The American role in Mamasapano

Hearing it from the US state department, one would think American security personnel played no more than a peripheral role in the Mamasapano encounter. Here’s how its spokesperson, Jen Psaki, put it at the department’s daily press briefing last March 18: “At the request of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, personnel serving in the Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines responded to assist in the evacuation of casualties after the firefight. The operation was planned and executed by Philippine authorities.”

That’s also what most of us initially thought after seeing photos of wounded troopers and body bags being loaded onto waiting vehicles by brawny Caucasians sporting military haircuts. Can it be that they just happened to be in the neighborhood with their air ambulance when dead bodies needed to be retrieved from the battlefield? Sensing something disingenuous in this matter-of-fact portrayal of the US role in Mindanao, a reporter tried to probe:

QUESTION: And when you said that any US support was in accordance with the Philippine Government, in other words it was part—I’m not sure what that means.

PSAKI: Well, specifically, as I mentioned, we responded to assist in the evacuation of casualties after the firefight. That was the role.

QUESTION: After they asked?

PSAKI: Yes, mm-hmm. After the request of the Armed Forces of the Philippines.”

The reference to the Armed Forces is understandable. The legal umbrella that justifies and protects the presence of American troops on Philippine soil is the Visiting Forces Agreement, which is associated with the series of joint military exercises between American forces and the Philippine military. Today, it is being invoked as an all-purpose cover for a wide range of US security activities in the Philippines. There were six Americans at the Special Action Force’s Tactical Command Post who were monitoring the Jan. 25 Mamasapano mission in real time. I am aware that this is not an issue with many of our people. But, a little background on how this came about may help enrich our understanding of the American role in Mamasapano.

In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, America launched the global war against terrorism, specifically targeting the leaders of the al-Qaida network and its regional affiliate in Southeast Asia, the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI). The Philippines became a theater in this American global campaign against terrorism after it was determined that the notorious Mindanao-based kidnap group Abu Sayyaf maintained close relations with leaders of the JI.

In a changed world environment, America decided it needed to recast its military presence in countries that were battling terrorism. New experiences were sought in the battle against this scourge. In the Philippines, Mindanao was chosen as a suitable laboratory in which new models of irregular warfare could be tested. Under “Operation Enduring Freedom,” America offered advice and assistance in counterinsurgency and counterterrorism to selected allies. A corollary of this campaign was the formation in several countries of missions called “Joint Special Operations Task Forces.” The Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines (JSOTF-P) was organized in 2002, one of the first to be set up by the American global security state. (Interestingly, the JSOTF-P withdrew from Mindanao a month after the Mamasapano debacle.)

A paper titled “Understanding Future Irregular Warfare Challenges,” presented as a testimony before the armed services committee of the US Congress by retired US colonel David S. Maxwell, discusses the key concept that governs the operationalization of the global antiterrorist campaign—“Foreign Internal Defense.” Maxwell was the commander of the JSOTF-P in Mindanao in 2006-2007.

I have been wondering how the Philippine National Police got involved in the counterterrorism campaign. Like counterinsurgency, this has been historically a function of the Philippine military. Perhaps, the answer is to be found in Maxwell’s paper: “Foreign internal defense is participation by civilian and military agencies of a government in any of the action programs taken by another government or other designated organization to free and protect its society from subversion, lawlessness, insurgency, terrorism, and other threats to its security.”

I suspect that, after years of working with the Philippine military, the JSOTF-P found the PNP-SAF to be a better partner in getting the remaining high-value terrorists in Mindanao. Perhaps the JSOTF-P saw how the military had become so tightly bound to the ongoing peace process that it could no longer be relied upon to pursue new initiatives against targets in areas controlled by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the government’s peace partner.

The courage, zeal and heroism of the SAF commandos cannot be doubted. But Mamasapano proved to be unfamiliar terrain for many of them, and prolonged combat in the field was not what they were trained for. They were led to their death by false assurances. Still, despite the steep price paid, their handlers insist it was mission accomplished. The day after the assault, a severed finger was delivered to the American partners who had commissioned the killing of the terrorist to whom it belonged.

A sentence from Maxwell’s paper leapt out of the screen as I was reading it: “A problem that most US forces have is that they are so focused on mission accomplishment they often lack the patience to let the host nation operate in accordance with its own capabilities as well as customs and traditions.” How true!

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