10 years of VFA: The return of US bases and the combat involvement of US troops in the Philippines

Posted: September 17, 2009 in Socio-Political, War on Terror

Renato M. Reyes,Jr.
BAYAN Secretary General
Submitted to the Legislative Oversight Committee on the VFA
August 27, 2009

In 1999, Bayan and other people’s organizations and legal experts warned that the RP-US Visiting Forces Agreement would bring back US bases in the Philippines, even after the Philippine Senate rejected a new bases treaty in 1991.

Back then, BAYAN argued that the VFA was too broad in its application and indefinite in its duration. We warned that the VFA would allow an unlimited number of US troops to enter the country for an indefinite period of time, to conduct a broad range of activities not limited to military exercises.

These issues were twice raised before the Supreme Court of the Philippines. A petition is currently pending before the High Court. These issues were also raised before the LOVFA in a hearing last year.

Subsequent events from 1999 to the present have shown that the presence of US troops in the Philippines has become permanent and continuous. Various accounts now show that US forces have maintained several structures in Mindanao from 2002 up to the present. There are also accounts that point to US combat participation in the Philippines.

For all intents and purposes, we can safely say that the US bases are back. Or better yet, it’s as if they never really left.

Unlimited troops, indefinite duration

The VFA does not specify or limit the number of US troops allowed entry into the Philippines. The numbers can range from 10 to 1000 and beyond. Some studies show that as many as 50,000 US troops may have gone in and out of the Philippines since the VFA was implemented in 1999. The VFA does not provide any limits to, nor give the Philippine government the right to limit, the number of troops that can enter the country. The VFA also does not require the US forces to submit the names and the numbers of their personnel since they are not required to secure visas upon entry. The Philippine government has no way of determining how many troops do enter, and how many do leave, if at all. This also violates the territorial integrity of the country since the government cannot exercise regulation of the entry of foreign troops.

Last August 21, the New York Times reported US Defense Secretary Robert Gates announcing that the US troops in the Philippines under the Joint Special Operations Task Force- Philippines will remain in Mindanao to “complete its mission”.

The Joint Special Operations Task Force – Philippines based in Zamboanga is a unit of the US Special Forces under the Pacific Command and has its origins as part of the Joint Task Force 510 of the US Special Operations Command Pacific during the Balikatan 02-1 in 2002. When the Balikatan ended in July 2002, it transitioned to the JSOTF-Philippines. The US troops did not leave the country upon the termination of the Balikatan exercises and they remain in Mindanao to this day.

It currently maintains its headquarters inside Camp Navarro of the WESTMINCOM of the AFP in Zamboanga.

The announcement of US Defense Secretary Gates insults Philippine sovereignty. A foreign government has made the unilateral decision of keeping its troops in our country. They did not even make it appear that it was a mutual decision. The subservience of the Philippine government is seen when it merely welcomed the decision, without even bothering to ask the US government how long it plans to maintain its forces in our country.

There are no parameters as to the duration of the stay of the 600 US Special Forces in Mindanao. There are not Terms of Reference or guidelines as to the so-called mission of these US forces. There are no guidelines which will determine if the mission has been accomplished. For all we know, these US troops can stay here forever. It is also not clear if there are indeed only 600 US troops present since none of them go through immigration controls. Even Philippine Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro seemed unaware of such a number when asked to comment on the announcement of Gates.

It is our belief that the US troops stationed in Mindanao are part of a Forward Operating Site of the US military. An FOS hosts a rotational force and pre-positioned equipment. It is a base that, judging from the past seven years, has a acquired a permanent status.

The Senate must re-examine the deliberations in 1999 as to the concept of permanent versus temporary presence. Can we still consider as visitors foreign troops that have remained in the country for seven years now? Even if they are on a rotational deployment, their presence has been constant, 365 days a year. This cannot comply, by any stretch of the imagination, with the definition of temporary or visiting.

Return of Bases

The JSOTF-P occupies a facility that was described by a Mindanao-based human rights group as being “sealed by walls, concertina wire, and sandbags. The actual size of the area could not immediately be seen from the outside. Their communication facilities (satellite dishes, antenna, and other instruments) are visible.”

Various accounts have pointed out that the US facility cannot be accessed by Filipinos unless invited by the US forces. Like traditional US bases, these US facilities in Mindanao are exclusive only to US troops and appear to be beyond the authority of the Philippine military officials. An account by former Navy Lt/SG Nancy Gadian confirms the permanent nature of the structures built inside Camp Navarro. There are believed to be other US facilities in Mindanao occupied by their troops on a permanent basis.

The return of virtual US basing in the Philippines runs counter to the Constitution. The VFA cannot be invoked as the basis for the continuing stay of the US troops because the VFA is not basing agreement. Yet the way the VFA is implemented, it has given rise to virtual and even actual basing by the US forces. The vagueness and broadness of the VFA in this case is another reason why it should be terminated.

Combat role

There have been various accounts that the US forces are engaged in actual combat.
Prior to 2002, the Balikatan exercises have been limited to Luzon. However, in Balikatan 02-1, the RP-US exercises were held in actual areas of armed conflict, in the province of Basilan and in Sulu. This immediately sets the stage for the combat involvement of the US troops.

While the Balikatan 02-1 Terms of Reference state that the US troops are not allowed to engage in combat, the TOR also states that US forces will be embedded in battalions of the AFP in the areas where actual armed conflict exists. It also states that the US forces reserve their right to self-defense, meaning they can fire back when fired upon.

