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WASHINGTON — As US Adm. William McRaven works to expand the reach of his Special Operations Command to include broad intelligence sharing globally among deployed SOF and foreign partners, one key SOF mission of the past decade could soon start winding down.
Due to its successes in training and supporting local forces, there are discussions about transitioning the 11-year American special operations mission in the Philippines over to Philippine forces, McRaven said during a June 5 conference in Washington.
The mission to advise and assist local forces has largely flown under the radar since Operation Enduring Freedom began in Afghanistan. The Philippines operation kicked off in January 2002, and 15 American special operators have died there in accidents, with two more killed by an IED attack in 2009.
There are about 500 US special operators working in the Philippines currently, USAF Maj. Gen. Norman Brozenick, commander of Special Operations Command Pacific (SOCPAC), told Defense News. And while there are discussions about handing ultimate authority over to local forces, he cautioned that no timeline has been set for the cessation of the American mission.
The Philippine national police and armed forces “have made significant gains in terms of capability and ability to manage the security situation in the southern Philippines over the past decade with targeted non-combat assistance from the United States,” he said, adding that “there’s a point in the future — not defined, no time line established” — when there would be a transition to local forces.
When asked why McRaven indicated the mission could conclude in a year or so, Brozenick, who reports to PACOM commander Adm. Samuel Locklear, said that “specifically and directly, I have no guidance from my boss in terms of a timeline for an end of the mission in the Philippines. We are talking about transitioning focus to enable authorities, but no timeline to end that operation.”
The 500 US special operations and general purpose forces operating in the Philippines fall under the umbrella of the U.S. Joint Special Operations Task Force Philippines (JSOTF-P), providing logistical, intelligence and civil affairs-related advice to Philippine military and civilian law enforcement agencies.
The mission in the Philippines has focused primarily on the Mindanao group of islands, where two Islamist groups have been fighting the central government. The largest threat has come from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which has engaged in a bloody 40-year struggle with the Manila government to carve out an independent state based on Islamic principles and centered on its Moro ethnic identity. The al-Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf Group also is a threat, but US and Philippine cooperation has severely damaged the group’s ability to act while killing its senior leadership.
Overall, an estimated 150,000 people have been killed fighting the MILF since the late 1960s, with almost 3 million displaced by the fighting since 2000 alone. But there have been some significant recent successes; in October 2012, the Philippine government signed a peace deal with the MILF agreeing to form an autonomous region in the south by 2016, and both sides continue their cautious march toward an end of the conflict.