US scales down anti-terror unit in PH, officials clarify
MANILA, Philippines – After more than a decade of helping fight al-Qaeda-linked militants, the United States is scaling down, not disbanding as reported, its anti-terror contingent of elite troops in Mindanao in a move that reflects shifting security strategies and focus in economically vibrant Asia, where new concerns such as multiple territorial conflicts involving China have alarmed Washington’s allies entangled in the disputes.
A year after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the US military established the Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines in the southern Philippines to help ill-equipped Filipino forces contain a bloody rampage by the Abu Sayyaf gunmen, who carried out bombings, terrorized entire towns and kidnapped more than 100 people, including three Americans.
Although US forces are barred by the Philippine Constitution from local combat, the advice, training, military equipment and intelligence, including drone surveillance that they provided helped the underfunded Philippine military beat back the Abu Sayyaf. US-backed Philippine offensives whittled the militants’ ranks from a few thousand fighters — mostly drawn from desperately poor hinterland villages — to about 300 gunmen, who survive on extortion and kidnappings for ransom while dodging military assaults.
“Our partnership with the Philippine security forces has been successful in drastically reducing the capabilities of domestic and transnational terrorist groups in the Philippines,” US Embassy Press Attache Kurt Hoyer said in a written response to questions sent by email by The Associated Press.
The remaining terrorists, he said, “have largely devolved into disorganized groups resorting to criminal undertakings to sustain their activities.”
That success has led US military planners in coordination with their Philippine counterparts “to begin working on a transition plan where the JSOTF-P as a task force will no longer exist,” Hoyer said.
From the 500 troops staying in Camp Navarro, around 200 will remain under Colonel Eric Brown of the US Army and would answer to the US Special Operations Command Pacific, said Lieutenant Colonel Ramon Zagala, Armed Forces of the Philippines Public Affairs Office Chief.
In a separate interview, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said the deaths of Abu Sabbaya, Khadaffy Janjalani, Albader Parad, and Umbra Jumdail during the 12-year Operation Enduring Freedom and the series of arrests of other Abu Sayyaf leaders contributed to the decision to scale down the number of US troops in the south.
“It’s a big improvement,” Gazmin said.
Hoyer said the US military personnel from the Pacific Command would remain under a new unit called the PACOM Augmentation Team to provide Filipino forces with counter-terrorism and combat training and advice, and “ensure that violent extremist organizations don’t regain a foothold in the southern Philippines.”
He suggested the remaining American personnel would move away from training exercises with Filipino combat units in the field, and shift to working with Philippine security forces at unified commands and headquarters units.
The timing of such withdrawals from counterterrorism campaigns from the southern Philippines to Afghanistan has been a dilemma for the US, which must ensure that remaining extremist forces are not able to bounce back.
Gazmin said with the scaling down of the US presence in the south, the Americans would renew a presence elsewhere in the country to help address another security worry — China’s increasingly assertive behavior in the disputed South China Sea, where Beijing, Manila and four other governments have been locked in increasingly tense territorial disputes.
The US and the Philippines, which are defense treaty allies, signed a 10-year pact in April that will allow possibly thousands of American forces temporary access to selected Filipino military camps and enable them to preposition fighter jets and ships.
The Philippines’ efforts to protect its territory have dovetailed with Washington’s intention to pivot away from years of heavy military engagement in the Middle East to Asia, partly as a counterweight to China’s rising clout.
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