After 13 years of providing operational advice and support, the U.S. special operations mission in the Philippines, which was set up to help the Philippine military fight an Islamic militancy in the country’s south, is officially coming to a close. U.S. advisers were in the Philippines to primarily assist in Philippine commandos in fighting Abu Sayyaf militants in the country’s southern islands as past of the Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines (JSOTF-P). JSOTF-P advised the Philippines’ Armed Forces Western Mindanao Command.
According to local reports, U.S. JSOTF-P personnel joined their Philippines counterparts in a flag-raising ceremony in Zamboanga City to symbolize the conclusion of the U.S. mission. Zamboanga is the sixth largest city in the Philippines and hosted U.S. JSOTF-P advisers over the course of their 13 year mission in the Philippines. Though the JSOTF-P mission is scheduled to end this year, some members of the current mission will stay on as part of a U.S. special operations liaison to assist in the Philippines’ ongoing counter-terrorism efforts according to a statement made by U.S. Special Operations Command, Pacific spokesperson Army Maj. Kari McEwen to the US Naval Institute. “This represents a shift in focus for U.S. Special Operations Forces from advising and assisting at the small unit level to providing operational advice and assistance at higher levels of command within the Philippine Security Forces for continued counterterrorism progress, humanitarian assistance and civil military cooperation,” she added in the statement.
As per the terms of the Visiting Forces Agreement which governs the United States’ military presence in the Philippines, U.S. troops are not permitted to engage in direct combat operations in the Philippines. JSOTF-P thus focus solely on advising and assisting Philippines security forces “at the tactical, operational and strategic levels.” JSOTF-P comprised personnel from every branch of the U.S. armed forces, including specialized advisers with backgrounds in Army, Air Force, and Navy operations. U.S. Pacific Command will monitor the situation in the southern Philippines, with some remaining JSOTF-P personnel, to “ensure that violent extremist organizations don’t regain a foothold” in the region.
Abu Sayyaf, the main Islamic fundamentalist insurgency targeted by JSOTF-P, has been active since the early 1990s and is one of several radical insurgent Moro groups seeking an independent province in the southern regions of the Philippines, in and around Sulu and Basilan provinces. The group has been designated as a terrorist organization by the United Nations, and became a target for the United States following Operation Enduring Freedom and the Global War on Terror under the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush. About 600 U.S. personnel were sent to the Philippines originally as part of Operation Enduring Freedom – Philippines (OEF-P). The historic Balikatan U.S.-Philippines military exercises evolved to include counter-terror operations following OEF-P.