US intervention in Marawi and the great reversal of Duterte

Posted: August 6, 2017 in Uncategorized

For the Solidarity and Fightback Conference Against US militarism and neo-fascism

Toronto, Canada, August 5, 2017


Warm greetings of peace to comrades and friends gathered here today. I regret that I cannot join you since I had not been issued a visa by the Canadian government. Despite my physical absence from the conference, we in Bayan hope to contribute in a meaningful way and provide updates on the issues and struggles in the Philippines.


As you may have seen in the news, there is a raging conflict in the Philippines today, in the Islamic city of Marawi in the province of Lanao del Sur in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao. An anti-terror operation by government forces against so-called IS-inspired groups last May 23 triggered intense fighting across the city and led to the imposition of Martial Law for the entire Mindanao region. The Martial Law declaration has been extended, from the original 60-days to another 5 months, until December 31, 2017. Marawi has experienced almost daily bombings by government forces.


The conflict persists today, more than two months since it started. There have been more than 403,000 civilians displaced by the fighting. As of July 28, 2017, some  114 government troopers, 45 civilians and 471 alleged rebels affiliated with Dawlah Islamiyah and Abu Sayyaf have been killed.


Marawi marks the first time since 2015 that the US has been openly involved in an actual armed conflict of this magnitude in Mindanao. The last time the US forces were revealed to be involved in a major anti-terror operation was in January 22, 2015, in a raid against an alleged Indonesian terrorist that cost the lives of 44 Philippine special action troopers and several civilians. This operation has since been known as the Mamasapano incident which resulted in the indictment of Philippine President Benigno Aquino III for usurpation of authority and graft. After the disastrous operation, the US announced that it was wrapping up its operations in Mindanao under the Joint Special Operations Task Force – JSOTF Philippines under the US Special Operations Command. In its place was left a smaller unit of US forces supposedly assisting and advising local counterparts in anti-terror operations.


The JSOTF-P had been operating uninterrupted in the Philippines since 2002, first under the banner “Operation Enduring Freedom: Philippines”. US forces  took advantage of provisions in a lopsided Visiting Forces Agreement that allowed permanent US presence even without a basing treaty.


Now, US special forces have been photographed in Marawi operating drones. P3 Orion planes have also been spotted in the area. The US controls the high-tech equipment for intelligence gathering, and claims to be providing situational awareness for Philippine officials. The US embassy in Manila claims that there are no boots on the ground in Marawi, that US forces are not involved in actual combat operations. However, with their exclusive control of surveillance and intelligence gathering equipment, and by providing situational awareness, the US is practically directing the conduct of the war in Marawi.


How did it come to this, that the US is again engaged in a conflict in the Philippines? And how did it happen under a Philippine President who just last year lambasted the US for its crimes against the Moro people of Mindanao during the bloody US occupation of the Philippines?


Philippines a priority for US Special Ops


Philippine Marine Commandant Major General Emmanuel Salamat (R) listens to US military representatives during a handover ceremony of weapons from the US military, at Marine headquarters in Manila on June 5, 2017. The United States on June 5 gave counterterrorism weapons to help the Philippine military fight Islamic militants, authorities said, despite tirades from President Rodrigo Duterte against arms from Washington. / AFP PHOTO / TED ALJIBE

The Philippines ranks high in the priority areas for military intervention by the US Special Operations Command. This was revealed in the testimony of General Raymond A. Thomas, III, U.S. Army, Commander of the United States Special Operations Command, speaking before the US Senate Armed Services Committee last May 4, 2017. His testimony came just three weeks before the siege of Marawi City in southern Philippines.  


Thomas categorized the ISIS as a “Violent Extremist Organization”, the threat of which “remains the highest priority for USSOCOM in both focus and effort”.  


“Special Operations Forces are the main effort, or major supporting effort for US VEO-focused operations in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, across the Sahel of Africa, the Philippines, and Central/South America – essentially, everywhere Al Qaeda (AQ) and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) are to be found,” Thomas said.   


Marawi is just one of the many fronts where the USSOCOM is engaged in throughout the world. According to Thomas,”on a daily basis, we sustain a deployed or forward stationed force of approximately 8,000 across 80 plus countries.”  US Special Operations Forces “are conducting the entire range of missions in both combat and noncombat situations with a wide variety of Joint, Interagency, International, and Multinational partners.”  


Echoing the US counterinsurgency doctrine, Thomas said that their methodology “is more comprehensive than simple counter-terrorism and is an important part of an overarching whole-of-government approach to advance broader national security objectives”.  


The Philippine’s national internal security plans Bayanihan and Kapayapaan are patterned after the US counterinsurgency doctrine and also involves a “whole-of-government’ approach as part of the psywar against so-called insurgents and their supporters.


Thomas added that they have the capability “to fight in contested areas, often leveraging and enhancing the capabilities of indigenous partner forces”.


The USSOC says Thomas, “continues to invest in ways that allow SOF to assist our partners better: command and control; Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance; Building Partner Capacity (BPC); and Aviation Foreign Internal Defense. An enhanced ability to leverage local relationships will ultimately help us better influence regional outcomes.”


Duterte and the US

Early on his term, Rodrigo Duterte criticized what he described as “US meddling” in Philippine affairs along with US hypocrisy when it came to human rights issues. Duterte had reacted negatively to criticisms by the US of his drug war which has claimed thousands of lives.


