What was the balance of the mission between hostage rescue of the Burnhams, the missionary couple held hostage by the Abu Sayyaf Group, and the mission of building the capacity of the Filipino military to conduct counterinsurgency operations on its own?
When we began, I’m sure that if you asked that question separately to Don Wurster and to me, you’d get very different answers as to the emphasis on the rescue mission from him and the focus on the Filipinos from me. I believe that our primary mission was to help the Filipinos develop their own capabilities, but hostage rescue was the mission that got us there and enabled pursuit of the longer-term mission.
Adm. [Dennis] Blair [U.S. Pacific Command commander at the time] was doubtful of the Filipino military and of the Filipino government as a strategic partner. We had performed training missions prior to 9/11 with the Filipino Light Reaction Company, a counterterrorist unit. The admiral was concerned that equipment which had been provided by FMF [foreign military finance] money had been pretty much worn out, was poorly maintained, and not taken care of generally. We were now going into the mostly Catholic Philippine Islands to root out an insurgency in a Muslim area of Muslim extremists. It was a situation which had grown up in the country during a time of little American and Filipino contact.
Our relationship and training missions with the Filipinos had ceased with the eruption of Mount Pinatubo … and had not restarted until the year 2000. By the time we arrived in 2000, the FMF-provided funds and equipment were depleted, no work at all had been done on advancing training or doctrine, and things had stagnated. We also began the relationship again from scratch and with some distrust on each side. That we had begun before 9/11 helped us a great deal. The Filipinos seemed to think that they only needed some new equipment and did not want us. My feeling was that they needed us and our thinking and approach more than they needed our stuff.
How important was the concept of “Global Scouts” and having Green Berets who already had some expertise in Filipino culture and language?
I can’t stress enough how important that is to such an effort. I was a team leader and a young captain right out of the Q course [qualification course] when the 1st SF Group was reactivated. My company commander was Joe Rozek [now a retired colonel], who taught all of us so much about learning the culture and knowing the people of the area we were to orient ourselves toward. My team was primary for the Philippines and secondary to Thailand. I made my first trip into the Philippines within the first six months of joining 1st Group and was in country at least twice a year for about five years. That was when we still had bases in the country – Clark Air Base and the naval base [Naval Station Subic Bay] – and before Mount Pinatubo blew up and we left the PI [Philippine Islands].
Back to OEF-Philippines, what actions or events most contributed to success?
We made a decision from the start that it would be important to protect the sovereignty of the Filipinos. We found them to be suspicious of our motives even before 9/11, and we had only begun to work with them when the attacks happened in the United States. So, from the first, we were focused on convincing the Filipinos that they were equal partners with us in decision-making and developing plans.
We had political and legal constraints coming from the U.S. and from the Filipinos. I told my guys, “These things are never an excuse not to succeed.” We had to find ways to overcome any problem and to succeed. No excuses.
We supported the Filipino constitution in tangible ways. For instance, when we were first setting up the ISB [intermediate staging base] in Kadena and the FSB [forward support battalion] in Zamboanga, we had a meeting with a couple of Filipino flag officers, a one-star and a two-star. I was a colonel at the time and I had to show the proper respect as these two gentlemen gave me some very strong orders about how we were to call the operation an “exercise.” As it turned out, we read their constitution and it expressly limited foreign military to training exercises inside their territory. We defined our deployment as a training exercise in that case as our primary purpose was to provide training, seen from the Filipino viewpoint.