamboanga City. Spread throughout the main islands of Mindanao, Basilan and the Sulu archipelago that forms a chain into the Sulawesi Sea, about 500 to 700 U.S. personnel are working with the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).

U.S. personnel do not engage in combat operations. They have the right to self-defense, but they are not put in situations where that would occur. "They don't go on patrol," Couhrup insisted.

There has only been one combat related death, which occurred in the first year--2002.

Rather than traditional military support, the task force provides small unit training to make Philippine soldiers and marines more professional.

Prior to 2002, the AFP might have used a "sledgehammer" approach to react to terrorists.

The reaction on Basilan Island last summer to an attack which resulted in the deaths and beheadings of 10 marines is one example of how the AFP is changing and shows how so-called "indirect" actions can lead to success, Coultrup said.

In the past, the AFP might have sent in multiple battalions to kick down doors, further aggravating the local population and creating a cycle of violence. This time, the local commander killed local citizens with kindness. He used civil military operations--medical and dental clinics and engineering projects--and face-to-face meetings with local leaders to create a more positive atmosphere. The improved relations resulted in better intelligence and tips that allowed for "surgical strikes." As a result, many of the perpetrators of the attack have been killed or taken into custody, he said.

Other indirect methods in the special operations toolkit are being used. Civil military operations--sometimes known as civil affairs--provide services and promote effective local governance. …