US Role in Philippine Counter-insurgency Operations

Nuns lead march against US troops in the Philippines


September 26, 2010

In a speech during a Peace and Security forum held at the Mandarin Hotel last April 22, 2010, then presidential candidate Benigno Aquino III outlined his National Security Policy, which he said focuses on four key elements:

Governance – “The government must be present and accountable to its citizens especially those living in the poorest and most remote areas.”

(An effective political strategy focuses on strengthening the government’s capability and capacity to respond—and be seen to be responding—to the needs of its people.)

Delivery of basic services – “To alleviate the plight of innocent civilians caught in the conflict, we must renew government programs that build access roads, school buildings for basic and adult education, provide potable water and sanitation facilities, basic health care, electricity, assist in shelter reconstruction, and provide temporary livelihood interventions.”

Economic Reconstruction and Sustainable Development – the national government, in partnership with international donor organizations, must assist the new ARMM regional government in building a capable bureaucracy with streamlined and transparent procedures to increase the region’s absorptive capacity for development projects that will come its way.

(The economic and development function in COIN includes immediate humanitarian relief and the provision of essential services such as safe water, sanitation, basic heath care, livelihood assistance, and primary education, as well as longer- term programs for development of infrastructure to support agricultural, industrial, educational, medical and commercial activities. It also includes efforts to build the absorptive capacity of local economies and generate government and societal revenues from economic activity (much of which may previously have been illicit or informal). Assistance in effective resource and infrastructure management, including construction of key infrastructure, may be critically important to COIN efforts.)

Security Sector Reform – “Reforming the Security Sector must begin with restoring the pride and honor of our uniformed services. We need strong, capable and disciplined security forces serving under *firm democratic civilian control *to achieve and sustain peace and security in our land.”

(Physical security efforts must not focus too greatly on strengthening the military and police forces of the affected nation. Such capacity building should only be part of a broader process of Security Sector Reform (SSR) in which the whole system is developed, including the civil institutions that oversee the security forces and intelligence services, the legal framework and the justice institutions (prosecution services, judiciary and prisons) that implement it. It is particularly important that a sense of civil ownership and accountability should extend to the local level and that all elements of the security apparatus should be trusted by the population.)

Those in italics were lifted from the US Counterinsurgency Guide released last January 2009.

Is it surprising that current Philippine president Benigno Aquino III adopted the 2009 US Counterinsurgency Guide in framing his government’s National Security Policy? Not really for a fair-haired boy of the Americans. It could be recalled that during the heat of the presidential campaign, exactly two weeks before the May 10 elections, Time magazine featured Aquino in an article with the title, The Next Aquino: Can Noynoy Save The Philippines? He is only the second presidential candidate who was featured by a major US publication such as Time even before he was elected. The first one was Ferdinand E. Marcos.

And a mere 11 days after the May 10 elections, newly-assigned US Ambassador to the Philippines Harry K. Thomas already visited Aquino at his Times street residence.

However, US influence, nay control, over Philippine counterinsurgency strategy dates back way before Aquino. It could be remembered that the last two government agencies turned over by the US colonial government to the first Philippine puppet government were the Education and Defense departments.

Thus, even before the term “surrogate army” was coined by the 2006 US Quadrennial Defense Review, the AFP has long been a junior partner of the the US Armed Forces. In fact, among the major influences in the development of US counterinsurgency strategy are the Philippine-American War of 1901 and the Huk pacification campaign during the 1950s.

This partnership is being underpinned by the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) of 1951. Before the MDT was the US-RP Military Bases Agreement and the US-RP Military Assistance Pact of March 1947. Under the Military Assistance Pact, the US supplied arms, ammunition, equipment, and supplies to the AFP, and provided for the establishment of the Joint US Military Advisory Group (Jusmag), which was mandated to reorganize the AFP and train its officers and personnel. Part of the aid package was the grant of scholarships to AFP officers for training to US military schools. Through the Jusmag, the US Armed Forces is able to, on a continuing basis, provide strategic and tactical direction to, and exercise intelligence coordination with the AFP. The provision of arms, ammunition, equipment, and supplies to the AFP is also being coursed through the Jusmag.

Agreements and Structures of Continuing Control

After the Philippine Senate rejected the renewal of the US-RP Military Bases Agreement in 1992, the US has been seeking ways to justify the posting of its troops in the country. Also by the late 90s, the Project for a New American Century, an American think tank comprised of neoconservatives, was pushing for “promoting American global leadership” (read: assert American politco-military hegemony). On February 1998, the Visiting Forces Agreement was signed. It took effect after was the Philippine Senate ratified it in May 1999.

