What does success against jihadist terrorist groups look like? For all the talk of a Forever War, we might just have an answer now.
With activity in the decades-long Islamic jihadist insurgency in the Philippines down to a consistently low ebb, and an autonomy agreement now struck between the government in Manila and the main jihadist group, the overall Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), for a very limited swath of territory in place, the US is disbanding its big Philippine special ops task force focused on the conflict.
And preparing to pull up stakes and head for home?
US forces are again flowing through the old Subic Bay naval base in the Philippines, but not to deal with Islamic jihadists.
Not hardly, as discussed before. For the US in fact is ramping up its presence in the Philippines, with the former US naval base at Subic Bay in the midst of major upgrades as US and Philippine forces work more closely together in the midst of the crisis over China's assertion of sovereignty over virtually the entire South China Sea.
Did Philippine government forces aided by US advisors completely defeat the Islamist insurgency? No. Was that insurrection degraded, through a combination of military action and political concessions to deal with legitimate concerns, to a level akin to a low-grade virus? Yes.
The US and Philippine governments were then free to move forward on more pressing geostrategic matters, as part of the Asia-Pacific Pivot.
This could be a model for how what many have called the "Forever War" (named after the classic Joe Haldeman science fiction novel) against transnational jihadist terrorism comes to an end. Of course, there are differences elsewhere, not the least of which is the frequent absence of a government with basic popular appeal for a nation-state with a substantial degree of coherence.
Speaking of which, US efforts to hold together the post-World War I colonial construct called Iraq are not going well, despite Secretary of State John Kerry's high-profile meetings with government and factional leaders in Iraq, NATO foreign ministers in Brussels, and Gulf Arab foreign ministers in Paris.
Despite being very hard-pressed, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is refusing calls from Kerry and others for a government of national reconciliation. Active Sunni leaders are either silent or working with ISIS. And the Kurds are declaring "a new era in a new Middle East," in which they have brand-new oil supplies ready for sale.
Maliki, and the US, seems to have dodged a bullet with the Baiji oil refinery, Iraq's largest, apparently still at least partially in the hands of government forces, the recent BBC report to the contrary notwithstanding. But it is out of service, which only further ramps up the sense of crisis.
While spurning Kerry's entreaties for a coalition government addressing Sunni and Kurdish concerns, Maliki has welcomed air strikes against ISIS formations by the Syrian Air Force and is now looking to Russia to supply aircraft previously promised to the Iraqi regime by the US but not yet delivered. High on that list are jet fighters and attack helicopters. Both of which the Russians do about as well as we do.
But while the odd attempt by the Obama Administration to hold up artificial borders constructed by the British and French empires after World War I, and the government installed by George W. Bush and Dick Cheney after the Iraq invasion of 2003, plays out, let's look at an actual success story.
It's been a long time coming. Since the late 1960s, in fact, when both Islamic jihadist and Communist guerrilla movements erupted in the Philippines.
Our overt imperial relationship with the Philippines -- which we seized as a colony, in violation of our pledge to Filipino rebels after the Spanish-American War -- ended with the independence of the Philippines in 1946 after Americans and Filipinos fought side by side against Japanese forces in World War II. But another sort of imperial relationship continued.
A cadre of Filipino stewards, for example, as I came to experience, continued to serve US Navy officers around the world for decades. The great naval base at Subic Bay, America's largest outside the US, was a critical staging area for the adventure in Vietnam. And there was an active US military assistance program, which I helped in, to deal with persistent insurgencies by Islamic jihadists -- an early harbinger of what was to to come -- and Communist guerrillas, guided by the doctrine of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism, from the end of the '60s on.
Those uprisings ebbed and flowed as the US found itself kicked out of the Philippines after the Ferdinand Marcos regime, too close to the Reagan/Bush Administration, was overthrown in the 1980s.
Yet the US and Philippines retained a formal alliance by treaty and US forces went back into the Philippines after 9/11.
The Joint Special Operations Task Force Philippines advised and assisted the Philippine armed forces in its struggle with jihadists in the Mindanao region of the southern Philippines vast archipelago. Over time, the insurgency was degraded even as the government in Manila forged a limited autonomy agreement with the principal jihadist group, granting it power over a small swath of the big island of Mindanao and several small islands near it.
The Joint Special Operations Task Force Philippines was one of several formed around the world, as the mission description went, to fight Al Qaeda-linked groups at their source before they became a threat to the US. The special forces task force, which ranged in size from 300 to 600 troopers, was directed to play an advisory role to Philippine forces without taking on a direct combat role. But they did play a major role in spinning up air and artillery strikes, often through use of drone aircraft, and operated in obvious combat zones and situations. Though there have been several jhadist outfits about, their principal target was Abu Sayyaf, a group which spun up in the early and mid-'90s after receiving training in Afghanistan from core Al Qaeda members.
The group continued to pull off attacks on government forces and bombings of civilian sites as well as various criminal acts for money, such as kidnappings for ransom, throughout, but saw its ranks reduced by two-thirds over the past decade while it proved either unable or unwilling to pull off attacks on the US.
Will all attacks cease once the accord between Manila and the MILF is fully implemented? Probably not. Some Abu Sayyaf members may continue, and there are a couple of other smaller groups pulling off various missions. But the judgment has been made that the activity has diminished to a sufficiently low ebb as to be not much more than an annoyance.
Meanwhile, major facilities are again being provided for US forces as the Philippines face a major maritime challenge from China in waters around the archipelago nation. This time around, as I discussed when President Barack Obama formally won back the long expected access in April, the bases in question such as Subic Bay and Clark Field will not be permanent American bases but facilities shared by US and Filipino forces, with American units not so much permanently bases in the Philippines as they are flowing into and out of the islands as part of a permanent rotational presence.
And so the long-standing Joint US Military Advisory Group Philippines (JUSMAGPhil), with top officers often working together in Camp Aguinaldo, headquarters of the Armed Forces of the Philippines in Metro Manila's Quezon City, has changed focus, dropping the post-9/11 war on terror focus to emphasize the Asia-Pacific Pivot.
Is jihadism dead in the Philippines? Probably not. But it has been arm wrestled, through a program combining targeted military action with limited political concessions and palliatives, into a contained situation, a manageable condition, freeing up intellectual and operational bandwidth for bigger challenges.
It may not be dramatic, but it may be real.
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