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Trainers, Advisors Help Philippines Fight Terrorism

By Army Sgt. 1st Class Michael J. Carden
American Forces Press Service

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, the region’s top U.S. military officer said,.

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An Army Special Forces medic passes out toothpaste and toothbrushes to Philippine children during a local government-organized dental awareness and care initiative Feb. 22, 2010, in Mawari, Philippines. Dentists saw more than 70 patients and gave out more than 500 toothbrushes. DoD photo by Army Sgt. 1st Class Michael J. Carden

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

Unlike counterinsurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. troops here work strictly in a supporting role to the Philippine armed forces and are not permitted to participate in kinetic operations, Army Col. Bill Coultrup, 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.

The Philippine constitution prohibits U.S. troops from actively engaging in direct combat operations here, which makes the U.S. mission here a little more unique than methods used in other combat theaters.

“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.”

The conditions in which Coultrup’s force operates calls for every single operation and training event to be executed by, with and through Philippine forces, he said.

“This is very unique mission, and the one thing we try to caution is that we have a very unique set of circumstances,” he said. We’re doing foreign internal defense, so U.S. forces are providing advice and assistance to the [Philippine security forces] as they’re dealing with their counterinsurgency problems.”

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 in the south. Special operation forces, such as Army Special Forces, Navy Seals and Marine Force Recon troops assist the Filipinos in anti-terrorism training.

While Philippine forces are gaining ground and making strides to counter lawlessness and root out terrorist safe havens in the south, the Philippine government is also focused on defeating communist rebels in the country.

U.S. forces are not involved in defending the government in this rebellion. However, much of the Filipino security forces are.

“There are a lot of threats and issues that [Philippine forces] are 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. As long as they’re willing to continue to fight and allow us to help them, we’re here.”

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Related Sites:
Special Report: Fighting Terrorism - Joint Special Operations Task Force Philippines
Joint Special Operations Task Force Philippines
State Department Background Note on the Philippines

Click photo for screen-resolution imageArmy Col. Bill Coultrup, commander of Joint Special Operations Task Force Philippines, leads about 500 U.S. military members in the southern Philippines who train, advise and assist the Philippine armed forces in the country's counterinsurgency efforts. DoD photo by Army Sgt. 1st Class Michael J. Carden  
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