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ZAMBOANGA, Philippines, Feb. 22, 2010 – Eliminating foreign terrorists and their safe havens in the southern Philippines is the No. 1 priority of U.S. forces deployed here, said Army Col. Bill Coultrup, the region’s top U.S. military officer.
Unlike counterinsurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. troops here work strictly in a supporting role to the Filipino armed forces and are not permitted to participate in kinetic operations, the commander of Joint Special Operations Task Force Philippines said in a Feb. 20 interview with American Forces Press Service.
Since the return of U.S. forces to the Philippines in December 2001 -- the United States closed its bases here in 1991 -- troops have used their knowledge and expertise to empower the Philippine military and local population to stand against terrorist networks here, Coultrup said.
Terrorist organizations such as Abu Sayyef, Jamaah Islamiyah and other groups connected to al-Qaida had trained and found safe haven here prior to Sept. 11, 2001, and the U.S. military’s subsequent arrival. Today, those groups maintain a strong presence in small numbers and have had some success with roadside-bomb and small-arms attacks against the Philippine forces. Still, Coultrup’s troops only can provide support. The Philippine constitution prohibits U.S. troops from actively engaging in direct combat operations here.
“It’s a very complicated fight, and what makes it more difficult is that we are not the ones doing the fighting,” Coultrup said. “A lot of our troops, from their experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan and other places, are used to being able to go directly to the fight and engage with the enemy and deal with them, but we can’t do that here.”
Despite this challenge, Coultrup said, his 500-member task force has been successful in improving local civilian and military capacity through joint development projects and counterinsurgency training.
“The key is winning over the [local Filipinos] to let them know that [their] military is not down here to stomp on folks, but to bring a better life,” Coultrup said.
About 80 percent of the task force’s operations involve humanitarian assistance such as engineering projects and medical and veterinarian care. These operations also are led by Philippine forces to build support for the national government in troubled areas.
“Gaining support from the local leadership is absolutely critical in whatever is done out here,” the colonel said. “We want the [Philippine military] and local populace to have a good relationship.”
The remainder of their focus is training Philippine troops, which presents another set of challenges. The armed forces here are poorly financed and are under-strength in terms of what many may consider is needed for a successful counterinsurgency campaign, Coultrup said.
Also, counterterrorism operations in the south aren’t even the national government’s top priority for the Philippine military, he explained, noting the ongoing communist uprising here to overthrow the national government.
“There are a lot of threats and issues that they’re working on, and they’re stretched thin,” he said. “Trying to deal with this when you don’t have enough troops presents its problems.”
Progress may not be coming along as quickly as many here would like, but it is being made, said Coultrup, who’s been the task force commander here since October 2007. Doing the job right and empowering the Philippine army to be “out in front” is more important than how long it takes, he added.
“It does take time,” he said. “You’re trying to change an entire generation of people. All they’ve known is the lawlessness [and] the lack of security. And to help improve that security and the livelihood of these folks does take time. Has it gotten better? Absolutely it has, although it’s not as fast as some folks here would like.
“As long as they’re willing to continue to fight and allow us to help them, we’re here. We don’t want to let the situation fall back to where it was before 9/11.”