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Newsletter 11-34
June 2011

Chapter 8. OEF Philippines: Thinking COIN, Practicing FID

LTC Brian Petit

Reprinted with permission from the January-February 2010 issue of Special Warfare.

Counterinsurgency is the formative mission of today's military. The dominant missions of the past seven years Iraq and Afghanistan - have inexorably shaped a new force. Our leaders, equipment, tactics, logistics, and doctrine all bear the traumatic discoveries learned from the Iraq and Afghanistan counterinsurgency campaigns. Reasonably, the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts will continue as the primary shaping experience for U.S. forces in counterinsurgency (COIN) and for the practice and theory of stability operations. Given the dominant hold of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Operation Enduring Freedom-Afghanistan (OEF-A) on our military culture, what then, does Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines (OEF-P) contribute to the expanding aperture of U.S. military counterinsurgency study?

OEF-P is more relevant to the broader COIN conversation now than ever before. The OEF-P operating environment is characterized by strict - yet prudent - constraints executed by a strikingly small U.S. Task Force. Similar constraints are now in place in Iraq and Afghanistan. Legal prohibitions, strict operational directives, host-nation caveats, and reduced U.S. forces are all constraints that force a revision of operational thinking, a reconsideration of tactics, and increasingly disciplined force application. The existing and forthcoming constraints in Iraq are similar in nature to the constraints imposed upon U.S. forces deployed to Southern Philippines since 2001. Under such constraints, U.S. Special Operations Forces in the Philippines apply an operational approach and tactical methodology that has applicability to current and future U.S. counterinsurgency and stability endeavors. The U.S. involvement in the Philippines (2001-2009) can be examined as a preview of the way U.S. counterinsurgency and stability strategies and tactics might look in other theaters as governments stabilize and security responsibility shifts primarily to the host nation. This article presents three tactical vignettes illustrative of the way U.S. forces in the Southern Philippines operate effectively within confined parameters.

OEF-P Background

Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines (OEF-P) has quietly entered its eighth year. OEF-P bears little resemblance to OIF or OEF-A; the contrasts are stark, the comparisons few. Initiated in 2001, OEF-P targeted al-Qaeda affiliates nested in insurgent interior lines in the southern Philippines, bordering Malaysia and Indonesia. The principal targets, the Abu Sayaaf Group (ASG) and Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), demonstrated both the skill and the will to plan and execute effective acts of terror. These acts ranged from kidnapping for ransom (the kidnapping of missionaries Martin and Gracia Burnham in 2001) to sophisticated and highly lethal terror attacks (the Bali bombing in 2002). OEF-P was planned and began execution within weeks after the U.S. unconventional warfare campaign in Afghanistan began in October 2001. The mission earned the "OEF" moniker based on the national objective to contain, and ultimately defeat, Al Qaeda's Asia-Pacific affiliates based in the Southern Philippines.

However, OEF-P, unlike OIF and OEF-A, was not a cold start. OEF-P drew on the historical engagement that the U.S. forces shared with the Government of the Philippines, or GRP. The mission was planned in conjunction with, and enabled by, a willing and cooperative sovereign nation. That cooperation, however, came with caveats. The U.S. and Philippine Forces operate under specific restrictions levied by both the Government of the Philippines and the U.S. Pacific Command. In short, U.S. forces would be prohibited from direct combat roles or direct engagements with enemy forces. While this key restriction neutralized the efficacy of U.S. joint- force operational power and reach, it also generated a campaign design and operational culture that centers on Philippines forces and institutions. Dubbed the "indirect approach," U.S. force application in the Philippines continues to adhere to the FID and COIN principles adopted at the inception of OEF-P.