In the year 2000, A US-RP Joint Defense Assessment was conducted to assess the capabilities of the AFP and its counterinsurgency campaign, and on this basis, determine the technical assistance, field expertise, and funding that the US could provide. The study was completed in 2003 and resulted in the formulation of the Philippine Defense Reform Program, which is being supervised by the US. It was supposedly a five-year program but has been running for eight years now. This further tightened the grip of the US Armed Forces on the AFP.In 2002, the Defense Policy Board was created thereby allowing the US to control the policies and decisions of the Philippine Department of National Defense. Another mechanism called the Security Engagement Board was created in March 24, 2006 purportedly to serve as the mechanism for consultation and planning of measures and arrangements focused on addressing non-traditional security concerns such as international terrorism, transnational crime, maritime safety and security, natural and man-made disasters, and the threat of a pandemic outbreak that arise from non-state actors and transcend national borders.

Also the year 2002 marked the start of a series of Balikatan Joint US-RP military exercises. This paved the way for the “semi-permanent basing” of US troops in the country. The joint exercises and other trainings conducted by the U.S. are also aimed at improving the capacity of the U.S. and Philippine armed forces to conduct joint operations under the former’s command and direction; improve the capability of the AFP in waging wars against the perceived enemies of the U.S. and its local puppets; and contribute to the combat experience of U.S. troops. From then on, US troops were sighted joining AFP troops in combat operations against the bandit group Abu Sayyaf and the secessionist Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

U.S. military assistance to the Philippines increased dramatically. IBON Foundation computed that U.S. military assistance increased 1,111 percent from 2001 to 2002.

In May 2003, President Arroyo signed a U.S.-RP Non-Surrender Agreement thereby granting U.S. forces in the country immunity from prosecution before the International Criminal Court (ICC). The Philippines has refused, up to the present, to sign the Rome Statute which created the ICC, in deference to the desires of the U.S.

After tighter strategic and tactical control over the AFP was accomplished, the US-AFP partnership came out with the counterinsurgency program Oplan Bantay Laya, which was implemented beginning 2002.

Oplan Bantay Laya, A Trademark of US Counterinsurgency Operations

Oplan Bantay Laya, which was launched in 2002, is the latest in a series of counterinsurgency programs of the AFP. As in other counterinsurgency programs of the AFP it had the trademark of US counterinsurgency, counter-terror operations.

The first “comprehensive and coordinated” counterinsurgency program implemented by the AFP, during the Marcos dictatorship, was Oplan Katatagan (Operation Stability) in 1982.

This was followed by Oplan Lambat Bitag I , II, III, IV of the Aquino and Ramos administrations. The Estrada Regime launched Oplan Makabayan in 1998 and Oplan Balangai in 2000.

Essentially, Oplan Bantay Laya is the same as previous counterinsurgency programs. It divided military operations into four stages, clear-hold-consolidate-develop. Military operations are conducted to “clear” the area of insurgents, paramilitary groups and an intelligence network are formed to “hold” the area; the AFP then “consolidates” the area by improving its relations with the civilian population through civic action operations such as medical and dental missions; and at the last stage the AFP “develops” the area by introducing livelihood and development projects. This is an adaptation of the four stages of US counterinsurgency operations.

In terms of military tactics, Oplan Bantay Laya employs the same combination of intensive military operations, intelligence, and civic action or triad operations.

AFP documents reveal that Oplan Bantay Laya has three strategies namely, Strategic Holistic Approach, Win-Hold-Win, and Sustained Operations.

The Strategic Holistic Approach is the AFP’s solution to what it perceived as the lack of coordination between and among government agencies, the AFP and Philippine National Police (PNP), and civil society institutions such as NGOs. On paper, the objective of this strategy is to comprehensively approach the insurgency problem. The president heads the machinery for the Strategic Holistic Approach while the AFP and PNP are in-charge of military operations and Area Coordinating Centers. These centers coordinate AFP and PNP units, local government agencies, and other sectors such as NGOs in an area for the purpose of conducting counterinsurgency operations.

As part of the Strategic Holistic Approach, the counterinsurgency program is directed by the Cabinet Oversight Committee on Internal Security, currently the most powerful cabinet cluster on the national level. At the local level, local officials are virtually stripped of decision-making authority and are even threatened by AFP commanders if they question the latter’s actions. Under Oplan Bantay Laya, civilian authority is practically subjugated by the chain of command of the AFP. Even NGOs and other civil society groups are forced to surrender their independence and to cooperate with the AFP or risk being branded as “terrorist or front organizations” and be dealt with accordingly

The US calls this the “whole-of-government” approach to counterinsurgency engagement. “Diplomacy, development and defense are interdependent at every level of a COIN effort, and civil-military integration is required at the strategic, theater/operational and local/tactical levels. Most successful COIN campaigns have achieved this unity of effort through unified authority.” (US Government Counterinsurgency Guide, January 2009)

Consistent with the strategies of Win-Hold-Win and Sustained Operations, the AFP identified thirteen priority areas in seven regions namely, Ilocos-Cordillera, Central Luzon, Southern Tagalog, Bicol, Bohol in Central Visayas, Caraga, Compostela Valley in Southern Mindanao. These areas were subjected to heavy troop deployments and sustained military operations. Only when the AFP has achieved its military objective of wiping out the insurgency and has formed a civilian self-defense force in an area does it transfer majority of its troops to another area which it then subjects to intense and sustained military operations.

