GI Go Home, Again: The Philippines-U.S. Alliance Weakens

On Tuesday, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte abruptly demanded that American military advisors on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao “have to go.”  His stated concern was that the presence of American troops on Mindanao antagonized local Muslims and that the troops could become targets of Abu Sayyaf, an extremist Islamic group, for kidnapping and ransom.

The American military advisors were once part of the U.S. Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines operating under the authorities of Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines, headquartered at an airbase near Zamboanga.  The task force had been deployed there for a decade as part of a program to train and support elements of the Philippine military in its efforts to combat Islamic militants throughout the region.  Last year, that program was wound down and most of the American troops left.  But a small detachment of military advisors remained behind.

Precisely why Duterte chose to make his remarks is unclear.  They might have been intended to strengthen his hand in peace talks that he reopened with the Philippines’ largest Muslim rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), in August.  Those talks had been stalled for over a year after a botched anti-terror raid against Islamic militants, including the MILF, resulted in the deaths of 44 Philippine police commandos.  The raid derailed his predecessor’s attempt to fulfill an accord reached in 2014 under which the rebels agreed to lay down their arms in return for the passage of a law turning a large part of Mindanao into an autonomous region.  How successful Duterte’s peace talks will be remains to be seen.  In early September, Islamic militants bombed a night market in Davao City, where Duterte was once mayor.  The blast killed 14 people and wounded 70 more.

Back in Manila, Philippine Foreign Minister Perfecto Yasay, Jr. downplayed the impact of Duterte’s remarks.  According to Yasay, the larger defense relationship between the Philippines and the United States remained “rock solid.”  The removal of a “token” number of American military advisors from Mindanao would not affect that relationship or the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement that the two countries signed in 2014.

But Duterte’s remarks come at an awkward time in relations between the Philippines and the United States.  Only a week ago, at the ASEAN summit in Laos, a meeting between Duterte and President Barack Obama was cancelled after Duterte chided Obama for his criticism of Duterte’s anti-drug campaign in the Philippines.  While the two men eventually met, the incident amplified doubts over how Duterte’s administration would work with Washington.

More broadly, Duterte’s remarks reflected the deep ambivalence many Filipinos on the political left feel about the United States.  They would prefer it if the Philippines distanced itself from its one-time colonial ruler.  Indeed, Duterte already put a halt to the joint Philippine-American naval patrols in the South China Sea.  And, recently, he stated that he would favor buying weapons from China and Russia, rather than the United States.

Unfortunately, the Philippines needs the United States, at least until the Philippine armed forces can build up a credible external deterrent.  The last time Manila ordered American forces to leave the Philippines was in the early 1990s.  Soon thereafter, China took advantage of the weakened alliance to seize Philippine-claimed Mischief Reef.  Today China has not only fortified the reef, but also reclaimed enough land there to build an airfield on it.  Duterte’s remarks give China another opportunity.  Duterte may believe he can reach an accommodation with China without the United States.  But that accommodation will likely be on Chinese terms.

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Why the U.S. Raid On Abu Sayyaf and ISIS in Eastern Syria May Be A Game Changer

This morning, reports confirmed that U.S. Special Operations Forces conducted a daring raid deep into Eastern Syria killing a key ISIS leader, Abu Sayyaf, along with several other ISIS members.  The raid occurred near Der Ouzzer amidst the critical Syrian oil fields that provide the key lifeblood to ISIS. This daring U.S. raid and its great success likely signal a turning point in the fight against ISIS.  Here are a few points worth considering.

Why risk so much to go after Abu Sayyaf?

For those outside of military and intelligence circles, Abu Sayyaf is an unknown, mid-level leader in ISIS.  However, the best way to target the top leaders in a terrorist organization is to first go after those people in charge of finance and communications.  These deputies hold the links between the foot soldiers and the leadership and provide essential coordination amongst the top commanders.

