Whether you agree with it or not, it’s likely there will be some changes to the current size and shape of U.S. forces in Iraq over the next year. For reasons from the political to the practical, the current troop surge in Iraq isn’t going to last forever.
So, as the politicians and policymakers search for a future strategy in Iraq that would be amenable to the American people, Congress, the Pentagon and the White House, it makes sense to open the intellectual aperture pretty wide in the search for good ideas.
In some corners of defense intelligentsia, the U.S.-backed effort in the southern Philippines against the al-Qaida-affiliated Abu Sayyaf group (“Bearer of the Sword”) is being touted as the most successful counterterrorism campaign of the post-Sept. 11 period. Indeed, some are promoting Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines (OEF-P) as a model counterterrorism (CT) and counterinsurgency (COIN) operation. Although not everyone would agree with that characterization, it’s worthwhile to take a look at OEF-P to see whether the strategy and policy might be applied to the ongoing challenges in Iraq — or elsewhere.
When the U.S. counterterrorism operations against the Abu Sayyaf group (ASG) kicked off in late 2001, the Bush administration dubbed the Philippines the “second front” in the newly minted war on terrorism. Today, it’s more like the forgotten front. But the operation’s lack of notoriety isn't necessarily a bad thing. The joint U.S.-Philippine CT-COIN campaign in the southern Philippines is going pretty darn well since the first U.S. troops came ashore in early 2002.
Today, Abu Sayyaf is hardly a household name in America. But the Muslim terrorist group has plenty of street credentials. Osama bin Laden’s brother-in-law and some other Afghan mujahedeen from the war with the Soviets founded the group. The ASG also had ties to senior al-Qaida leaders: Ramzi Yousef and his now infamous uncle, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, both spent time in the Philippines after the Afghanistan campaign during the 1990s. The two were involved, to one degree or another, in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, Operation Bojinka (the attempted bombing of 11 airliners out of the Philippines in 1995), plots against President Clinton and Pope John Paul II — and Sept. 11.
The ASG’s purported goal is to establish an independent Islamic state in the southern Philippines and to wrest control of large areas from the grips of the Catholic-dominated central government up north in the capital city, Manila. (The southern Philippines is largely, but not wholly, Muslim. Islam came to the region as far back as the Seventh century, when Muslim traders from India, Persia and the Arabian Peninsula began sailing Southeast Asian waters.)
Although the ASG’s publicly spoken aspirations may be limited to the Muslim areas of the southern Philippines, some believe its real desire is of a much grander magnitude. Some analysts think the ASG has ambitions for establishing a pan-Islamic state extending to all of Muslim Southeast Asia, including neighboring Malaysia and Southeast Asian giant Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation. The group engages in terrorism and crime, including kidnappings for profit, bombings, beheadings, assassinations and extortion against Filipinos and foreigners, especially tourists. U.S. citizens and OEF-P soldiers number among its victims. The ASG also has ties to al-Qaida’s pan-Southeast Asian terrorism powerhouse, Jemaah Islamiya — infamous for the 2002 Bali bombing — and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, another southern Philippine terrorist-separatist group.
Current estimates conclude that U.S.-Philippine security operations have significantly weakened the ASG. In fact, Philippines forces killed the group’s leader last fall and two more senior ASG commanders since December. Indeed, once calculated to be 2,000 fighters strong, the ASG has been slowly whittled down over the past 60 or so months of OEF-P operations to an estimated 200 militants today — a 90 percent reduction. As a result, its trademark bus and local market bombings have dropped off, as has its once-lucrative kidnapping for profit practice. Although violence exists, the ASG threat has clearly receded — at least for the moment.
Although the ASG hasn’t been eliminated, to what strategy and policy can OEF-P attribute its success so far?
Some analysts credit the “indirect approach” as being key. From the beginning, U.S. forces were involved in “advising and assisting” the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) conducting combat operations. U.S. forces weren’t involved in direct action, other than self-defense. This advise-and-assist role for U.S. forces puts the AFP in the lead; a tactic successfully employed by Australia’s military in other regions. The training has increased their combat initiative — which was lacking at the start of OEF-P — and the on-the-job training has developed the skills and confidence necessary for an enduring CT-COIN capability. In addition, U.S. forces aren’t only teaching CT and COIN tactics, they’re also instructing the Filipinos in collecting, analyzing and fusing actionable intelligence — even when it comes from a U.S. source such as a P-3 Orion or a high-tech Predator drone.
