While Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte remains at odds with the United States, the armed forces of the two countries have maintained a close working relationship that dates to 1951 and the signing of a mutual defense treaty. In recent years the primary mission of U.S. forces in the Philippines has been Foreign Internal Defense operations against the country’s many insurgent groups. As Philippine government forces continue to fight Islamist militants in the city of Marawi, U.S. Special Forces have served as advisors and U.S. aircraft have provided intelligence and reconnaissance in support of Philippine airstrikes and operations. The Cipher Brief reached out to Col. (ret.) David Maxwell, former commander of the Joint Special Operations Task Forces Philippines, about the mission of United States Special Operations Forces in the Philippines and its involvement in the ongoing battle for Marawi.
The Cipher Brief: U.S. special operations troops have been deployed in the Philippines for many years. Historically, what has been their mission?
David Maxwell: The traditional mission has been Foreign Internal Defense (FID) which consists of activities by joint U.S. military forces and civilian government agencies to advise and assist friends, partners, and allies in internal defense and development programs so that they can defend themselves against lawlessness, subversion, insurgency, and terrorism. U.S. special operations forces, to include Civil Affairs, Psychological Operations, SEALS, Marine Raiders, and Air Commandos as well as Special Forces (which has been the dominant force) have provided training, advice, and assistance for decades to assist the United States’ longest-standing treaty ally against a very complex combination of threats. They have helped the Armed Forces of the Philippines to develop a range of special operations skills from tactical counterterrorism operations, intelligence operations and civil military operations, to advanced aviation techniques to include night vision flying.
One of the unique aspects of the relationship is the U.S. special operations forces have always respected Philippines sovereignty and supported security forces through advice and assistance, while never conducting U.S. unilateral operations. The Philippines always remained in command, control, and in the lead on all operations.
TCB: What are some of the unique challenges to training against and combating the militant groups in the Philippines compared to other groups worldwide?
Maxwell: The Philippines face a range of threats from the Moro separatists movements (Moro National Liberation Front and Moro Islamic Liberation Front) to terrorist organizations such as the Abu Sayyef Group, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, the Pentagon Gang, foreign groups such as Jemaah Islamiyah, and now the Muate Group that has aligned itself with the Islamic State and has seized Marawi City. There is also clan infighting (ridos) and political violence. No one should forget that the existential threat to the Philippines is the Communist Party of the Philippines and [its armed wing], the New People’s Army, which seek to overthrow the government. This combination of threats creates significant strategic and tactical challenges for the government and security forces. Few countries in the world face this diverse range of threats.
TCB: The Philippines is home to many Islamist extremist groups and many have grown bolder since pledging allegiance with ISIS. Has this had any effect on U.S. policy in the Philippines or the mission of Special Forces in the Philippines?
Maxwell: Analysts and scholars of Southeast Asian security have expressed concern that groups such as the Abu Sayyef and Maute Group have aligned themselves with ISIS. This includes the ASG leader Isnilon Hapilon being appointed as the Emir of the caliphate in Southeast Asia. However, it is too soon to tell how significant the relationship is. Certainly Philippine groups would like to receive resources from ISIS. Perhaps there is a “franchise”-like relationship, and some groups could enhance their perceived legitimacy and reputation by aligning with ISIS. There is also a question as to whether ISIS can provide substantive support. What I think bears watching is whether any Filipinos travel to Syria and Iraq and then return. On the other hand it is questionable whether ISIS can provide significant training to Philippine terrorist groups because they have been building and detonating bombs long before ISIS even existed. We should remember that before IEDs became a term in the popular vernacular, SFC Mark Jackson was killed in the Philippines on October 2, 2002 by a vehicle-borne IED (VBIED) before we even began operations in Iraq.
TCB: Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has been outspoken in his desire to remove U.S. forces from the Philippines and limit U.S. ties in general. How has this affected the mission of U.S. Special Forces?
Maxwell: U.S. Special Forces always consider the Twelve SOF imperatives and in particular the first two which are, understand the operational environment and recognize political implications. While presidents have to focus on their domestic political priorities, which sometimes can lead to anti-American sentiment if they listen to senior military and government officials, you can determine that the U.S.-Philippine alliance remains strong. The bonds between the U.S. and Philippine military are strong. There are Special Forces Noncommissioned Officers who have worked with Philippine General Officers since they were lieutenants and captains. President Duterte has recently acknowledged this military bond noting that Philippine soldiers are “pro-U.S.”
TCB: Have U.S. Special Forces had any involvement—even in an advisory capacity— in the recent conflict between Philippine government forces and the Maute group in the city of Marawi?
Maxwell: Open source reporting indicates that U.S. Special Forces as well as the U.S. Navy (P3 Orions) are providing advice, assistance, technical, and intelligence support at the request of the Philippine government. Although the Joint Special Operations Task Force Philippines stood down in 2015, U.S. Special Forces have sustained relations with their counterparts, so they are able to rapidly deploy to support the Philippine request to provide advice and assistance.