The Philippine Struggle

The Armed Forces of the Philippines are in a lethal and sustained struggle against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, or MILF. The MILF is an Islamic based separatist group with an organized military arm estimated at between 6,000 to 8,000 strong. The MILF is a splinter group of the Moro National Liberation Front, or MNLF. The MNLF entered into a peace agreement with the GRP in 1996. The MILF, dissatisfied with the terms and implementation of the 1996 agreement, shifted emphasis to an Islamic vs. ethnic focus, and took up the mantle of armed struggle for an independent or expanded autonomous region for the southern Philippines Moros. The MILF continue to seek an expanded autonomous region in the southern Philippines.

The GRP, contending with both MNLF and MILF agendas, brokered the 1996 peace agreement with the MNLF and agreed in 2003 to a cease-fire with the MILF. This tenuous peace prevented large-scale warfare but allowed undergoverned regions to wittingly and unwittingly host transnational actors like Jemaah Islamiyah and Abu Sayaaf.

The southern Philippines COIN environment is familiar to OIF or OEF-A practitioners: regionally focused insurgent organizations that collaborate with transnational, ideologically driven and lethally capable, violent extremists.

Indirect Approach

OEF-P is unique in that it was conceptualized and implemented by a small nucleus of Special Operations Forces. Special Operations Command Pacific, and the 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne) implemented the "indirect approach" methodology, applying U.S. capacity strictly "through or with" the Armed Forces of the Philippines against the enemy and for the population. The indirect approach is both a philosophy and a method that is inculcated into all practitioners. The heart of the strategy is based on building relationships, reinforcing legitimate institutions, building security-force capabilities, sharing intelligence and information, developing focused civil-military programs, and aggressively promoting local acts of good governance. The indirect approach requires the discreet application of U.S. influence and assistance. Leaders continually calibrate the political implications of their actions, and quickly implement adjustments at the local level. The U.S. mission is led by the Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines.

OEF-P focuses on the Sulu Archipelago, a vast island chain that stretches from the southern Philippines to Malaysia. The enemy is ASG, JI, and violent Islamic ideologues whose actions are often more criminal than religious. These operatives and affiliates nest within supportive or neutral populations, complicating the Philippine mission to identify, capture and incarcerate them. Currently, the mission focuses on three lines of operation: (1) gathering and sharing information, (2) building capacity and (3) Targeted Civil Military Operations.

OEF-P is essentially a branch plan, developed from an existing foundation of mutual cooperation and defense, theater-security cooperation, and U.S.-Philippine military relations. OEF-P was uniquely designed to accomplish U.S. and Philippine counterterrorism objectives immediately following 9/11, thus cultivating a new dimension in U.S.-Philippine relationships. The U.S. and Philippine governments shared the view that the terror groups had to be reduced. However, exactly how the U.S. would apply its capabilities against terrorist groups, given the political considerations, was unclear at the inception.

Think COIN, Practice FID

Contrary to popular perception, the U.S. mission in the Southern Philippines is not COIN. COIN is the mission of the GRP. The U.S. mission is FID in support of the GRP COIN campaign. This distinction is critical for two reasons: (1) The GRP, not the U.S., is directly responsible for combating insurgents, terrorists and lawless elements; (2) the U.S. role is to support a sovereign nation in both building the capacity of its armed and civil-security forces, and applying that capacity against violent extremists operating in undergoverned regions. This distinction requires U.S. SOF personnel to "think COIN but practice FID." This mindset is part of the institutional and operational culture of U.S. Special Forces, and it is a critical mindset for both SOF and conventional forces operating in increasingly constrained environments.

Tactically, the indirect approach requires clear-eyed recognition that U.S. capacity will be applied through - and not around - the host nation. This paradigm seems simple, but it runs counter to U.S. military "candoism" and requires a long-term view and immense operational patience. The indirect approach does not satisfy appetites for quick, measurable results. By building capacity with host nation security forces and simultaneously applying population-focused, civil-military programs, the indirect approach rarely produces singularly spectacular results in tactical engagements. Measures of effectiveness are often best assessed over time and anecdotally.

