New Philippine Leader Wants to Boot U.S. Commandos as ISIS Seeks a Foothold

U.S. Special Forces helped Manila weaken a virulent Islamist insurgency. But Duterte is talking about pushing out the Americans as fears rise over the Islamic State.

CARMEN, PHILIPPINES:  US Army Special Forces 1st Sgt Gordon Waugh (L) and Captain Miguel Ceballos (R) of the Philippine army give instruction to their men during  a Force protection and Security training as part of a joint counter-terrorist exercise held at the Philippine Army training base at Camp Lucero in Carmen on the southern island of Mindanao, 29 July 2004. The US mllitary advisers will train Filipino troops to fight al-Qaeda-linked Muslim militants in Mindanao.    AFP PHOTO Joel NITO  (Photo credit should read JOEL NITO/AFP/Getty Images)
CARMEN, PHILIPPINES: US Army Special Forces 1st Sgt Gordon Waugh (L) and Captain Miguel Ceballos (R) of the Philippine army give instruction to their men during a Force protection and Security training as part of a joint counter-terrorist exercise held at the Philippine Army training base at Camp Lucero in Carmen on the southern island of Mindanao, 29 July 2004. The US mllitary advisers will train Filipino troops to fight al-Qaeda-linked Muslim militants in Mindanao. AFP PHOTO Joel NITO (Photo credit should read JOEL NITO/AFP/Getty Images)

If Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte makes good on his threats to turn away from his country’s 65-year-old alliance with the United States, the first casualty would likely be the U.S. military mission there, which has become a model for successful counterterrorism operations worldwide.

After warning earlier this month that the U.S. military contingent of several hundred troops has to go, Duterte said Monday that his country’s alliance with Washington had reached “a point of no return” and on Wednesday he said an upcoming joint military exercise would be the last with the United States.

The threat to push out the team of up to 100 U.S. Special Operations Forces, along with an additional 300 to 500 American conventional troops, comes as concerns mount in Washington and Southeast Asia about the Islamic State’s efforts to spread its tentacles in the region. Governments are especially worried that the Islamic State could fuel a resurgence of Abu Sayyaf, the militant group in the southern Philippines founded and trained by al Qaeda that U.S. forces have been helping Manila fight for 14 years.

An Islamic State propaganda video earlier this year underlined the group’s interest in the Philippines, showing jihadi fighters in the jungle pledging allegiance to the group. And in April, a battle between the Philippine Army and Abu Sayyaf militants reportedly left 18 soldiers dead and dozens wounded. So far, the Islamic State has yet to demonstrate whether it can work through Abu Sayyaf to expand its influence, but experts believe the fight against the militants is at a pivotal moment.

“Southeast Asia is clearly a place they aspire to be spreading,” Defense Secretary Ash Carter told senators last week when asked about the threat posed by the Islamic State. The issue will be high on the agenda when Carter meets his defense counterparts from the region on Friday for talks in Hawaii.

Launched in 2002 in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. counterterrorism mission was designed to provide advice and intelligence to help Philippine forces take on Abu Sayyaf, which kidnaps for ransom and was set up with seed money from the al Qaeda terror network.

And 14 years later, the mission is widely regarded as a success, with Abu Sayyaf severely weakened and Philippine forces employing more nuanced tactics honed during a decade-plus of operating side-by-side with American commandos. In the U.S. military, the mission is often held up as a successful example of a counterterrorism mission that uses a light footprint and a light touch to empower local forces without a high-profile American presence or large-scale airstrikes.

After years of relentless pressure, the number of attacks carried out by Abu Sayyaf has declined, and polls also show less sympathy for the militants and satisfaction with Philippines security forces.

But Abu Sayyaf militants and other extremist groups in Southeast Asia are looking to regroup by linking up with the Islamic State network to attract recruits and money.

“It would be a huge setback” if U.S. troops were forced to leave now, said Seth Jones, a former advisor to American forces who has written extensively about terrorist threats. “It has been really successful weakening Abu Sayyaf.”

Even with improvements in the capabilities of Philippine troops, the American Special Operations Forces (SOF) still play an important role in tracking the militants by using intelligence from drones and other U.S. surveillance aircraft, experts and former officials said.

Abu Sayyaf’s roots date back to the early 1990s, when it split off from a Muslim separatist rebellion waged by the Moro National Liberation Front. With an estimated 400 fighters, Abu Sayyaf is a small but brutal insurgency operating in the country’s southern islands and is known for kidnapping foreigners for ransom and beheading hostages if governments refuse to bow to their demands. The militants beheaded two Canadian nationals this year.

With the Philippine armed forces facing budget pressures and preoccupied with China’s rival territorial claims in the South China Sea, Abu Sayyaf has tried to reassert itself over the past year and associate the group with the Islamic State “brand,” experts said.

“Withdrawing all U.S. SOF support in the current conditions could definitely cause backsliding in security and stability of the south in the face of both a resurgent threat and mixed signals from the government,” said Linda Robinson, a RAND Corporation expert who recently wrote a report on the American commandos’ mission.

Officials in Manila have tried to reassure Washington and downplay Duterte’s inflammatory, profanity-laced remarks. But his stream of anti-American statements, including referring to President Barack Obama as “the son of a whore,” are not easily dismissed, given his track record as the former mayor of Davao, a southern Philippines city where he backed up his tough talk with anti-crime tactics condemned by international human rights groups.

