JSOTF-P Uses Whole-Of-Nation Approach to Bring Stability to the Philippines
By Col. Fran Beaudette
Originally published in the July-September 2012 edition of Special Warfare
Since the introduction of U.S. forces in the southern Philippines in 2002, service members with the Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines have supported the Philippine military and police, with particular emphasis on the Government of the Republic of the Philippines’ counterterrorism efforts. These combined efforts have resulted in a significant degradation of transnational and locally inspired terrorist groups such as Jemaah Islamiyah and the Abu Sayyaf Group, and created a region largely inhospitable to terrorists. The purpose of this article is to identify focus areas that have been successful in the southern Philippines for possible application to future operations, in particular those in areas where a light footprint, reduced signature and long-standing regional expertise are essential for mission accomplishment.
The roots of conflict in the southern Philippines are complex and date back several centuries. Efforts to promote internal security and stability have historically been hampered by geography, a turbulent political landscape, limited material resources and the perception of attempted domination by foreign actors. In early 2011, the GRP recognized the need for a fundamentally different approach and adopted the Internal Peace and Security Plan-Bayanihan. Although authored by the Armed Forces of the Philippines, the plan encompasses a whole-of-nation approach, with a focus on coordinating all efforts under the broad direction of a national internal-security strategy. The importance of this approach is evidenced by the inclusion of an opening message from President Benigno Aquino in which he states, “… the problems confronting our nation are multi-faceted and complex...a military solution is not enough to completely solve them. Efforts to achieve genuine peace and security must therefore be supported by all.”
The whole-of-nation approach and focus on protecting the population tenets of this strategy have clearly resonated with the Philippine populace. As President Aquino recently noted, “the commander-in-chief believes that the military functions best when both the military and civilian leadership share a clear and common understanding of what is national security, and accordingly, what threatens it.” Since implementation of the IPSP, the GRP has experienced a marked increase in security gains across the region. These successes have buoyed the AFP and Philippine National Police and reinforced hope that lasting peace will be achieved through stability, development and investment.1
The Philippines is a vast multi-cultural archipelago consisting of more than 7,000 islands and spanning nearly 1,500 miles north to south. Although rich in history, culture and natural resources, it has been plagued by long-standing internal discord including a multi-decade communist insurgency and several Muslim separatist movements. These challenges are particularly acute in the southern Philippines, principally throughout the islands of Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago. More than 500 miles from the historic seat of central government in central Luzon, they are populated by an exceptionally diverse society with myriad familial, tribal, ethnic, religious and linguistic differences. These volatile mixes of inhabitants possess few conflict resolution mechanisms beyond violence, which is often a cultural expectation.
Economic stagnation, political discord, cultural conflict and a history of resistance to perceived foreign domination by Spanish, U.S. and Filipinos from northern islands, along with simmering land disputes have long complicated life in the southern Philippines. These challenges became acute during the Muslim separatist movement in the late 1960s which raged for more than 20 years and left tens of thousands dead. The added economic devastation and degradation of internal stability created an exploitable area for terrorists seeking safe havens and low-risk operational zones. Large-scale training camps in central Mindanao were established as early as 1979 under the auspices of the most significant Muslim independence group at the time, the Moro National Liberation Front. These camps facilitated the training of several thousand Jihadists bound for Pakistan and Afghanistan. Many would eventually return with combat experience.
This perceived safe haven led to the influx of al-Qaeda-related operatives in the late 1980s when Mohammad Jamal Khalifa, Osama bin Laden’s brother-in-law, arrived. He was followed a few years later by the primary architect of the World Trade Center bombing, Ramzi Yousef. A year later, Yousef was joined by his uncle, Khalid Sheik Mohammad, former secretary to Abu Sayyaf, an Afghan warlord and namesake of a Filipino terrorist group formed by returning Jihadists. Soon after, JI began operating in the Philippines. While al-Qaeda operatives were flowing into the region, JI and ASG embarked on a series of deadly bombings and kidnappings. Recognizing the threats to international peace and security posed by terrorist operations within their borders, the GRP and U.S. Government formed a partnership in 2002, focused on JI and ASG, the greatest combined terror threat to both nations.
