Video: In Philippines, U.S. wins battle by not fighting

  1. Transcript of: In Philippines, U.S. wins battle by not fighting

    LESTER HOLT, anchor: the clear military successes for the US against violent Islamic extremists . It's a fight many Americans are unaware of, even though it has lasted almost as long as the one in Afghanistan . And as we hear now from NBC 's Adrienne Mong in the Philippines , this fight involves US special forces who are succeeding by not fighting.

    ADRIENNE MONG reporting: A forgotten front of America 's so-called global war on terror , this is the southern Philippines ...

    Unidentified Soldier #1: That was your very first shot.

    MONG: ...where, soon after 9/11, the US was invited to help the armed forces of the Philippines , or AFP , fight a homegrown Islamic separatist insurgency with suspected ties to international terrorist groups. Mr. HARRY THOMAS , Jr. ( United States Ambassador to the Philippines ): You can't forget that the Philippines is where Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his nephew Ramsey Yousef trained for 9/11.

    MONG: Forbidden by Philippines law from engaging in direct combat, the US military has currently deployed 550 troops, almost all special forces ...

    Unidentified Soldier #2: He's about a minute out.

    MONG: share intelligence and provide training to the AFPs . NBC News was given rare access to this joint operation. Captain ROBERT GUSENTINE (Joint Special Operations Task Force Philippines Commander): We have a clear mission. It's to neutralize the -- and defeat terrorist networks here.

    MONG: That effort has paid off. Since 2002 , 28 terrorists have been captured or killed. And the nation's largest Islamic rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front , has disavowed terrorism and started talking peace with the Philippines government. It's been eight years and now parts of the southern Philippines are much more

    stable. So the question needs to be asked: Does the Philippines still need the Americans to be here? Major Varmin Chong thinks so. He oversees a small

    outpost of 130 troops on......all working to prevent future safe havens from taking hold by jumpstarting the local economy with humanitarian aid and development on one of the most dangerous islands, also among the poorest, lacking infrastructure, police, education and health care. Forty-four thousand people with...

    Unidentified Woman: Only one doctor.

    MONG: doctor.

    Woman: And we have five nurses.

    MONG: So the fight has shifted from mostly combat to mostly nation building, bit by bit. A new medical clinic, an airport runway.

    Major General EMMANUEL BAUTISTA (Armed Forces of the Philippines): Instead of defeating the enemy, we need peace.

    MONG: A fragile peace as the US and Philippines try to maintain the momentum against terrorism.

NBC News
updated 10/2/2010 9:22:11 AM ET 2010-10-02T13:22:11

It’s where security analysts believe al-Qaida first got its foothold in Southeast Asia, and at least a year before the U.S. invaded Iraq, it was the second front of America’s so-called “war on terror.”

Today, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the U.S. Joint Special Operations Task Force Philippines (JSOTF-P) say they have made strides in their southern Philippines counterterrorism mission.

“The safe havens are getting smaller on the islands,” said Master Sgt. Wade Christensen, a U.S. Army Special Forces instructor who came to Mindanao in 2003 on his first tour. He’s now on his second as part of JSOTF-P. “Since we’ve been here, there have been no attacks on the U.S. from terrorist organizations that originated here or terrorists that were trained in the Philippines.”

So if the mission to defeat terrorist networks and to eradicate safe havens has been successful, why are U.S. Special Forces still operating in the southern Philippines?

“The simple answer is that the Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah Islamiyah terrorist groups are still here,” said U.S. Navy Captain Robert Gusentine, the JSOTF-P Commander.  “They’re still active. They still aspire to violence. They still aspire to be a regional threat.”

The Philippine military, in turn, says it still needs U.S. assistance in training its security forces and getting the momentum on economic development going. “Our defense budget [is] not that much,” said Col. Aminkadra Undug, AFP Commander of Special Forces (Airborne). “If we really want to finish off and continue with the development of that area…we have to continue.”

By Adrienne Mong/ NBC News
The Armed Forces of the Philippines could surely do with a few of these. The MK V, typically used for transporting Navy SEALS, cuts a striking figure off Jolo island.   

But some regional security specialists say the payoff today isn’t worth it.

