On September 1, 2017, the U.S. Secretary of Defense designated Operation Pacific Eagle-Philippines (OPE-P) as “a contingency operation to support the Philippine government and military in their efforts to isolate, degrade, and defeat affiliates of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and other terrorist organizations in the Philippines.”
Although, OPE-P is a totally new operation to combat terrorism, it’s renamed from Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines (OEF-P). OPE-P marks a new phase of counterterrorism operations in the Philippines and the entire Southeast Asia region. But according to U.S. military officials, OPE-P is now eligible for the same funding used to finance the long-running wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The decision by the Trump administration to elevate OPE-P to an “Overseas Contingency Operation” (OCO) – a sanitized term for “Global War on Terror” — was in response to the Philippine government’s request for more support to fight extremist groups. OCO funds are typically exempt from limits on routine spending that have financed wars such as Operation Enduring Freedom.
Battle of Marawi
The U.S. Special Forces supported the Philippine forces in defeating the Maute and Abu Sayyaf militants, where at least 165 Philippine troops and 47 civilians died. It’s estimated that about 1,000 militants were killed during the five-month bloody campaign in the “Battle of Marawi” in Mindanao. At least P2.84 billion in military assistance was delivered to the Philippine military, which included 200 Glock pistols, 300 M4 carbines, 100 grenade launchers, four mini-guns, and individual operator gear worth P250 million.
Approximately 200 to 300 American troops remain in the region serving in advisory roles. They are likely to stay in the region for now. The U.S. is also providing technical support and equipment, as well as intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance by drones. A Pentagon official said that the Trump administration is determined in making the Philippines a “contingency operations” [GWOT] mission and give it the kind of credibility it needed “to prevent ISIS from getting a foothold in Southeast Asia.” The U.S. government also committed more than $20 million in humanitarian assistance toward rebuilding and stabilizing Marawi in which some 400,000 people were displaced by the conflict.
It’s interesting to note that during the Obama administration, relations between Manila and Washington soured as a result of former president Obama’s criticism of President Rodrigo Duterte and the human rights violations that were allegedly committed in Duterte’s “war on drugs.” But things got better between the two countries when Trump was elected president. All it took was a phone call from Trump praising Duterte. Trump told Duterte: “I just wanted to congratulate you because I am hearing of the unbelievable job on the drug problem. Many countries have the problem, we have a problem, but what a great job you are doing and I just wanted to call and tell you that.” With those words, Trump – a “loyalty” freak — gained a loyal admirer in Duterte. And Duterte was so proud of Trump’s call that he published the transcript of the call. Thus, began a friendship that crossed their ideological differences: Duterte an anti-American leftist and Trump a proponent of projecting American naval power in the Indo-Pacific region.
Indeed, it wasn’t too long ago when Duterte, in a fit of fury, kicked out the U.S. Special Forces that had been supporting Philippine military forces in fighting the Muslim insurgents in Mindanao. He also terminated joint naval operations in the South China Sea. He also put the U.S. on notice that future joint military exercises will cease. And he threatened to terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) and the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).
But the siege of Marawi City changed all that. Duterte turned a blind eye as the U.S. Special Forces came back to assist the Philippine Marines in fighting the militants who had established a strong foothold in the city.
Duterte may have quietly accepted the return of the U.S. Special Forces in Mindanao – OPE-P wasn’t reported in the news until four months later – but it certainly woke up the slumbering leftist groups who conveniently remained silent while the Philippine Marines were struggling to stay alive fighting the rebels in Marawi. Which makes one wonder: why didn’t the “patriotic” leftists – for love of country – volunteer to fight alongside the besieged Marines? Or, could it be that they were on the side of the militants? Hmm…
But when news reports that the U.S. Special Forces returned to Mindanao, they brought out their old “war drums” and started making a lot of noise again. Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan) Secretary General Renato Reyes said that the government kept the people in the dark about Operation Pacific Eagle: Philippines. According to him, OPE-P aims to maintain “active US military presence in the region.” He asked: “Was the US also the one that recommended that Martial Law in Mindanao be extended to one year, to allow unhampered US intervention and basing? What are the terms of reference for armed US troops conducting operations in Mindanao? The Philippine government has declared victory in Marawi, so why allow continued US military intervention? What does this say about Duterte’s so-called independent foreign policy?”
It seems that Reyes was misinformed. He had conveniently sidestepped the facts, which are: The U.S. Special Forces were deployed to Marawi in response to the Philippine government’s request for military assistance to fight the terrorists. Secondly, and more importantly, the U.S. Special Forces are assisting with ongoing emergency relief operations – known as Task Force Bangon Marawi. The U.S. government made available $14.3 million or about P730 million to directly assist with the recovery of Marawi and surrounding areas.
The U.S. Embassy also issued a statement, saying: “With $3 million in Humanitarian Assistance, USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance is working with humanitarian organizations on the ground to deliver critical relief supplies such as safe drinking water, hygiene kits, kitchen sets, shelter materials to improve the conditions in evacuation centers and in host families, and programs to protect displaced women and children.” At the same time, $11.3 will be used to support the early recovery, stabilization and rehabilitation of Marawi and the surrounding areas. This includes restoration of basic public services such as health care, water and electricity, jumpstart livelihoods, revitalize the economy, and promote community reconciliation and alternatives to violent extremism. [Source: The Philippine Star, October 24, 2017]
Aside from the financial grant, the USAID delivered 12,000 water containers and nearly 100,000 chlorine tablets for safe drinking water to families in evacuation centers. These were delivered upon requests from the Departments of Education and Health. The USAID had also provided 6,500 desks for temporary schools and psycho-social support for affected teachers and students, according to the U.S. Embassy. [Ibid]
At the end of the day, the return of the U.S. Special Forces signifies a renewal of U.S.-Philippine military cooperation that has withstood the test of time for over a century. The engagement couldn’t have come at a much better time. With terrorism rearing its ugly head all over the world, military alliances have become an indispensible factor in counterterrorism. Indeed, the “Global War on Terror” is every country’s war and it behooves every citizen to help keep the country safe from terrorists.