Not surprisingly, a significant effort has been made to win hearts and minds. Successful U.S.-Philippine civil affairs, humanitarian aid and military exercises are enhancing the legitimacy of the AFP and the central government in Manila with the locals. During regular bilateral Balikatan (“shoulder-to-shoulder”) military exercises, Americans and Filipinos provide medical services and build badly needed infrastructure in some of the poorest provinces, allowing locals to see a better future for themselves.
Information operations heighten public awareness of terrorism, providing channels to the police and AFP. Indeed, one senior ASG leader was sold out by a group member turned informant, motivated by the State Department’s cash rewards program. This newly developed trust between the government and the population is helping to reduce passive support for the ASG among the locals, while increasing the sharing of information, shrinking the group’s sanctuaries and disrupting their operations. In addition, in 2002, the Pentagon initiated a program to help the Philippines identify much-needed defense reforms, including policy development, professional military education (directed at CT and COIN) and the professionalization of the AFP.
The defense reforms yielded results. For example, in 2001, Philippine military helicopters were mission-ready 15 percent of the time. Today, those helicopters have an operational ready rate of 80 percent as a result of improvements in maintenance and logistics.
At the national level, steps were taken early on to fully consider unique sensitivities likely to arise with the hyperactive — and always suspicious — Philippine media, the country’s influential elite, and contrary, opposition politicians. For instance, although generally pro-American, some Filipinos are still sensitive to the legacy of U.S. bases and America’s — not always positive — history in the Philippines, going back to the Spanish-American War.
Even better, not only does the temporary status of U.S. troops comply with the Philippine constitution, which forbids the stationing of foreign troops on native soil, the American military footprint in the Philippines has also shrunk drastically since 2002. During the initial deployment, U.S. OEF-P forces jumped to as many as 1,300. Today, there are as few as 300 American troops in country, reducing the U.S. profile, and more importantly, the perception of an occupation or an unduly long-term stay.
International support has been important, too. On-again, off-again Malaysian-mediated peace talks between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front have seemingly helped erode that group’s support for the ASG — and Jemaah Islamiya.
Regional maritime security cooperation involving neighboring countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia has increased, too. U.S. allies Australia and Japan have also pitched in to support the Philippine government’s efforts in the southern Philippines.
And despite the ups and downs in the bilateral relationship at the political level — especially when Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo withdrew Philippine forces from Iraq in 2004 — Washington continued its support, demonstrating resolve on the CT issue.
Can any of the Philippine operation’s strategy and policy be applied to CT-COIN operations elsewhere, including Iraq? Of course.
Sure, the Philippines scenario is, without a doubt, unique. For instance, at the most basic level, the ASG hides in the jungle and often uses small boats to hop from island to island across the South China Sea. The same, obviously, can’t be said of Iraqi insurgents.
The Philippines is also blessed with a boisterous but established democratic government and civil society institutions that support democracy, while Iraq is still struggling for the most basic semblance of a unity government. The scales of magnitude are different, too. The ASG is much smaller, more localized and not nearly as complex as the Iraq insurgency. Plus, the ASG receives no known support from outside powers in contrast with the terrorists and insurgents in Iraq (e.g., Iran and Syria).
The list of differences goes on and on. But although that list could easily fill the rest of this article, it would distract from the point. Much of the strategy and policy being applied in the Philippines can be — indeed, is already being — used in Iraq at various stages of implementation.
Both operations include direct action by indigenous forces, and efforts at increasing the national government’s legitimacy, establishing the conditions for peace and development, and meeting the population’s basic humanitarian and security needs.
This is potentially good news. The OEF-P model, if appropriately applied to local conditions at the right time, could serve as the basis for other successful CT-COIN operations in places such as Iraq, or even Afghanistan.
Few would argue that Iraq is fully ready for the Philippine model — and rightfully so. But, over time, assuming progress is made in quelling sectarian violence and rolling back al-Qaida, it’s possible the Iraq operation could transition to a Philippine-like indirect approach.
Indeed, as Iraq advances politically and militarily, U.S. operations could scale down into something that looks like OEF-P, where a small number of U.S. forces train, advise, and provide intelligence and logistical support to Iraqi forces. As Vice Adm. Eric Olson, U.S. Special Operations Command’s deputy commander, testified before the Senate in April: OEF-P “is absolutely a model. It’s a model that doesn’t apply everywhere, but it’s a model that we ought to apply wherever we can.”
That’s sage counsel.
In the end, as the admiral alludes, there is no cookie-cutter approach to fighting terrorism or an insurgency. But the success of OEF-P is encouraging. At the very least, it should be examined closely to inform current and future CT and COIN efforts.
Peter Brookes, a Heritage Foundation senior fellow, was responsible for OEF-P policy while a deputy assistant secretary of defense in 2001-2002.