As the United States re-muscles its military image and seeks to recapture its credibility as an armed power – following the global sinking of US military prestige under former president, Barack Obama – the Philippines could be the first place where America’s re-emerging might plays out.
Earlier this week, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, met with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte at Malacañang Palace in Manila. Among their discussions was the surge of Islamic extremism in the country’s southern region of Mindanao – a surge that culminated in the 23 May capture of Marawi City in Lanao del Sur by rebel bands who’ve sworn loyalty to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
For the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), the Battle of Marawi has proved to be a difficult one – urban warfare across the streets of a city is very different to the jungle warfare AFP troops are used to in Mindanao and the islands of the Sulu Archipelago. In three days from now the Islamic terrorists – largely members of two groups, Abu Sayyaf and Maute, and a number of foreign fighters from as far away as Yemen and Chechnya who are well-practiced in urban combat – will have occupied the city for 12 weeks.
It’s thought there are around 120 Islamists still in the city, confined to some 10% of the urban area. With them are anywhere between 100 and 150 hostages who’ve been used as human shields – frustrating an all-out assault by government troops who’ve been restricted to house-to-house fighting as they run the gauntlet of sniper fire. Elsewhere in the city are between 500 and 1,000 trapped civilians.
Without the proper type of fire power, it’s virtually impossible to dislodge the terrorists without causing collateral deaths. Of course, Abu Sayyaf and Maute fighters are well aware of this which gives them a huge asymmetrical advantage. They can deploy their snipers with virtual impunity around buildings holding civilian captives; air responses from the Philippine Air Force with inaccurate gravity bombs could kill and maim Marawi citizens caught up in the conflict and hand the terror groups an invaluable publicity victory.
It’s with all that in mind that the Pentagon, a hemisphere away in Arlington, Virginia, is considering a plan to allow the US to conduct airstrikes on ISIS targets in Marawi. Such airstrikes, would form part of an official joint military operation and would ratchet-up US involvement in the Marawi theatre, which so far has been confined to intelligence sharing and technical support under what’s known as Joint Special Operations Task Force Trident.
This may be a difficult plan to sell – both in the US where Duterte has been constantly attacked by members of Congress over his War on Drugs and alleged extrajudicial killings, and in the Philippines where there’s a large vocal opposition to any US military presence in the country.
Quick to caution Duterte against allowing further American military involvement in the Philippines was Renato Reyes Jr, Secretary-General of Bagong Alysnsang Makabayan – Bayan for short; a progressive-Left, nationalist, populist, anti-imperialist, and rabidly communist organisation founded in 1985 at the start of the People Power Movement which sought the overthrow of the country’s then-president, Ferdinand Marcos.
He referred to such an initiative as a “flagrant violation” of national sovereignty, pointing out that foreign troops participating in combat operations in the Philippines would be a contravention of the Philippine Constitution.
In a predictable statement to the press he said this: “Bayan opposes in the strongest terms US plans to conduct airstrikes in the Philippines against ISIS-linked groups. There can be no justification for allowing a foreign superpower with the world’s worst rights record to be conducting airstrikes on Philippine soil”.
Opponents of the Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement – an accord reached by the former presidents of the US and the Philippines, Obama and Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino in 2014; allowing American troops the use of a number of Philippine military bases – are also likely to let their feelings be known on this issue.
Those bases, five in all – Antonio Bautista Air Base (Palawan), Basa Air Base (Pampanga), Fort Magsaysay (Nueva Ecija), Lumbia Airport (Cagayan de Oro), Benito Ebuen Air Base (Mactan, Cebu) – would likely play a role in any raised presence of US forces. If, as is likely, the weapon of choice are to be drones (UAVs or unmanned aerial vehicles) in any US-bolstered offensive, these airbases could figure prominently – though not if ‘manned aerial vehicles’ are to be deployed; from out at sea for example.
In June, Admiral Scott Swift, commander of the US Pacific Fleet met with Philippine Defense Secretary, Delfin Lorenzana, and military chiefs in Manila. At that meeting Swift underscored the US Navy’s commitment to addressing security concerns in the region such as counter-terrorism and piracy. “We continue to build on the strong relationship we have and to reaffirm our commitment to working together to face shared challenges,” he said.
Meanwhile,further veiled opposition comes from the media as they attempt to shame Duterte for even attempting cordial relations with the US. Repeating ad nauseam how Duterte sparked a rift with Washington last year, they claim he’s doing a U-turn with his present approach to US-Philippine relations. But that’s only because the media never understood – or at least pretended not to understand – the nature of Duterte’s true differences with Washington.
How can we put this really simply? The Philippine president never had a problem with the US per se, and certainly not with American citizens – except one, Obama who insisted on insinuating himself into the internal affairs of the Philippines. All that’s explained here: Wrong turn of phrase.
That aside, however, what might override any opposition to the US military playing a more active role in Marawi is not just Duterte’s determination to end the siege and put down all ISIS-linked rebel groups in his southern region, but the support that such a plan could expect to receive among the Philippines’ neighbours – specifically, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore.