“We’ve been there for so long, and there are real improvements,” said Zachary Abuza, a professor at the National War College. “But considering how long we’ve been there and the money we’ve put in, they’re not that big improvements…The quality of the AFP, the training and the investment, isn’t where it should be.”

America's forgotten frontline: The Philippines

Containing China?
Among some Filipinos, there’s another answer: that Washington is trying to engineer a return to the Philippines after shutting down two key military installations in the 1990s, Clark Air Base in 1991 and the Subic Bay Naval Station in 1992.

“People who are opposed to the U.S. military bases believe that the Americans are here not to provide security to the Philippines, they are here to advance their interests,” said Professor Benjamin Lim of the political science department at Ateneo de Manila University. “They are convinced that Washington’s motive precisely is to contain China, [and] the presence of the Philippines is to lay out the framework to strengthen Washington’s motive.”

U.S. officials dismiss the charges.

“The United States has no request, no need for bases in the Philippines,” said Harry Thomas, Jr., the U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines. “We’re here with JSOTF-P, our joint special operations task force, temporarily to eliminate terrorism, not to stage bases. We don’t want a conflict with China.”


During Sino-U.S. talks in March this year, Chinese officials asserted that the South China Sea is one of their government’s “core national interests,” a phrase that elevates the region to the same level of sovereign importance as Tibet or Taiwan.

Washington’s public response didn’t come until July, but it was strongly worded. On a visit to Vietnam for meetings with her counterparts from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke at length about South China Sea territorial sovereignty and the peaceful resolution of disputes. “The United States, like every nation, has a national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia’s maritime commons, and respect for international law in the South China Sea,” Clinton said.

Her comments triggered an immediate and angry reply from Beijing. “The seemingly impartial remarks were in effect an attack on China,” said the Foreign Ministry.

In the meantime, relations between China and several neighbors have turned prickly.  Seoul was disappointed that Beijing refused to criticize North Korea for allegedly sinking a South Korean warship in March. And last month a diplomatic dispute with Tokyo grew alarmingly heated over the Japanese arrest of a Chinese fishing captain who had rammed into Japanese patrol boats near a disputed island chain.

By Adrienne Mong/ NBC News
Many Filipinos welcome the presence of U.S. troops.

“The new threat is China,” said Manny Mogato, a Reuters journalist who’s been covering Philippine defense issues and the insurgency for years. “Remember they planted flags in the ocean.” (In August, the Chinese announced they’d sent a submersible to the ocean floor and planted a China flag.)

“The Chinese have become very aggressive about the South China Sea,” said Abuza, from the National War College. “This does terrify the Philippines, because they have no way to defend their claims in the South China Sea. They have no Navy. Their Air Force is absurd. So they really need the Americans there and committed to the regional security.” 

“I think Philippine officials, especially the Philippine military, are afraid of China,” said Lim, the political science professor. “And they would like American support to contain China.”

Which helps explain why some may be hoping the Americans stick around.

The perception is that the “Americans are positioning themselves for China,” said Mogato. “They believe that’s why the U.S. developed the areas around General Santos City on southern Mindanao [island] for long-term preparations against China. That location cannot be reached by Chinese long-range missiles [and] it’s suitable for U.S. navy ships.”

We want Uncle Sam?
The Armed Forces of the Philippines is not the only group that might want a permanent U.S. military presence back in the Philippines. Villagers on Jolo island do, too – but for entirely different reasons.

“Why not?” said Nurada Abdurajak, a local official in Panamao, a city in the province. “They are not harming the people…They are securing our security here.”

And – in a country which has long enjoyed a close relationship with the U.S. – it was a common refrain that the Americans could be relied upon to provide much-needed aid and assistance. “We [thank] the U.S. government…for providing us a lot in services and [economic] development,” said Salim Aloy Jainal, a former mayor of Jolo City.

But the cozy relationship also explains why any potential tension between China and the U.S. could prove complicated for the Philippines.

“To us, [the Japan-China territorial dispute in September] looked like a showdown,” said Lim.  “And it’s disturbing. We have military cooperation with the U.S. At the same time, we have economic cooperation with China. We might be forced into making a choice…We want help from both sides.”

Adrienne Mong is an NBC News Correspondent based in Beijing, China.

© 2013  Reprints

Explainer: U.S.-Philippines joint exercises

  • It’s been touted as a rare U.S. military success against Islamic extremists in the so-called global war on terror.

