Frido [then-Col. David P. Fridovich, commander of the 1st SFG] and the Green Berets worked the training and development of the Filipino military and taught them a lot. We were limited to working at the battalion level and were never able to get down to the company level in working with them. I learned a lot from Frido while we were there about how the Green Berets go about their training and building partner capacity missions.
Frido concentrated on training and developing capability with the Filipinos, concentrating on their tactical skills and on establishing joint operations in the Filipino military, which did not previously exist. The need for cooperation and mission unity across the air and sea services among the Filipinos meant better ability to keep pressure on the enemy. They also needed to learn how to rotate their forces so that fresh troops were always conducting pursuit and could hand off operations from unit to unit. Their upper echelons of command had to learn to share forces through changes of operational and tactical command in order to keep up on pursuits and make mission success more important than owning forces or internal turf battles.
How did the mission evolve? Were there things you did that you did not expect to do in the planning and deployment phases?
The Naval Construction Task Group [NCTG] played a crucial role. They deployed into the country in late April. They built a lot of the things we needed and built things which the people of the region needed. They won the day with the people. We didn’t expect to do that when we began. I had said early on to many of the village leaders, “Let us show you by our actions that we are here to support you.” It was the Naval Construction Task Group that proved to them that we kept our word. They saw roads being repaired and what we would call civil affairs projects coming together and they began to trust us. They saw tangible changes in their lives and reacted positively toward us and toward their government.
Could you explain that further? How did you get that Task Group and how did you justify those projects?
Initially, our projects supported security and mobility – roads and boat docks to help us with mobility on land and coastal patrolling had benefits to the population, enhancing their economy centered on market days and fishing. We had to spend Title 10 money on the right things, but we were able to derive collateral benefits which the people saw and understood as reactive to some of the things they told us [and the Filipino military and government representatives] were needed. Later, we requested humanitarian assistance funds for other projects, like digging wells, rebuilding and remodeling schools and hospital clinics. The people saw us as providing the road to get their kids to new schools and to take their sick to new clinics. It helped them decide which side to take, and before too long the Abu Sayyaf Group had no friends and they had to leave Basilan Island just to survive.
They [NCTG] also contracted at least 51 percent of every project with local labor. This also served to create and enhance the local economy. We may have hired a number of people who were unsure of whom they supported or were even leaning toward the bad guys. When they got their jobs and paychecks from us, they took their own side and knew what was working for them. The bad guys lost their support and they couldn’t live on Basilan without that popular support.
There was a corresponding information campaign which came about naturally. The press wanted statements virtually every day and we could publicize what we were doing many days and it became good press for us when these projects were visible to everyone. I had a liaison officer in the embassy as well who attended a number of meetings in Manila with the Filipino hierarchy and we kept them informed of everything we were doing and prevented surprises.
This came in handy at one point early on in the deployment. We had a couple of soldiers who had to have cash money to get things started during the initial deployment. They had to go to town in Zamboanga to get some money from an ATM. They were armed, in accordance with the ROE [rules of engagement], and we made sure they were accompanied by Filipino military guys, also armed. The next day we saw a picture in the local paper of an American in civilian clothes, standing at an ATM with an M16. The photographer worked his way around so that the American was alone in the picture even though he was standing as part of a group of two Americans and four Filipinos while his partner was getting money. It caused a stir and a Filipino general said at the meeting in Manila that Gen. Wurster had already called and apologized for the incident and promised to be more aware and wary of the press. I’d said no such thing. Heck, I didn’t even know about it at the time of the meeting in Manila, but the Filipino general was already covering for us. I was going to correct it, but Dave Mobley, our liaison at the embassy, told me to just let it go as it would cause more of a stir to retract the supposed apology.
At one point, the Early Bird [publication] back in the states was printing articles from one of the communist publications in the Philippines. They had made up a story about how our JTF was placed under the command and control of the GOP. It wasn’t true, but I got a call from a joint staff person at the Pentagon asking me how it was going to work so they could answer questions at a meeting. I told them it wasn’t true and they should tell the Early Bird folks to stop printing things from that source. Later on, I confronted the reporter from that publication and offered her a chance to have lunch then learn and print the truth. In exchange, she would have to stop making things up in order to file stories.
The mission was authorized for six months, but continued after the rescue of the hostages. What was the continuing mission?
It didn’t end with the rescue of Mrs. Burnham. Her husband was killed during the rescue, which was a real tragedy. There was still an insurgency and the people of the Philippines were still threatened. The first exercise name was Balikatan, meaning “shoulder to shoulder.” We considered the mission to be OEF-Philippines, but for political reasons, it was an exercise to the Filipinos. It was scheduled to end in July and the Burnham rescue attempt was in June. The Filipinos evaluated the results of the first six months and they decided that the effort was doing good things, getting good results, and that it should continue. The second exercise then resulted from a Filipino request.
How did you convince the folks in Washington to allow all these things to happen without demanding results? At this time, the Department of Defense and the National Command Authority were notorious for demanding results quickly, so how did you convince them to allow your efforts time to work?
They were focused elsewhere. The War on Terror was in Afghanistan, then in Iraq as far as they were concerned, and that’s where they were looking. We weren’t involved in regime change – in fact the opposite of that. Early on, we also had some crucial visits from the senators from Hawaii and Alaska, who asked us what we needed and gained an understanding of the need to spend some Title 10 money on the projects and to follow it up with some humanitarian assistance money. Later on, DEPSECDEF [Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz] and Gen. [George W.] Casey, the joint staff J5 [deputy director of strategic plans and policy] at the time, visited and understood what the Green Berets under Frido were doing and expanded our authorities to deal with things there as well. In the summer of 2002, Robert Kaplan, author of Imperial Grunts, came to visit. He spent a good bit of time looking at things and he talked on the phone with someone in OSD [Office of the Secretary of Defense] who said that OEF-P wasn’t killing many terrorists. Kaplan said something to the effect that we were winning, so what we were doing should get some attention.
Lt. Gen. David P. Fridovich, USA (Ret.)
Maj. Gen. Richard Comer, USAF (Ret.): What would you say were the primary reasons for success of OEF-P?
Lt. Gen. David Fridovich, USA (Ret.): One of the big takeaways is that we succeeded, in part, because of all the other things which were going on in the world at the time. We were granted authorities and clearances which might not have come as easily in other times.