In a recent New York Time article, JSOTFP chief Col. Bill Coultrup was referred to as saying their mission was only 20% combat related, a goal that aims to “help the Armed Forces of the Philippines neutralize high-value targets — individuals who will never change their minds.”

When the US forces “help” in neutralizing targets, when they take part in combat intelligence operations and select targets for neutralization, when they any undertake hostile action against an identified enemy, this is already taking part in combat operations. It would be foolish to limit our definition of “combat” to that of simply firing a weapon. The US military doctrine broadly defines their counter-insurgency operations to include a wide spectrum of activities not limited to firing their weapons.

In 2002, the International Solidarity Mission reported the shooting of Buyong-buyong Isnijal, a civilian suspected of being an ASG member, by US troops on combat patrol in Basilan. The family could distinctly hear the armed men speak in English, telling them to “stay down”.

In February 4, 2008, US forces were said to be embedded in an AFP unit that conducted a military operation in Maimbung, Sulu that resulted in the deaths of seven civilians. This included two children, two teenagers, a pregnant woman and an off-duty soldier. This incident was documented by the Commission on Human Rights.

What is also disturbing is that US forces have exclusive control over their surveillance equipment. They are the ones that can identify or choose the targets. Because they possess the high tech equipment, the US forces are in a unique position of influencing and directing the combat decisions and operations of Philippine troops.

Even assuming for the sake of argument that US troops merely point the gun, while Filipinos pull the trigger, does this make the Americans any less involved in combat operations?

That the US forces operate outside the known military exercises such as the Balikatan is another fatal defect of the VFA. The agreement does not specify the types of activities that the US forces can undertake in the Philippines. The Balikatan Terms of Reference used in 2002 has ceased to be in effect when the Balikatan exercises ended that year. There are no known Terms of Reference guiding the activities of the US forces in Mindanao today, long after the Balikatan 02-1 expired.

Benefits and the myth of indispensability

The Department of Foreign Affairs has called the VFA indispensible because of the so-called benefits. These gains come in terms of humanitarian missions for the people, financial gain as well as benefits for the Philippine military.

Humanitarian missions by US troops do not make the VFA indispensible, especially since these humanitarian activities can also be undertaken by the Philippine government. Providing assistance to the poor communities should primarily be the responsibility of the Philippine government, not any foreign military.

These civic activities are all part of the “communications strategy” being employed by the US to justify their continued presence in the country. This much is admitted by their own documents, such as ANNEX A, Strategic Communication, USPACOM Pacific Joint Training Strategy.

The document states that such activities are undertaken “to educate elected officials, opinion leaders and the public on the importance of military training; build public trust and support of training activities; portray the cost of readiness and potential impact of not being ready…and highlight the military as good stewards of the environment.”

The technical and logistical benefits from the Baliaktan and the VFA are small, as admitted by some military officials. Former Commodore Rex Robles has described these benefits as being in the “nice to have” category. Gadian meanwhile says the benefits are limited to the use of firearms and night-vision goggles. The high-end equipment are exclusively used by the US and are not transferred to the Philippine military.

What the Philippines receives in bulk are Excess Defense Articles which has been in effect even before the VFA. The EDA are second-hand or antiquated military equipment which cannot be considered as indispensable for the Philippines. Receiving EDA’s will not modernize the AFP. This was true during the time of the US bases, and this remains true today.

The Federation of American Scientists in an article said “Not wanting to pay the costs of storing or destroying the surplus, the (US) Department of Defense dispenses most of it for free or at deep reduction through the excess defense articles (EDA) program.”

As regards the counter-insurgency operations and so-called successes against the Abu Sayyaf, there are no known parameters by which to gauge the accuracy of the claims by the US and Philippine governments. What we see it that after seven years of having US troops in Mindanao, the bandit group Abu Sayyaf remains active. This may even be an indication of the failure of the US forces. We cannot even say that the Philippines has become safer because of the presence of US forces.

It can be said that it is the US troops who have gained the most from the VFA. The US forces have been given virtual basing rights in Mindanao sans any formal basing treaty. US forces benefit from the VFA by using Mindanao as some kind of combat laboratory. The US’ permanent presence in the South also provides them with “power projection” in this region of South East Asia.
Other issues

We must also point out that there have been continuing allegations of prostitution whenever US troops are present. Such have been reported in Clark, Subic, Zamboanga and even in Bicol this year.
We must also take note of the rape case involving US Marine Daniel Smith who was earlier convicted of rape but later on acquitted by the Court of Appeals. The case represented another fatal defect of the VFA when it comes to custody of erring American troops. While Smith was convicted, he was detained at the US embassy, a fact that was called illegal by the Supreme Court. Despite the court ruling, Smith was not immediately transferred to a Philippine detention facility. Both the US and Philippine governments bid their time until Smith was acquitted and the issue of custody rendered moot.

Recommendations

The Philippine government must terminate the VFA. This is the only logical response to the continued violation of our sovereignty, territorial integrity and judicial processes.

The VFA must be terminated for being too broad in scope and application. The US troops in Mindanao must be expelled because they are clearly overstaying foreigners and their presence already goes beyond the VFA and against the Philippine Constitution. The US military facilities should also be dismantled because their existence violates the constitutional provision on foreign military bases.
The VFA is not even recognized by the US government as a treaty and is not applicable under US laws.
This is truly an affront to Philippine sovereignty.

Philippine military and diplomatic officials must explain how these violations of the Constitution came to be. Those responsible for allowing these violations must be held accountable. ###

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