The following tactical vignettes illustrate the way certain operational methods are applied within the existing existing policy constraints.

Tactical Vignette #1: OEF-P Medical Seminar (MEDSEM)

The medical seminar, or MEDSEM, is an innovative medical operation that builds upon the concept of the traditional medical civic-action program, or MEDCAP. The MEDSEM enhances the MEDCAP by adding education, promoting self-reliance and improving sustainability of medical interventions. The MEDSEM promotes local governmental interoperability by requiring collaboration between local medical providers, governmental leaders, host nation forces and U.S. SOF.

A MEDCAP is typically a single-day event that provides medical or dental care and can vary in size from a few hundred patients to a few thousand. It is a medical operation used by commanders to engage a given population or geographical area in order to gain initial access to or maintain a relationship with that population. In order to be successful and effective, the event must avoid undermining the local medical infrastructure. Local medical officials should be involved in all facets of planning and should be pushed to the forefront during execution. Medical interventions should be safe and effective in order to enhance public health and to avoid adverse events or negative informational outcomes. Finally, and most importantly, the event must positively engage the specified population and stimulate continued interaction in the future.

The MEDCAP can be an effective tool if employed correctly. However, a MEDCAP is typically hampered by limited planning time that leads to inadequate involvement of local medical providers. U.S. Forces are then viewed as executors which undermines confidence in the local medical infrastructure. The MEDCAP culminates in a short, one-day event with limited or nonexistent follow-up interactions. Any ground gained during the MEDCAP is often temporal -at times adverse - and future relationship building is inhibited. The majority of patients attending central Mindanao MEDCAPs were women with children requiring over-the-counter treatments or education alone. Less than 5 percent of patients required prescription medication (usually antibiotics), yet these medicines were abundant and comprised the bulk of MEDCAP costs.

The MEDSEM was created to address the shortcomings of the MEDCAP within central Mindanao. It is a civic action program as well, but it was named differently in order to avoid confusion with the traditional MEDCAP. The MEDSEM is a five day event and required up to one month of planning and coordination between the Armed Forces of the Philippines, or AFP, the local governmental unit, or LGU, the municipal health office, or MHO, the Philippine National Police, or PNP, and U.S. Forces. These meetings promoted interoperability between the groups through information exchange and collaborative planning. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) were invited to participate in planning and execution, as well. That supported the AFP-MILF cease fire by providing a common venue for meetings and discussion.

The MEDSEM consists of three days of classroom instruction and two days of medical-care programs. For one MEDSEM in the summer of 2008, invitations were sent out to 15 barangays (villages), inviting three volunteers from each village to participate in the MEDSEM. Often, the villages were previously inaccessible to the Armed Forces of the Philippines. Medical experience was not a requirement. Students were taught basic women's and children's healthcare, with an emphasis on preventive health measures. The LGU provided the classroom, the MHO created and taught all lectures, and the villages donated money to pay for student transportation. Security was provided by the AFP and PNP during the classroom phase. They were joined by MILF and MNLF security during the medical-care programs. Everyone involved in these events contributed to their success. The AFP, LGU, PNP, and MHO remained in the forefront throughout all phases.

The only class taught by a U.S. doctor or medic was "MEDCAP preparation." Local providers were taught how to set up and run a medical program from start to finish. The last class was followed by a formal graduation ceremony in which students received graduation certificates and photos. All students were then responsible for conducting the medical program in their village on one of the last two days. That was their final exam. Medical care teams consisted of local doctors and nurses. Prior to the medical team's arrival, the students registered and seated between 200 and 400 patients. The students then delivered one of the recently learned preventive-health lectures to their neighbors. Students then identified 30 to 50 patients to be seen by physicians, while local providers, under the supervision of MHO nurses, delivered individual education and dispensed over-the-counter medications. Follow-up engagements were scheduled for 90 to 180 days following the MEDSEM.