An example is Mindoro. The island was subjected to intense and sustained military operations that resulted in numerous cases of political killings and other human rights violations. When the AFP thought that the island was saturated enough and that all political and people’s organizations had been destroyed, they transferred the troops and the operations to Batangas. In Central Luzon, Tarlac and Pampanga were subjected to heavy troop deployments and military operations before the AFP units were transferred to Bulacan and Nueva Ecija.While essentially no different from previous counterinsurgency programs, Oplan Bantay Laya is deemed as the most brutal because it also directs its attacks on political activists. With its target research component, intelligence operations are directed at what it calls “sectoral front organizations”. The key people in these “sectoral front organizations” are placed in a “sectoral Order of Battle (OB).” These intelligence operations are carried out by units and personnel of the Military Intelligence Group-Intelligence Service of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (MIG-ISAFP) lodged at the battalion level. These units are given “Intelligence Task Allocations,” with quarterly targets for “neutralization.” Thus, a surge of killings of political activists took place from 2002 onwards.

This resulted in the extrajudicial killing of 1,190 political activists from January 2001 to March 2010. There had been 205 victims of enforced disappearances, 1,028 victims of torture, and hundreds of thousands were forcibly displaced in rural areas as a result of military operations.

These killings and forcible disappearances are carried out by death squads composed by special operations units of the army, police, or paramilitary forces based on lists provided by military intelligence units.

The counterinsurgency programs of the AFP are based on the unconventional warfare and counterinsurgency strategies developed by the U.S. Armed Forces and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) particularly that on “low intensity conflict.” These can be found in U.S. Army manuals of the 1960s and 1980s such as the manual of the U.S. Army Operations against Guerrilla Forces (FM 31-20) and the 1960 Special Forces manual, Counterinsurgency Operations.

Two underlying principles are integral to U.S. counterinsurgency operations. First, the guerrilla/terrorist assumes an illegal status and therefore his life is forfeit if apprehended. Second, the guerrilla uses terror to subjugate the local population and can therefore be effectively neutralized with the use of counter-terror by the counter-insurgent.

“Terror Operations,” by the counterinsurgent includes assassinations, disappearances, and mass executions. These terror operations were implemented by the U.S. and its puppet armies in many countries in subsequent decades, and remained as a hallmark of the counterinsurgency state in the 1980s.

Justification for terror operations can be read in U.S. training manuals. The 1965 U.S. Army Psychological Operations manual (FM33-5) stated that unconventional warfare against the enemy should have a multiplier effect by creating an atmosphere of fear. Fear was being created to force the local population to transfer loyalties from the insurgent to the counterinsurgent; to create a disincentive to discourage the local population from providing resources to the insurgents; and to make the supporters and the insurgent themselves lose confidence on the strength of their own army. These terror operations were carried out overtly or covertly.

The May 1961 U.S. manual on “Operations Against Irregular Forces” defined “overt irregular activities” to include terrorism by assassination, bombing, armed robbery, torture, mutilation, and kidnapping; provocation of incidents, reprisals, and holding of hostages; and denial activities, such as arson, flooding, demolition, use of chemical or biological agents, or other acts designed to prevent use of an installation, area, product, or facility. “Covert irregular activities,” on the other hand, included espionage, sabotage, dissemination of propaganda and rumors, delaying or misdirecting orders, issuing false or misleading orders or reports, assassination, extortion, blackmail, theft, counterfeiting, and identifying individuals for terroristic attack.

To prevent the terror tactics from backfiring on the counterinsurgent, U.S. and French experts in counterinsurgency instructed that these must be carried out by “professionals.” According to the manuals, these “professionals,” referring to paramilitary units, mercenaries, or special units assigned as death squads, must not be identified with the counterinsurgents trying to win the hearts and minds of the population.

The extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances in the Philippines are no different from Operation Phoenix, which was implemented during the late 60s in Vietnam.

During Operation Phoenix in Vietnam, the CIA funded, designed, and advised Provincial Reconnaissance Units (PRU). Each province in Vietnam had a PRU and each PRU had a U.S. adviser from Special Forces units.

