TABIAWAN, the Philippines – On the small jungle island of Basilan, success in the fight against terrorism may hinge more on digging wells and building roads than on training Philippine soldiers to shoot straighter and track elusive Muslim militants across rugged terrain. For the past four months, the stated mission of 160 American Special Forces soldiers here has been to train Philippine soldiers to fight a dwindling band of Abu Sayyaf rebels who have operated on Basilan. But those American Green Berets, as well as 350 Navy and Marine Corps engineers who arrived here in April, have played an equally important role in mending roads, drilling wells and clearing a 1940s airstrip for cargo planes. This will not only improve life for the 300,000 residents of the island, one of the poorest parts of the Philippines, but may also help dry up popular support for Abu Sayyaf, American and Philippine officials hope. “When we leave, the improvements stay,” said Brig. Gen. Donald C. Wurster of the Air Force, the commander of American forces here in the southern Philippines. “Our strategy is to enhance the Philippine government’s legitimacy. We want to eliminate the seed ground for the next generation of terrorists.”
– Eric Schmidt, The New York Times, June 15, 2002
Sometimes it’s hard to recall the atmosphere 10 years ago, in the year after 9/11. We live in the reverse of that universe now. Everything seems backward to the way it should be, and the way that most special operations forces (SOF) operators have felt comfortable. Then, we publicized aid missions that gave our allies the capability to win the allegiance of their populations and for them to do the killing inside their territory where that was necessary. Today, we go out of our way to publicize, or even over-publicize, the killing of high-value targets by American forces and by U.S. drones. We don’t publicize missions of building partnership militaries in 2012, fearing the work might be called “nation building” or “a waste of resources.” Indeed, focusing public attention on such missions 10 years later risks causing the end of a necessary and effective mission.
The mission of Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines (OEF-P) does continue, however, and the success of that mission and these three interviews provide a persuasive argument for population-centered counterinsurgency (COIN). Wurster was a brigadier general and commander of Special Operations Command-Pacific (SOCPAC) when 9/11 happened. David P. Fridovich was a colonel and commander of the 1st Special Forces Group (SFG). The two men planned, led, and executed what has become the most successful (and unclassified secret) example of American indirect COIN warfare. Their strategy evolved over time as they learned what worked and what influenced the people of the Philippines to take the side of the Filipino government against the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) of radical Islamic separatists. The third interview was conducted by email through the current SOCPAC commander, Maj. Gen. Norman J. Brozenick Jr., and answered by the commander of Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines (JSOTF-P), Col. Fran Beaudette, who also commands the 1st SFG. (The active-duty response came through the U.S. Pacific Command [PACOM] public affairs office, while both Wurster and Fridovich retired as lieutenant generals in 2011.)
From October 2001 until the present, the U.S. public, and the Pentagon leadership, concentrated on the Central Command Theater of Operations with its various commanders, strategic adjustments, and very kinetic operations. OEF-P began at the same time as assistance to the Philippines in order to free two American hostages. An assault by Filipino special forces in June 2002 resulted in the rescue of one and the death of the other hostage. The quiet mission continued throughout the summer and into the fall, when the leader of the ASG was killed. After that, the mission has continued with various exercise names, as required by the Philippine constitution for the past 10 years.
Over time, Fridovich’s success and promotions eventually made him the SOCPAC commander, and the mission in the Philippines enjoyed the most consistent strategic philosophy ever achieved, while the direct actions of the Americans involved remained almost completely non-kinetic. This mission has aided in making the Filipino military respected in its own country and lethal to its enemies. The quiet battle in the Philippine Islands continues today, as the legitimacy of the government and the allegiance of its people grow and individual islands become places where the insurgency draws less and less popular support and gradually starves out.
Lt. Gen. Donald C. Wurster, USAF, (Ret.)
Maj. Gen. Richard Comer, USAF (Ret.): What was the condition of the partner nation at the beginning of OEF-Philippines?
Lt. Gen. Donald C. Wurster, USAF (Ret.): The overall situation was that there was a low-energy insurgency in the Philippines in a Muslim area of the country. The insurgency was Muslim and the Philippines are mostly Catholic Christian, so there was a good deal of suspicion and distrust of the government on the part of the people of the region of Zamboanga and Basilan Island. The Abu Sayyaf Group had taken hostages months before 9/11, and the situation was pretty much a stalemate.
When you and Joint Task Force 510 (JTF 510) executed OEF-Philippines, what were the most important things you did that helped the TF succeed?
My primary task every day was to keep the strategic dominoes in line. The host government of the Philippines [GOP] had significant unease that we would in some way violate their sovereignty and disrespect their constitution. The people in the villages suspected that we were there to establish American bases and to re-establish the American empire in the Pacific. There was also little credibility for the government on the part of the common people in remote areas. I had to keep the strategic train on the track. The need also existed to make sure all members of the deployment understood those strategic dominoes. I met every airplane and attended the in-brief of new people in the deployment and I told them, “We have to not lose while we set the conditions to win.” I made sure that every American deployed knew that our mission was to support the GOP.
What was the mission you began with and how did it evolve?
We worked the mission statement hard and had to get it right. We had to thread the needle with it to ensure we did not make it an American mission for the American military to perform on Filipino soil. Our mission was expressed in terms of “by, with, and through.” We were to train and advise the Filipino military to conduct a counterinsurgency campaign. It was not stated that they would then rescue the Burnhams [a missionary couple held hostage by Abu Sayyaf], but that was an unwritten part of the mission. That mission had to be the Filipino mission in order for their government and military to succeed and gain any credibility from accomplishing that mission.