    Since early 2002 a small number of U.S. troops, mostly Special Forces, have been supporting the Armed Forces of the Philippines in their fight against terrorism in the Mindanao group of islands. 

    Click through a series of photos showing the joint exercises between the U.S. Joint Special Operations Task Force Philippines and the Armed Forces of the Philippines.

  • Southern Philippines

    David Lom/NBC News

    Though only a two and a half hour flight from bustling Manila, the Southern Philippines provinces of Sulu and Mindanao have long been a volatile hotbed for Islamic militancy.

  • Centuries of fighting off invaders

    Ed Flanagan/NBC News

    Jolo is a lush, volcanic island situated in the Philippines’s southern Sulu Archipelago. Since the 16th century, Jolo’s largely Muslim population has fought influence and invasion from Manila, the Spanish, Americans and Japanese.

  • U.S. Special Forces

    Ed Flanagan, NBC News

    There are currently 550 American soldiers – mostly Special Forces – operating in the Philippines, down from the nearly 2,000 that were serving in 2003. 

  • Beach training

    Ed Flanagan/ NBC News

    Marines from the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) practice sea based infiltration tactics off the coast of Jolo island. The exercise, normally conducted at night, was observed from the beach by American Special Forces instructors from the Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines, who offered their critiques to AFP commanders at a later debriefing.

  • Practicing tactics

    Ed Flanagan/ NBC News

    Marines from the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) practice infiltration and surveillance tactics at a mock hotel training site. U.S. instructors from the Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines have been serving in an advisory and instructional role while also providing intelligence and logistical support to AFP forces operating in the Southern Philippines.

  • Mock exercises

    Image: Philippines training
    Ed Flanagan  /  NBC News
    Marines from the Armed Forces of the Philippines practice infiltration and surveillance tactics at a mock hotel training site. The marines may one day be called on to conduct operations against the terrorist and anti-government groups operating in the region, most notably Abu Sayyaf, Jemaah Islamiyah and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

    Marines from the Armed Forces of the Philippines practice infiltration and surveillance tactics. They may one day be called on to conduct operations against the terrorist and anti-government groups operating in the region, most notably Abu Sayyaf, Jemaah Islamiah and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

  • Training success

    Ed Flanagan/ NBC News

    An Armed Forces of the Philippines officer congratulates his men on a successful training operation. U.S. commanders in the region cite the improved military competency and capacity of the Filipino forces as a key marker of the success of the U.S. strategy for the Philippines.

  • Special Operations Craft

    Ed Flanagan/ NBC News

    The Mark V Special Operations Craft was designed for inserting Navy SEAL teams into hostile environments. With a top speed of 50-plus knots, this Marine craft is able to travel between Zamboanga City – a main hub of the Southern Philippines region – and Jolo Island in two and a half hours. Civilian ferries do the same run in about 10 hours.

  • Jolo City

    Adrienne Mong/ NBC News

    With a population of 350,000, Jolo City is a mixed ethnic and religious city that is predominately Muslim (90 percent Muslim, 10 percent Catholic). Islamic terrorist groups like Abu Sayyaf have been fighting to carve an Islamic state out from the mostly Roman Catholic Philippines.

  • Medical care - and entertainment

    Ed Flanagan/ NBC News

    School children from Panamao village on Jolo island wait for a showing of the movie “Shrek” to begin at one of the U.S. sponsored, Medical Civil Action Program or “Medcaps.”

    One prong of the new joint U.S.-Filipino strategy of offering security, infrastructure, education and healthcare, the Medcaps provide opportunities for villagers to safely congregate and receive basic medical treatment and medication from U.S. and AFP doctors.

  • Rare excursion to town

    David Lom/NBC News

    AFP Navy Lt. j.g.Chai Palad (left) and U.S. Air Force Lt. Col.Tracey Saiki (right) suit up for a rare excursion into the provincial capital, Jolo City. There are only 130 U.S. troops stationed on Jolo Island.

  • Ready for battle

    David Lom/ NBC News

    Though the security situation on Jolo Island has improved markedly over the past eight years, U.S. forces operating in the region still wear body armor when outside of their barracks. Last year two U.S. soldiers and a Filipino marine were killed when the Humvee they were in ran over an improvised landmine.


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