U.S. intelligence units provided names of suspected Vietcongs for neutralization to PRUs. Each PRU was given a quota, which according to reports reached a high of 1,800 persons per month.

Two U.S. Navy SEALS, Lt. John Wilbur and Barton Osborn, who served as advisers to PRUs, testified that PRUs were ordered to kill suspected members of the Vietcong infrastructure in villages. Sometimes, Wilbur said, it was much easier to shoot somebody rather than wait for intelligence operations to bear fruit especially since they were working on a monthly quota.

Mark Zepezauer in his book, The CIA’s Greatest Hits: Called Operation Phoenix, described Operation Phoenix as, “…an assassination program plain and simple. The idea was to cripple the Nationalist Liberation Front (NLF) by killing influential people like mayors, teachers, doctors, tax collectors-anyone who aided the functioning of the NLF’s parallel government in the South.”

These tactics and methods were also implemented in Latin America and were described in seven training manuals prepared by the U.S. military and used between 1987 and 1991 for intelligence training courses in Latin America and at the US Army School of the Americas (SOA), where the US trained Latin American soldiers, contain description of tactics such as executing guerrillas, blackmail, false imprisonment, physical abuse, using truth serum to obtain information, and paying bounties for enemy dead. Counterintelligence agents were advised that one of their functions is “recommending targets for neutralization.”

And the targets for “neutralization” or other punitive actions were very broad. These included “local or national political party teams, or parties that have goals, beliefs or ideologies contrary or in opposition to the National Government”, or “teams of hostile organizations whose objective is to create dissension or cause restlessness among the civilian population in the area of operations. The manuals described universities as “breeding grounds for terrorists,” and identified priests and nuns as terrorists. It advised intelligence units to infiltrate youth groups, student groups, labor unions, political parties, and community organizations.This is where the concepts of “target research”, “sectoral front organizations”, and “intelligence task allocations” contained in Oplan Bantay Laya were derived.

Under the US “global war and terror”, which it describes as a “war with no borders”, the US Armed Forces is equating counter-terror with counterinsurgency operations. Thus, the use of same approaches and methods.

In Iraq, US efforts of strengthening the Iraqi government and instituting “democratic processes” were complemented by counter-terror operations. The US created, funded and directed the Wolf Brigade, which was responsible for the killing and abduction of civilians deemed as hostile to the government.

The Associated Press tallied a total of 539 persons killed by the Wolf Brigade from April to October 7, 2005 alone.

On September 8, 2005 the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq issued a human rights report stating that, “Corpses appear regularly in and around Baghdad and other areas. Most bear signs of torture and appear to be victims of extrajudicial executions…. Serious allegations of extrajudicial executions underline a deterioration in the situation of law and order…. Accounts consistently point to the systematic use of torture during interrogations at police stations and within other premises belonging to the Ministry of the Interior.”

These methods could also be seen in the terror listings, and drone missile attacks and renditions being done by the US Armed Forces and the Central Intelligence Agency.

Singing a Different Tune?

President Benigno Aquino III and AFP Chief of Staff Ricardo David announced that they are in the process of formulating a new counterinsurgency program, which would be implemented on January 2011. They said respect for human rights would characterize the new counterinsurgency program.

Again this is a copy of the two approaches to counterinsurgency described by the US counterinsurgency guide, namely the enemy-centric approach, which focuses on defeating the insurgent militarily; and the population-centric approach, which “shifts the focus of COIN from defeating the insurgent organization to maintaining or recovering the support of the population.”

The guide admits that counterinsurgency campaigns always include the two elements, with the balance between the two changing over time.

The US thinks that President Aquino is in the best position to win over the support of the population because of the image of “reform” he carries due to the history of his parents being in the opposition, against a dictator at that. This is why the US supported the presidential campaign of Aquino.

The Philippines is very important to the US. The US is one of the three top investors in the country and the top three sources of imports and destination of exports. The Philippines is also strategically located making it an ideal place to project US military hegemony in the region. Thus, any threat to its interests in the country would merit its strong intervention, especially now that it is in a deep crisis.

Would the counterinsurgency program of the Aquino government be any different from Oplan Bantay Laya? The extrajudicial killings have not stopped and the Aquino government had no qualms about extending Oplan Bantay Laya for six months. More important is the fact that the crisis in the country is still deepening and by all indications, it appears that the Aquino government would just be implementing the same globalization policies that were pushed by the previous Arroyo administration, which passed on the burden of the crisis to the Filipino people. With no substantial reforms forthcoming, eventually the magic of the reformist image would wane, the people’s unrest would intensify, and with it, the military solution or the enemy-centric approach would take on a more dominant role.

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