To date, four MEDSEMs have been conducted within central Mindanao. Measures of effectiveness include:

  • Local officials and providers take responsibility and are credited by the population for the events.
  • A medical "auxiliary" is built for future engagements and medical surveillance.
  • Relationships were forged between students, village leaders, health care providers, insurgent/ resistance groups and security forces.

The MEDSEM engaged 10 times as many patients as the traditional MEDCAP, at a fraction of the cost. Only a few prescription medicines were included in the MEDSEM supply pallet which decreased costs. The MEDSEM effectively engaged the specified populations through the host nation medical infrastructure and delivered sustainable and safe medical care to thousands of patients.

Vignette #2: Rule of Law

The mission of the southern Philippines rule-of-law engagement is threefold: (1) to build essential capacity in the Philippine security forces in the southern Philippines, (2) to criminalize terrorism, and (3) to support the GRP in extending the rule-of-law to this area of their country. The rule-of-law exists when: the state monopolizes the use of force in the resolution of disputes; individuals have meaningful access to an effective and impartial legal system; basic human rights are protected by the state; and individuals rely on the existence of legal institutions and the content of the law in the conduct of their daily lives.

The strategic objective is to create a hostile environment for international terrorist elements in the southern Philippines by building the population's respect for the rule of law and the state organizations responsible for its enforcement. The operational objective is enabling the PNP to enforce the rule-of-law, thereby minimizing the role of the Philippine military in law enforcement. Strengthening the criminal-justice system will reduce extra-judicial killings and restore confidence in the government's security abilities. The tactical method is to provide the PNP professional-development training, integrating technology into evidence analysis and exploitation, and working within the Philippine criminal justice system to obtain arrest warrants and active prosecution of terrorist elements within the southern Philippines. Each tactical method is discussed below.

PNP professional development training. The southern PNP lack the necessary training to adequately provide security to their respective municipalities. To address the fundamental requirements of policing, JSOTF-P, through the U.S. Department of Justice, supports two courses of instruction for the PNP.

The first course is the Basic Police Operations Course, or BPOC. This course is designed to provide basic police training that introduces the knowledge, skills and abilities of international policing standards. It also strives to introduce and improve the PNP's knowledge of police ethics, human rights and community policing.

The second course is the Basic Criminal Investigations Course. This course builds on the BPOC human rights instruction and includes the following: lessons on proper evidence collection at sensitive sites containing evidence of arson or explosives; methods of identifying the origin of an explosion or fire; and the discovery of evidence that can be used to identify suspects, physical evidence, trace evidence, fingerprint evidence, tool mark evidence, and firearm evidence.

PNP graduates from these courses are applying the investigative procedures necessary to ensure that evidence is properly collected, preserved and processed. These skills ensure accurate attribution to the person, place, and event (e.g., pocket litter, cell phones, IED component); preserves the chain of custody for the evidence collected; and allows the evidence to be fully exploited in court.

Integrating technology into evidentiary procedures. Historically, a significant portion of the evidence collected in the southern Philippines has not been processed or exploited. The rule-of-law team assists with capabilities such as (1) the ability to extract and store DNA from living or dead persons, (2) analysis of electronic data, and (3) document and media analysis. Dramatic improvements in evidence processing and exploitation are a critical step toward sound evidentiary procedures and ultimately, prosecution. This initiative is Philippine-centric. Operations and relevant data support Philippine information requirements and civil authorities.

Arrest warrants and criminal prosecution of terrorist elements. Terror groups and lawless violent extremists continue to commit acts without a genuine threat of prosecution within the southern Philippines. This is largely the result of the substantial number of vacant judge positions and prosecutors. To that end, the rule-of-law engagement coordinated with a regional trial court to obtain jurisdiction for criminal prosecution of terrorist elements located in Basilan and on Jolo island. That enabled a trial prosecutor from the regional trial court to secure a murder conviction in Basilan. Prosecutors are currently preparing additional extremist-related cases from Jolo Island.