In well-run organizations, elimination of the top leaders may only result in a rapid succession of command with little resulting impact on the organization as a whole.  Targeting those individuals in charge of finance and command and control will disrupt how an entire organization operates; sub-elements won’t receive needed funds, junior leaders will be unsure of what to do, military operations will slow and/or become disjointed, and throughout the entire terror group doubt will creep in as communication lessens.  The effects of this strategy on terror groups can be observed retrospectively by looking at how al Qaeda was targeted through Abu Zubaydah, a key financial figure, not long after 9/11 and a targeted drone strike against Atiyah Abd al Rahman, al Qaeda’s key communications interlocutor.

ISIS has succeeded in pursuing an Islamic State where other al Qaeda affiliates have failed for one reason above all others: they have funded themselves.  This self-funding has come in large part from oil.  For the U.S. led coalition to make significant, sustained gains against ISIS, this revenue must be cut off and removing Abu Sayyaf from the network could definitely slow if not stop oil production and resulting revenues.  

Why a raid rather than an air strike? 

The U.S. mission more than anything suggests a perceived intelligence coup by targeting Abu Sayyaf.  Early reports suggest they wanted to take Abu Sayaaf captive, suggesting his knowledge on ISIS could likely map out the entire organization.  Taking Sayyaf alive would have allowed for interrogation and the yielding of unmatched intelligence from other sources.  Even if a captive like Sayyaf doesn’t talk, his detention would instill fear amongst the rest of ISIS leaders who would be concerned about what their comrade has revealed.  

A preference for raids as compared to airstrikes always signals the priority may be intelligence first and degrading ISIS operations second.  Along with capturing Abu Sayyaf’s wife and freeing some prisoners, computers and communications between many nodes inside ISIS were gained and this intelligence will likely identify where key ISIS leaders may reside, their role in the organization, and illuminate previously unknown weaknesses inside the group. 

What will be the effect of this raid on ISIS?

This highly successful raid will go much further to erode ISIS than the past many months of airstrikes and partner ground operations. 

First, the raid will be a huge blow to the confidence of ISIS members.  After taunting the U.S. to conduct ground operations, Special Forces have gone into the heart of ISIS’s caliphate, eliminated a key target and left without a scratch.  ISIS growth has hinged for more than two years on their success in building an Islamic state through military victories.  This raid represents an overwhelming defeat harming both ISIS ground operations as well as its online advertising which has up till now drawn an unprecedented number of foreign fighters.

Second, the raid will likely disrupt both financial and military operations.  ISIS units will increase their security by communicating less.  This will result in weakened command and control and a slow in military operations.  This increased security posture may also impede ISIS’s ability to operate a state: a point of great pride for the group and an essential element of their attractiveness to their members. 

Third, a successful raid of this caliber likely signals the start of a campaign rather than the conclusion. The raid and its resulting intelligence will ideally yield further elimination of key leaders in the coming weeks and months.

Fourth, we should look to see how this raid affects ISIS’s manpower: will foreign fighter flow slow after such a public ISIS loss?  Will ISIS members who’ve begun retreating under coalition strikes and ground campaigns now see this raid as the time to abandon ship? 

What does the raid signal for U.S. strategy against ISIS?

President Obama has stated and continues to imply the U.S. will not deploy ground troops on a large-scale to Iraq and Syria.  Today’s mission suggests the U.S. is now entering a fourth phase after initiating airstrikes, deploying advisors and implementing the equip and train mission of selected militias.  How much further will the U.S. go?  Does the Special Operations raid approach represent a substitute plan for eroding ISIS over time as opposed to bloody campaigns to re-take cities like Mosul?

The raid also suggests a major increase in U.S. intelligence on Syria and Iraq.  Last summer, news stories indicated the intelligence community was caught off guard by ISIS bold advance due to insufficient insight on ISIS movements.  This raid likely took a while to prepare indicating significant intelligence collection and planning..  Finally, the raid demonstrates the lengths the U.S. is willing to take against ISIS.  Airstrikes represent a safer strategy; few if any American lives are being put at risk.  A failed raid deep into Syria resulting in significant U.S. casualties would truly test the resolve of the American public to sustain a campaign against ISIS. 

Over the past year, no incident may represent a bigger game changer in the U.S. strategy to counter ISIS.  The pace and type of American actions in the coming months will be key for understanding both the U.S. strategy and ISIS resiliency. 

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