The current evolution of this partnership is JSOTF-P, and its overarching result has been GRP operational success. A recent report by the Congressional Research Service found that “Joint military activities have reduced the numbers of terrorist fighters in the South … [diminished] Abu Sayyaf’s strength and presence, [and]… the ASG’s leadership core reportedly has been reduced by about three-fourths...”2
This continued effort is paying measurable dividends as illustrated by comparing this recent report to the Department of State’s assessment in 2004, which found that ASG and JI “continue to threaten the security of the country.”3 Again, as late as 2007, the Department of State noted that JI in the Philippines “remained a serious threat to Western and regional interests, particularly in Indonesia and the Southern Philippines.”4
For the purposes of this article, it is important to acknowledge the uniqueness of the U.S.-Philippine relationship. Treaty allies for more than 60 years, the history of our interaction since 1898 through World War II is well known. Although the government and much of the population are supportive of U.S. engagement, national sovereignty sensitivities, in particular with regard to U.S. forces post Subic-Bay Naval Base, remain important. The small and discrete U.S. footprint of JSOTF-P collocated with Philippine forces and in an advisory and assistance role, has been optimal.
Areas of Engagement
Since 2002, JSOTF-P has indirectly supported thousands of partner-force operations.5 While the overall mission has essentially remained unchanged, JSOTF-P efforts have been refined, modified or adapted to meet the needs, capabilities and political enthusiasm of the GRP and AFP/PNP. However, the focus has remained consistent on three key areas.
Full Spectrum Embedding and Engagement. JSOTF-P has worked diligently over the years to establish relationships with members of the local and national government and security forces; effective partnership is the most important thing we do. At the tactical level, these relationships have been greatly facilitated by proper force disposition across a joint operating area containing more than 20 million people living on hundreds of islands scattered across 176,000 square miles of ocean. From the outset of U.S. engagement, leaders determined that U.S. forces would be co-located with Philippine units on Philippine installations. In addition to being critical to the conduct of the mission, this was necessary in order to comply with the Philippine Constitution and several U.S./Philippine bi-lateral agreements.6 Also critical to a long-term perspective, the persistent rotation of forces into the Philippines by the 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne) has developed regional experts and fostered strong Filipino-American relationships manifested in each entity’s commitment to each other and to lasting operational success.
Currently, at the request of the GRP, U.S. forces remain collocated with their partners on approximately a dozen Philippine military and police camps. JSOTF-P forces typically liaise at the military-brigade and police-battalion level while maintaining close relationships with subordinate units. There are exceptions to these partnerships that enable operational flexibility and direct engagement in the most appropriate location for mission accomplishment. For example, in one area a U.S. Special Forces operational detachment is directly partnered with an AFP infantry division headquarters, while another is partnered with a large three-star operational command. Another ODA serves as a liaison to the AFP Special Operations Command and its collocated subordinate units, while also maintaining daily active liaison presence with the PNP Special Action Force. Other Green Berets and SEALs from JSOTF-P are further closely partnered with the SAF at the operational and tactical level, advising and assisting their police counterparts in their mission of protecting and serving the population.
Similarly, the U.S. Army Military Information Support teams and Civil Affairs teams assigned to each subordinate JSOTF-P Task Force have integrated at the tactical level with impressive results. Developing relationships and conducting subject-matter expert exchanges, the MIST teams have focused on radio messaging, atmospherics analysis and measures of effectiveness collection, while the CA teams have focused on building a self-sustaining Philippine CA capacity. As a result of their long term efforts, the AFP now has a CA capability, with associated doctrine, that is extremely effective and capable of planning, resourcing and conducting their own medical civic-action programs, dental civic-action programs, veterinary civic-action programs and engaging their local populations to great effect. Also, the AFP/PNP now have the ability to independently design, produce and distribute their own informational products.
The CA/MIST LNOs located in Manila have had similar success through their engagements with GRP national-level organizations as well as remaining synchronized with critical U.S. and GRP development partners. For example, a JSOTF-P CA officer permanently serves as an LNO to the United States Agency for International Development.