By October 2016, Duterte had announced his separation from the US and his pivot towards Russia and China. Duterte had earlier sought economic and military deals with the two US rivals. He also threatened to end US military exercises and the Philippines and called for the expulsion of US troops in Mindanao. He slammed the US for being the reason why “Mindanao continues to boil”, citing the historical injustices committed by occupying US troops against the Moro people at the turn of hte 20th century.


The conflict in Marawi erupted at a time when Duterte and his top defense officials were in Russia for a high-profile visit that sought to cement economic and military ties. The visit was cut short after Duterte declared Martial Law in Mindanao.


Not only did Marawi scuttle Duterte’s Russia trip, it provided the US an opportunity to retain influence over Philippine affairs amid the Duterte pivot to China and Russia. When asked who sought US assistance in the conflict in Marawi, Duterte said it was the AFP not him. He said that the AFP was historically pro-US. He thanked the US just the same for its role in the conflict.


Faced with what he claimed was a growing IS threat, Duterte backtracked on almost all his pronouncements regarding US military presence in the Philippines. He allowed US military intervention in Marawi and sought greater military aid.


Duterte’s predisposition to address social problems such as illegal drugs and terrorism with iron-fisted rule fit perfectly in the US scheme to maintain its dominant role in the Philippines as imperialist master. To carry out his war against IS, Duterte would eventually need material and political support from the Philippine’s longest-standing treaty ally. This came in the form US forces in Marawi, new weapons for PH troops and US tacit political support for Martial Law.


In exchange for US support, Duterte has allowed continuing US military exercises, US direct involvement in anti-IS operations and the implementation of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement for setting up of new US bases. Duterte has struck a modus vivendi with the US and has exposed himself as an instrument of US intervention.


It’s also important to note that another casualty of Martial Law in Marawi is the formal peace talks between the Government of Republic the Philippines and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines. Martial Law has been invoked by the AFP in carrying out intensified military operations even in areas far from the Marawi conflict. The targets have been revolutionary forces and progressives who are opposed, among others, to US intervention and imperialist plunder of the economy. The Duterte government had demanded that the revolutionary forces under the CPP-NPA-NDFP to agree to a prolonged ceasefire even as government forces carried out operations against the revolutionary forces. The untenable situation has brought the peace talks to another standstill, with Duterte saying he no longer wants to talk to the NDF. Duterte has threatened to wage all-out war against the NPA after he wraps up operations in Marawi.


Human rights violations under Martial Law are expected to increase due to stepped-up military operations, repressive measures and the systematic targeting of revolutionary and progressive forces.


Expanded US role in the Philippines

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There are now indications that the US wants a bigger role in Mindanao following the events in Marawi. US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, testifying before the Senate last June 13, said that the US ended its anti-terrorism task force too soon, “out of perhaps a premature view that we were gaining success.” At its peak, the US had 600 SOF elements operating in Mindanao.


The US had previously wanted to establish de facto bases under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement or EDCA. They continue to maintain a small force of SOF operatives who “assist” the Armed Forces of the Philippines. They have maintained a permanent military presence in Mindanao for the last 15 years. We foresee full implementation of the EDCA during the term of Duterte.


The vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Paul Selva, testifying before the US Senate Armed Services Committee last July 17 said that the United States should consider restarting a named military operation in the Philippines, similar to Operation Enduring Freedom, in order to counter the rise of the Islamic State.


Expanded cooperation in the fight against IS may be the highlight of US President Donald Trump’s Philippine visit in November this year where he meets Duterte for the first time. The meeting will result in US  imperialism retaining a firm foothold in the Philippines, and in the Southeast Asian region, even as Duterte says he is seeking greater cooperation with Russia and China.

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Asserting sovereignty

Bayan has consistently opposed US imperialism in the Philippines. There is nothing benevolent in the continuing US role in Mindanao and other parts of the country. The US intervenes to advance its own economic and geopolitical interests in a region. These are same interests which lie at the root of US destabilization of the Middle East, particularly the destruction of sovereign countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and LIbya. These countries have been plunged into chaos as a result of US bombings and regime-change operations. US intervention has also given rise to extremist groups such as ISIS or Daesh. When it suits US interests, these so-called terrorist groups are supported by the US to destabilize or bring down a regime such as the one in Syria.


In the Philippines, the US used the Abu Sayyaf threat in 2002 to gain a permanent foothold in Mindanao, establish de facto bases and engage in direct military intervention. US military presence in the region also helps US economic interests as US forces protect US investments in the area. Fifteen years after the US Special Forces were deployed in Mindanao, the Abu Sayyaf remains a serious security threat. It’s important to also point out that the US was instrumental in the creation of the Abu Sayyaf when the US was still waging a proxy war in Afghanistan against the USSR.


The US is now using ISIS as pretext for intervention and plunder in the Philippines. ISIS is being used to justify US power projection in Southeast Asia, which is also directed as US rivals such as China.


It is important to note that many of the IS-inspired fighters in Mindanao were previously part of the Moro Islamic LIberation Front that had signed a peace agreement with the Manila government. The more radical fighters saw the peace pact as cooptation and have eventually  been drawn to a more extremist pole. At the root of the conflict in Mindanao are conditions of poverty, injustice, human rights abuses and other social ills that cannot be solved by bombing IS positions on a daily basis.  


The Filipino and Moro people are determined to resist US military intervention and plunder. Mass protests are being readied for Trump’s November visit. The people are also resisting Martial Law and intensifying state fascism under the US-Duterte regime. We join the oppressed people’s of the world in fighting US militarism and neo-fascism and in building a world where there is peace based on justice. ###



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