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As terror threat rises, Philippines reaches to America

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“As we fought together to stay above the enemy, then so we should help each other to address the threats that confront our societies, our region and our world,” said Philippine PresidAent Rodrigo Duterte referring to America in an early April “Day of Bravery” commemoration speech, reported Asia Times.

That speech, at the time out of step with the tough-talking leader’s frequent scathing criticism of the US’ military role in the region, now looks prescient as the Philippines looks towards its long-time treaty ally to combat Islamic State (IS) linked rebels entrenched on its southern island of Mindanao.

Months before the IS-led siege of Marawi City, Duterte had downgraded annual Balikatan US-Philippine joint military exercises, restricting the traditional war games to less provocative humanitarian and disaster-relief operations. He also nixed bilateral military exercises such as the PHIBLEX amphibious joint exercise and CARAT naval maneuvers, both of which carried veiled threats towards China.

The rising imperative of counterterrorism, however, has now forced the hand of the president, who earlier expressed his strong preference for downgrading, if not totally severing, strategic ties with Washington in favor of stronger military relations with Beijing and Moscow.

Duterte’s decision to cancel plans for joint patrols with the US in the South China Sea, including a ban on American warships from using Philippine bases for conducting freedom of navigation operations, stood in stark contrast with his pro-American predecessor, Benigno Aquino, who sought maximum military cooperation with the US to counter China’s assertiveness in disputed waters.

In his April speech, Duterte expressed how pragmatic considerations and shared concerns over the “menace of terrorism, violent extremism and transnational crimes such as the illegal drug trade” would continue to undergird security cooperation between Manila and Washington.

Over a month later, US Special Forces are once again providing ground support to Philippine soldiers to combat a local Islamic terrorist outfit, though this time the battle is against an internationalized IS-affiliated contingent led by the local Maute Group.

According to the Philippine constitution, foreign troops are barred against directly participating in combat operations against local armed groups. Nor are foreign forces legally allowed to establish permanent military bases on Philippine soil, forcing the US military to operate on a revolving basis in the country.

Foreign forces can, however, provide training, real-time intelligence and logistical support side-by-side with Philippine troops during combat operations, as long as they are not directly involved on the battlefield.

Since 2002, a year after the 9/11 terror attacks on America, a large contingent of US Special Forces under the Special Operations Command Pacific has provided training, equipment and intelligence to Philippine troops fighting local Islamic extremist groups on the southern island of Mindanao and adjoining areas.

Over the subsequent decade, the Philippine army, with US assistance, managed to eliminate much of the Al Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf Group’s (ASG) leadership while severely restricting its geographic area of operation. By 2014, ASG was broadly viewed, though prematurely, as contained and nearly decimated until it regrouped under an IS flag.

Under a decade-long US$150 million grant program, Washington has provided large caches of grenade launchers, cutting-edge machine guns and automatic rifles to the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). The latest delivery under the program was made on June 5, coincident with the ongoing battle in Marawi City.

The Philippine military has been largely removed from Duterte’s controversial police-led war on drugs, where thousands have been killed in extrajudicial fashion, so there is no rights-related legal impediment to deliveries of US weaponry to the AFP.

According to the US Embassy in Manila, the weapons will “enhance the [AFP’s] counterterrorism capabilities, and help protect [those] actively engaged in counterterrorism operations in [Marawi].”

After three weeks of fighting, Philippine security forces still face stiff resistance from IS-affiliate fighters who are spread across the sprawling city, which now lies in ruins. The battle of Marawi has rapidly devolved into tortuous urban warfare that has severely challenged the capabilities of Philippine soldiers.

Government troops have suffered heavy casualties due to improvised explosive devises (IEDs) and snipers, echoing the harrowing experience of coalition forces fighting Islamic militants in Iraq.

Read more at atimes.com

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