Another example of close partnership is through the JSOTF-P liaison element partnered with the Philippine Air Force. Over time, through subject-matter expert exchanges on many advanced topics, the Philippine Air Force has also made tremendous progress. Their night-vision, goggle-qualified helicopter crews are fully operationally capable and their close-air support platforms are integrated, when needed, into ground operations. These types of partnerships are especially suited to episodic support from routine theater-campaign plan engagements. Recently, joint combined exchange-training events supporting the military and police have taken place in the southern Philippines, fully synchronized with JSOTF-P’s ongoing efforts. It is through these components of the TCP that long-term partnerships with the appropriate partner-nation units can eventually and sustainably transition to episodic engagement.
Select JSOTF-P personnel also meet weekly with senior AFP and PNP commanders at the operational and national level. These engagements have engendered the creation of a Philippine National Police National Operations Center meeting at the Manila headquarters for weekly discussions on appropriate topics. JSOTF-P members also attend the weekly AFP general headquarters J3 and J2 combined fusion meeting, as well as attend similar meetings at both regional three-star command headquarters in the southern Philippines, at the AFP Marine-led Joint Task Force Sulu and PNP/AFP combined Joint Task Force Zamboanga-Basilan.
A corollary of JSOTF-P’s mission is their support role as a component of the ambassador’s “America-in-3D” initiative focusing on diplomacy, development and defense. The JSOTF-P deputy commander and J9 work in the U.S. Embassy in Manila, maintaining effective relationships with all critical components of the U.S. country team. Similarly, the JSOTF-P leadership meets weekly with the ambassador, deputy chief of mission and senior embassy officials. Further, JSOTF-P personnel of all ranks meet on a weekly basis with representatives from the Departments of State, Justice and Treasury, and are co-located at their headquarters with FBI and Department of Justice representatives. At three locations in the southern Philippines, JSOTF-P forces are collocated with members of the Department of Justice’s International Criminal Investigation Training Assistance Program who train local law-enforcement officials. This program and the relationship between JSOTF-P and ICITAP have proven extremely valuable. For instance, in 2011 the program in Sulu alone graduated more than 1,600 local police officers in fundamental police professionalism courses.
The comprehensive U.S. country-team approach found in the Philippines, and necessary for operational success, is perhaps best embodied in the U.S. Embassy’s Mindanao Working Group. Established by the ambassador, this interagency collaborative body plans, coordinates, monitors and assess U.S. engagement in the southern Philippines in order to achieve the mission’s goals in support of U.S. national interests. The MWG consists of representatives from across the U.S. Mission and JSOTF-P, and has served to link elements of the GRP and private sector more closely to the southern Philippines.
Operations and intelligence fusion. Daily, the JSOTF-P focuses on supporting the AFP/PNP lead in deterring remaining terrorist groups and in permanently securing the security gains they have earned over the past 10 years. Enabling AFP and PNP operations and intelligence fusion requirements includes a wide variety of activities from SMEEs through support such as instruction on the military decision-making process, use of computer-mapping software or doctrinal construct of a joint task force. Philippine security forces are tremendously capable in their understanding of local issues, challenges and relationships. Synchronizing this understanding with purposeful operations intended for a specific desired effect has been critical to recent successes. They are now very adept at conducting specific and focused warrant-based operations against wanted individuals. These are oftentimes terrorists whose crimes against society are their principle means of funding. Operations focused on suspected criminals are understood by the local population and conveyed to them as occurring specifically through legitimate legal efforts by the GRP to rid formerly large swaths of the countryside of lawlessness and banditry. President Aquino states the concept best, calling it an “all out justice” strategy against criminal elements. This explanation resonates well with locals. These operations have achieved operational effect, and in most cases eliminated internal displacement of the population, formerly prevalent during the conduct of ill-defined large-scale security operations.
The AFP and PNP fusing of accurate intelligence with the conduct of measured and appropriate operations is impressive and serves as the tactical foundation of support to the IPSP. Military components, police elements and local officials now routinely meet in Sulu, Basilan and Zamboanga, to discuss events and share information. This sharing has enabled the formation of a GRP-interconnected intelligence and targeting network capable of gathering, analyzing, planning and executing operations against transnational terrorist threats. Formerly non-existent, GRP participants now employ the F3EAD model (find, fix, finish, exploit, assess, disseminate), conduct joint-training exercises and routinely conduct joint operations with AFP and PNP forces focused and applying their respective strengths in a permanently self-sustaining manner.