“I think he’s absolutely capable of asking U.S. forces to leave,” said Vikram Singh, a former senior Pentagon official who handled relations with the Philippines and other Southeast Asian states.

“When someone like this gets into power, you should expect they will act in the way they’ve acted and the way they said they would act,” said Singh, now at the Center for American Progress.

As Davao’s mayor for 22 years, Duterte rose to fame by bringing down a sky-high crime rate through draconian measures, including a strict curfew. Human Rights Watch has accused him of backing vigilante death squads which killed hundreds of petty criminals, drug dealers, and street children. Duterte has denied the charges.

Embracing his nickname as “the Punisher,” Duterte has applied similar drastic crime-fighting measures as president, and the results have shocked rights groups and foreign governments, including the United States. The death toll from his anti-drug campaign by police and vigilantes has reportedly surpassed 3,000 since he took office in June, and authorities have rejected calls to investigate the killings.

In July, Duterte called on people who knew of any drug addicts to “go ahead and kill them yourself as getting their parents to do it would be too painful.”

By bashing the United States, Duterte is playing on deeply rooted resentment over America’s colonial legacy in the Philippines, though the small contingent of U.S. Special Operations Forces there has taken pains to play a supporting role to the country’s armed forces fighting Abu Sayyaf.

“We said in 2002 that we would not conduct unilateral operations and we kept that word,” said David Maxwell, a retired U.S. Army colonel who commanded Special Forces in the Philippines. “We built a level of trust.”

But tensions are running high between Duterte and the United States — as well as European governments — over his government’s violent war against drugs. Some U.S. lawmakers are calling for imposing conditions on U.S. aid to Manila over the issue.

“This is systematic, widespread, brutal, and beyond the bounds for a constitutional democracy,” Sen. Ben Cardin, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s top Democrat, said in a written statement entered into the congressional record on Monday.

Referring to the decades-old U.S. alliance with the Philippines, Cardin said “because of the way in which the new government of President Duterte is approaching this issue, we may find ourselves at something of a crossroads.”

The State Department has left open the possibility that $6.7 million in planned U.S. funding for the Philippines’ criminal justice system might be canceled if human rights concerns are not addressed.

The funds “can be used only after agreement between the United States and the Philippines on their specific use. If no agreement is reached, the funds may be used in a country other than the Philippines,” a State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Foreign Policy.

The official added that “we are deeply concerned by reports of extrajudicial killings by or at the behest of government authorities in the Philippines.”

The Pentagon said it is in discussions with Manila about the future of the U.S. military mission.

“Over the last two months, we have been consulting with our Filipino partners at senior levels on ways we can support the new administration’s counterterrorism efforts,” Cmdr. Gary Ross, a Pentagon spokesman, told FP.

Administration officials said privately there has been no formal request to end the U.S. military mission. But officials also are concerned that Duterte might jeopardize gains in the campaign against Abu Sayyaf and alienate the local population if he orders a major military operation along the lines used in his aggressive anti-drug fight.

Duterte’s remarks have also spooked financial markets and sent the country’s peso plunging to a seven-year low. International credit rating agency Standard & Poor’s has said the president’s statements and threats could endanger the economy and that his unpredictable behavior means an upgrade to the country’s credit rating is unlikely in the next two years.

For the Obama administration, Duterte’s volatility is a discouraging turn of events after years of diplomatic legwork that had produced steady progress. The White House had come to see Manila as an important pillar in its strategic “rebalance” to Asia, including its bid to counter China’s assertive moves in the South China Sea.

The improving relations culminated with a new military cooperation agreement that entered into force this year allowing the United States broad access to several key air and naval bases. The move was driven largely by concerns over China’s growing military might and its expansionist claims to reefs and islands also claimed by Manila. But it illustrated how far U.S.-Philippine relations had progressed since 1992, when Manila — keen to assert the country’s independence from the American superpower — voted to force the U.S. military to abandon its vast naval base at Subic Bay.

The Philippines remains sensitive about its sovereignty, given America’s bloody colonial campaign more than a century ago that failed to distinguish between civilians and pro-independence rebels, and Washington’s heavy military presence after the country’s independence in 1946.

Still, over the past decade and a half, the U.S. military mission had not been a source of contention between Washington and Manila, particularly as the American footprint has decreased from more than 1,000 troops to between roughly 500 and 600. In 2007, the mission scored a coup when U.S. forces helped Philippine troops hunt down and kill the thenleader of Abu Sayyaf — Jainal Antel Sali — at his jungle hideout after a firefight and an elaborate intelligence operation. A militant inside Abu Sayyaf — responding to a U.S. appeal for information on the group’s leader in return for a cash reward — delivered crucial information that led to the raid.

Some former U.S. officials and analysts argue that Duterte’s coarse and angry rhetoric is mostly about maintaining his populist appeal at home, and that in the end, the alliance between Manila and Washington will not be blown off course.

Given the sensitivity in the Philippines over America’s presence, Washington will have to tread carefully and accept that it cannot push too hard to persuade Manila to retain the U.S. Special Operations Forces, said Maxwell, who now teaches at Georgetown University.

“This has to be pull, not push. It has to be the Philippine government that wants support, not us forcing ourselves on the Philippines,” he said.

Photo credit: JOEL NITO/AFP/Getty Images