These countries, which are already dealing with their own internal threats from Islamist organisations, would be next in the firing line if ISIS gained a strong base-hold in Mindanao. Over the past year, collective defence arrangements between these four member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) have considerably increased with heightened intelligence sharing and joint naval patrols in the treacherous pirated waters of the Sulu and Celebes Seas.
If Duterte asked the leaders of these countries what they thought of such a plan, the chances are they’d all say for the same thing – ‘Go for it’.
But, as far as we know, this is very much a Pentagon initiative – it’s not in response to any request from Manila. What we do know for sure is that military chiefs at the Pentagon have an appetite for getting more involved in the terrorist insurgency which is holding Mindanao in its grip.
One thing that’s been proposed is to reinstate the practice of ‘named operations’ – a practice aimed at cementing cohesion among allied groups: e.g., Operation Freedom Eagle, the Philippine component of Operation Enduring Freedom, a battle-force alliance of the global War on Terror.
Last month, General Paul Selva, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the US Defense Department testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee. In that testimony he said this: “In every case where we see the resurgence of terror networks, particularly in the fragile areas of the southern Philippines, I think it’s worth considering whether or not we reinstate a named operation, not only to provide for the resources that are required, but to give the Pacific Command commander and the field commanders in the Philippines the kinds of authorities they need to work with indigenous Philippine forces to actually help them be successful in that battle space”.
That – if it get’s clearance – by any other name, might be the thin end of the wedge. By raising the stature of the US military role – from one somewhere in the shadows to active partnership status – would provide US commanders in the Philppines with a great deal more clout in the execution of a battle plan than they have as technical advisers on the periphery.
They’d have more control of events; from the deployment of troops to the scale and type of hardware and munitions to be used. To all intents and purposes it would be their hardware, their munitions; so they’ll certainly have a call on how, when and against what it’s used.
The US, under its new leader, President Donald Trump, has brought the fight against ISIS to centre stage with a massive increase in missile strikes against it. This is in line with his campaign pledge “to bomb the hell out of ISIS”. And he didn’t confine that promise to the Middle East theatre. Trump regards ISIS as a scourge on all humanity and he’ll dispatch their forces wherever he can.
Although giving no fine details of any bolstering of US military cooperation, Tillerson – in Manila to attend the annual Asean Regional Forum – said this: “We are providing [the Philippines with] some training and some guidance in terms of how to deal with an enemy that fights in ways that is not like most people have ever had to deal with so it’s a tragic situation down there [in Mindanao]”.
Implied in that remark is that the US military – particularly its special forces – have greater experience of fighting an enemy in urban terrain; which in fact they do. Units, such as the quaintly-designated ‘Combat Applications Group’, have been involved in urban combat in every major conflict where the US has had a role.
Tillerson also said that the US was providing the Philippine Government with “a couple of Cessnas [C-208B Caravan aircraft] and a couple of UAVs to allow them to have better information with which to conduct the fight down there”.
What he didn’t say was whether those UAVs would be armed – packing enhanced laser-guided bombs and missiles, such as the Paveway series for example. Nor did he identify the drones by type. There are a number of options, such as the US Air Force MQ-1 Predator or MQ-9 Reaper (photo) – with cameras that can read a licence plate from two miles away – or the MQ-IC Grey Eagle drone used by the US Army.
To date, Philippine air power in the Marawi action has comprised ‘past-their best’ OV-10M Bronco and SF260 light attack aircraft, more recent FA-50 light jet fighters and light helicopter gunships. Furthermore, air ordnance was limited to un-smart, inaccurate “dumb bombs” which rely on nothing more than gravity to reach or miss their targets. In Marawi, with its cheek-by-jowl residential neighbourhoods and a precariously situated local population, such ordnance has been deemed unusable.
Whether Duterte avails himself of more decisive US weaponry to reclaim Marawi City and rid the south of a growing patchwork of terrorist groups, or whether he decides to forego such assistance if it’s formally offered, will be his decision. But it will be a decision which will be characteristically pragmatic. Duterte’s no one’s fool; it will be based on what’s best for the country and on the most expedient way of solving the problem in that troubled southern region.
What it won’t be based on are the political ramblings of the Far Left whose main goal is to install a communist government in Manila. Their self-righteous rantings about constitutionality are blatantly hollow. If the Philippines needs to rely on the adherents of Marxism to defend the constitution it’s in worse shape than we thought it was. These are sworn enemies of the state – and it’s a toss up which would be worse running the country; radical Islamic extremists of radically extreme communists.
And there’s no hiding the irony that while they condemn any prospective US offer of assistance as military interference, the communist New People’s Army (NPA) continues to wage a war against government troops and extort money – “revolutionary taxes”, meaning protection payments – from fellow Filipinos. How does that gel with the Constitution? Frankly, they’re about the last people Duterte should be consulting on finding a solution to Mindanao’s problems.
There are two broad insurgent movements in the Philippines – the Muslim insurgency and the communist insurgency; taking advice from the latter on how to deal with the former would be like Trump engaging with the Workers Party of Korea – effectively North Korea’s government – on how to deal with the Islamic State. That’s how ludicrous it would be.