Military transition of internal security responsibilities to the police. One of the distinguishing aspects of the Philippines as an operational theater is the presence of a fully functioning government and existing legal framework relative to counter-terrorism operations. In the case of the Philippines, although this framework divides responsibility for CT operations between the military and police, the police have primacy while the military maintains responsibility for counterinsurgency. In addition, the IPSP calls for an eventual complete transition of internal security responsibility to the police, allowing for a more streamlined military to then focus on territorial defense. The relationship between the AFP and PNP remains critical, and both organizations clearly understand that strong and functional mutual support and dialogue strengthen overall internal security efforts.
Recently, the GRP has announced the creation of Joint Task Force Zamboanga-Basilan, an organization designed to align the efforts of the AFP and PNP. The model leverages the warrant arrest power of the PNP against violent extremists and local lawless elements while employing AFP soldiers to augment their security posture on or near objectives. This new construct will synchronize AFP and PNP efforts in the planning and conduct of operations by information sharing, advanced skill cross training and combined representation of GRP capacity to protect the population. For example, the AFP could provide expertise and support with navigating through difficult terrain and securing the outer perimeter of a rural objective, while the PNP conducts a warrant-based arrest of a terrorist suspect. In that operation, the PNP would also gather evidence on scene and conduct sensitive site exploitation to complete the requirements for a legal case. As has been said many times, the AFP is not at war within the Philippines. They are employing their expertise against the myriad internal security challenges and in close concert with the PNP have made tremendous progress. In the end, the AFP is working itself out of a job so that it can regain a focus comparable to traditional militaries.
On any given day the JSOTF-P supports GRP operations in more than a dozen locations throughout the country, working closely with counterparts in the military, police and a variety of political, religious and civilian leaders. This support is synchronized with the overarching U.S. government objectives in country. Fundamentally, this complete horizontal and vertical integration between the comprehensive U.S. Government team and our respective partners, from the strategic to tactical level, has been the key to success. While the Philippines may present a unique operational environment, this model — full integration and strategic focus on the outcome by both U.S. and partner-nation governments — is universal.
As previously noted, transnational terrorist organizations have historically been able to thrive in the Southern Philippines due to historic issues — separatist fighting, frail economy, land disputes, uneven central government influence, etc. A long-term solution demands that these simmering issues be resolved. Such a solution also requires continued pressure by our partner nation security forces on terrorist groups despite their challenging resource environment and competing needs.7 The GRP, with JSOTF-P assistance as needed, will attain internal peace and security in the southern Philippines and will continue to deny sanctuary to any remnants of al-Qaeda affiliated transnational terrorists formerly operating freely within its borders.
Colonel Fran Beaudette currently commands the 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne) and JSOTF-P.
1. Statement of President Benigno Aquino III during the AFP Change of Command Ceremony on July 2, 2010 at Camp General Emilio Aguinaldo, Quezon City, quoted in Internal Peace and Security Plan - “Bayanihan”.
2. Thomas Lum, “The Republic of the Philippines and U.S. Interests,” Congressional Research Service (January 3, 2011): 10.
3. United States Department of State Country Reports on Terrorism 2010, Chapter 5A, accessed January 5, 2012, www.state.gov/g/ct/rls/crt/45388.htm.
4. United States Department of State Country Reports on Terrorism 2010, Chapter 2, accessed January 5, 2012, www.state.gov/g/ct/rls/crt/2007/103706.htm.
5. JSOTF-P has partnered with more than 75 units.
6. See for example, The Mutual Defense Treaty Between the Republic of the Philippines and the United States of America (August 30, 1951); The Republic of the Philippines and United States of America Visiting Forces Agreement (May 27, 1998); Armed Forces of the Philippines and United States Pacific Command Kapit Bisig Framework (July 12, 2006).
7. United States Department of State Country Reports on Terrorism 2010, Chapter 2, accessed January 5, 2012, www.state.gov/g/ct/rls/crt/2010/170255.htm (“The Philippine government, with U.S. support, has kept constant pressure on terrorist groups, even as their security services were stretched thin by other demands…”)