Defense Media Network

Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines (OEF-P)

We had a much more substantive disagreement about a requirement for two weeks of cultural training before deploying into Basilan Island, the FOB [forward operating base] and home of the ASG. On this one, I argued that we were deploying seasoned Special Forces soldiers, not young soldiers on their first assignment. All of our soldiers had time in the Philippines before, most had language skills, and certainly all were attuned to the need to respect Filipino culture. I told them that “a lot of good things will happen because we’re here, but none of that will happen if you stop this deployment.” We settled on a four-hour training session.

Much of what we did was negotiated at each stage. It was important to respect the Filipinos and move things at their pace, giving them the ability to control what was happening in their country – both to provide them say-so on what we were doing and to provide them with the ability to control their territory by taking it back from insurgents.

During this mission, what did you do that you did not expect to do during planning and pre-deployment? I’ve heard about building roads and boat docks, for instance. Were those things part of the plan you wrote before the deployment?

The deployment did evolve based on what we learned. One of the most important things happened when we first went to Basilan along with our Filipino military counterparts. We went into the villages and asked the people what was needed, what they wanted to see from their government. We expected to gain ideas from the people. I was surprised to hear one village elder who said, “No one from my government has ever asked us what we need before. This is the first time this has ever happened.” It was instructive to me that we could have a great impact.

Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines (JSOTF-P)

U.S. Marines Lance Cpl. Ruben Reyes, Cpl. Ernesto Gonzalez and Cpl. Jorge Valdounial attached to 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Kilo Company, are on a routine patrol at Camp Navarro in Zamboanga City. U.S. Marines attached to 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Kilo Company are part of Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines (JSOTF-P), and provide force protection for U.S. personnel as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. U.S. Navy photo by Photographers Mate 1st Class Edward G. Martens

From these interviews, we saw the need for the people to see their government in action for their benefit. Some of our security projects were to build roads to improve access, or to build boat docks to improve coastal patrolling. These things had ancillary benefits to the local economy. We also contracted for local labor. All these things which were done were done so as to enhance the Philippine government’s image with its people and to enhance the local economy. As we were a team with the Filipino military, we were careful to have these projects come to the people from their national military and not so much from the U.S.

Whereas we did not set out to express and execute a population-centric strategy as we were to concentrate on training the Filipino military, it evolved into a population-centric mission. We knew it was the people who mattered, and victory truly depended on them coming to see their government as legitimate and on their decision to support it. The process of learning how to separate the people from the insurgents made the mission become population-centric. This was something we learned together with the Filipino military.

We had plenty of visitors along the way. DEPSECDEF Wolfowitz visited. We ensured the visitors from Washington understood … the actions we planned and for which we requested funding, so that when we asked for resources the folks back there saw how it made sense to do what we wanted.

Much later, after the death of the Abu Sayyaf leader and after the people of Basilan had given us a great deal of help, the Filipino four-star told me, “The greatest thing you taught us is that we should treat all of our people like all are our people.” He was Gen. Roy Cimatu.

Gen. Cimatu was also the man in charge when I went to the PI to do the original assessment right after 9/11. I was there with a small team to do that assessment from mid-October until the 4th of November of 2001. I remember out-briefing our assessment with the Filipinos. It was a frosty reception in that room from all corners, but when we finished, Gen. Cimatu said to me, “Colonel, we will see you again, soon.” After that, I went back to Hawaii to brief the assessment to PACOM and soon after we were given the mission to go to the PI to mount a classic UW [unconventional warfare] mission to build partner capacity for counterinsurgency and the ‘Indirect Approach.’

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Maj. Gen. Richard Comer (USAF-Ret) spent 32 years on active duty, 17 of which were...