“As we fought together to stay above the enemy, then so we should help each other to address the threats that confront our societies, our region and our world,” said Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte referring to America in an early April “Day of Bravery” commemoration speech.
That speech, at the time out of step with the tough-talking leader’s frequent scathing criticism of the US’ military role in the region, now looks prescient as the Philippines looks towards its long-time treaty ally to combat Islamic State (IS) linked rebels entrenched on its southern island of Mindanao.
Months before the IS-led siege of Marawi City, Duterte had downgraded annual Balikatan US-Philippine joint military exercises, restricting the traditional war games to less provocative humanitarian and disaster-relief operations. He also nixed bilateral military exercises such as the PHIBLEX amphibious joint exercise and CARAT naval maneuvers, both of which carried veiled threats towards China.
The rising imperative of counterterrorism, however, has now forced the hand of the president, who earlier expressed his strong preference for downgrading, if not totally severing, strategic ties with Washington in favor of stronger military relations with Beijing and Moscow.
Duterte’s decision to cancel plans for joint patrols with the US in the South China Sea, including a ban on American warships from using Philippine bases for conducting freedom of navigation operations, stood in stark contrast with his pro-American predecessor, Benigno Aquino, who sought maximum military cooperation with the US to counter China’s assertiveness in disputed waters.
In his April speech, Duterte expressed how pragmatic considerations and shared concerns over the “menace of terrorism, violent extremism and transnational crimes such as the illegal drug trade” would continue to undergird security cooperation between Manila and Washington.
Over a month later, US Special Forces are once again providing ground support to Philippine soldiers to combat a local Islamic terrorist outfit, though this time the battle is against an internationalized IS-affiliated contingent led by the local Maute Group.
According to the Philippine constitution, foreign troops are barred against directly participating in combat operations against local armed groups. Nor are foreign forces legally allowed to establish permanent military bases on Philippine soil, forcing the US military to operate on a revolving basis in the country.
Foreign forces can, however, provide training, real-time intelligence and logistical support side-by-side with Philippine troops during combat operations, as long as they are not directly involved on the battlefield.
Since 2002, a year after the 9/11 terror attacks on America, a large contingent of US Special Forces under the Special Operations Command Pacific has provided training, equipment and intelligence to Philippine troops fighting local Islamic extremist groups on the southern island of Mindanao and adjoining areas.
Over the subsequent decade, the Philippine army, with US assistance, managed to eliminate much of the Al Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf Group’s (ASG) leadership while severely restricting its geographic area of operation. By 2014, ASG was broadly viewed, though prematurely, as contained and nearly decimated until it regrouped under an IS flag.
Under a decade-long US$150 million grant program, Washington has provided large caches of grenade launchers, cutting-edge machine guns and automatic rifles to the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). The latest delivery under the program was made on June 5, coincident with the ongoing battle in Marawi City.
The Philippine military has been largely removed from Duterte’s controversial police-led war on drugs, where thousands have been killed in extrajudicial fashion, so there is no rights-related legal impediment to deliveries of US weaponry to the AFP.
According to the US Embassy in Manila, the weapons will “enhance the [AFP’s] counterterrorism capabilities, and help protect [those] actively engaged in counterterrorism operations in [Marawi].”
After three weeks of fighting, Philippine security forces still face stiff resistance from IS-affiliate fighters who are spread across the sprawling city, which now lies in ruins. The battle of Marawi has rapidly devolved into tortuous urban warfare that has severely challenged the capabilities of Philippine soldiers.
Government troops have suffered heavy casualties due to improvised explosive devises (IEDs) and snipers, echoing the harrowing experience of coalition forces fighting Islamic militants in Iraq.
The latest official death toll from Marawi stands at 202, with state security force losses of around 60. Duterte has set several unmet deadlines to retake the city, including one for Monday, the country’s national independence day.
“It’s going to be a difficult and challenging task on account of [the] reported presence of snipers and improvised explosive devices that were laid on the roads,” admitted military spokesperson Edgard Arevalo just days into the armed clashes.
The AFP, which is largely trained in open-field and jungle warfare, is clearly struggling with the protracted street-to-street battles in Marawi. Friendly fire has killed at least 11 soldiers and civilian casualties have gone hand-in-hand with sporadic air raids across urban neighborhoods.
For the Philippines, the US will be an increasingly indispensable ally for counterterrorism operations in such urban settings. The US is the only nation that can seamlessly provide high-grade intelligence, large volumes of advanced equipment and boast a long history of inter-operability with the AFP.
Most crucially, as the Philippines’ only treaty ally, Washington has the necessary legal mechanisms, namely the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) and an Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), in place to provide lethal equipment and direct military assistance.
In contrast, the Philippines is yet — and unlikely to anytime soon — sign a defense treaty or comparable legal arrangements with other major powers such as China and Russia, both of which comparatively lack robust counterterrorism pedigrees.
At this juncture, there is little legislative support for signing a VFA or comparable arrangement which would allow other regional powers to be as intimately involved as American Special Forces are in the counterterrorism operations underway in Mindanao.
Russia and China also have relatively poor track records in tackling insurgency and terrorism threats in their own territories, respectively in Chechnya and Xinjiang.
Nor have either had any meaningful level of interoperability training with the Philippine military, which despite Duterte’s overtures remains largely suspicious of the two Eastern powers’ wider ambitions for the region.
That said, a newly signed intelligence-sharing agreement with Moscow should provide useful information on foreign fighters, including those from the Russian Caucasus, who have reportedly joined Maute Group and ASG in the fight for Marawi City.
Duterte’s earlier request for advanced weaponries such as precision-guided munitions from Russia is yet to be negotiated or processed. Meanwhile, there are also deep concerns over the reliability of weapons from alternative suppliers, particularly China, according to defense officials.
After months of diplomatic tensions and public spats with Duterte, top US security officials are confident again in the long-term trajectory of America’s alliance with the Philippines.
“I believe that we are in a very good place with regard to military to military activities in the Philippines,” Admiral Harry Harris, Commander of the US Pacific Command, told this writer on the sidelines of this month’s Shangri-La Dialogue held in Singapore when queried about the status of bilateral strategic cooperation.
“We are involved in activities in Mindanao to help the Armed Forces of the Philippines take the fight to [Islamic State] in the Philippines. I think that is a recognition of how important our relationship with the Philippines is,” the US commander said, referring to the joint operations underway in Marawi.
After months of deliberately reorienting Philippine foreign policy away from the US towards China, and to a lesser degree Russia, the Duterte administration has been forced to beat a certain diplomatic retreat and depend once again on its tried-and-tested ally to combat and contain a new age of Islamic terrorism that has dangerously arrived on its shores.