The rule-of-law engagement supports the expansion of the police role in bringing effective law enforcement to the southern Philippines. An effective police force is arguably the key missing component in defeating violent extremists operating in undergoverned spaces in the southern Philippines. The program is modest: fewer than 25 U.S. personnel are directly aligned against this effort, with many more in general support roles. The aim is to balance the Philippine COIN strategy with effective law-enforcement institutions and mechanisms.

Tactical Vignette #3: Advising Philippine Combat Operations on Pangutaran Island

Special Forces teams live, eat, train, and work with their Philippine security-force counterparts, and they have since 2001. In the Philippines, the only bases and outposts are Philippine. All U.S. forces are integrated with military and police units in tactical outposts at the invitation of the Philippine Armed Forces Commanders. All arrangements - living, working, billeting, operational - are subject to the consent of Philippine commanders, from the Philippine chief of staff down to tactical Philippine infantry battalion commanders.

This environment requires mature, studied and respectful U.S. forces that bring the right competencies. The OEF-P environment does not suffer well undisciplined behaviors, ill advised engagements or well-meaning but heavy-handed American "candoism." The core advisory team is the twelve-man Special Forces Operational Detachment-Alpha (SFOD-A). SFOD-As train for this type of environment and are prepared linguistically, culturally and doctrinally to operate in these environments. In the Philippines, SFOD-As are generally split in half and augmented with Civil Affairs, Psychological Operations, Joint Service enablers and logistics personnel, totaling about 8 to 12 U.S. personnel per outpost. Operationally, these are called "Liaison Control Elements" (LCE). Naval Special Warfare SEAL platoons also split and form LCEs embedded with Philippine Marine units. LCEs generally operate at the Philippine Battalion, Brigade, and Division level.

Pangutaran Island is a municipality belonging to the Province of Sulu, Republic of the Philippines. It is located approximately 45 kilometers off the northwest shore off the main provincial island of Sulu. Because it was not believed to be a safe haven for lawless elements, there had not been a persistent Philippine Security Forces presence on the island. During the summer of 2008, Joint Task Force Comet, a 2-star Philippine task force comprised mainly of Philippine Marines, and its U.S. counterpart, Task Force Sulu, were making great strides in reducing Abu Sayyef Group (ASG) influence and reducing its access to populations on the provincial capital island of Sulu. What is described below is how ASG elements attempted to acquire safe haven on Pangutaran Island and, along with its Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) brethren, sought to reposition itself beyond the reach of Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Marine forces.

The importance of Pangutaran Island is apparent when one visits the island. The people are relatively prosperous in spite of the poverty felt among its neighboring island municipalities. This is because of the abundance of natural resources found on the island and in its surrounding seas. More importantly however, Pangutaran Island enjoys a robust trading relationship among Indonesian sea traders and other small-scale yet lucrative sea-based enterprises. The island's relative prosperity was also due to the lack of Abu Sayyef Group presence on the island that habitually prey upon local populations to acquire resources necessary to carry out their violent activities.

In the summer of 2008, the ASG were under severe pressure. The ASG had been effectively isolated from both popular support and access to resources. Intelligence had indicated that both the ASG and JI organizations, on Jolo Island, found it increasingly difficult to gather the basic necessities for sustainment, such as food and water. Its leadership was known to complain about the lack of available food within its archipelagic camps. Yet ASG and JI are nothing if not resilient - a new base of operations or new supply routes had to be found that was out of reach of Philippine government forces.

Pangutaran Island fit the ASG's and JI's needs. Initially, the connectivity to Indonesia, the birthplace of JI, was extremely tempting to both the ASG and JI, primarily as a safe haven. Secondly, there were no AFP military forces on the island. There was a small PNP garrison on the island, but this small force would be no match in a struggle with ASG/JI elements for control of the island. Although ASG/JI elements were living hard times on Sulu and Basilan, they nonetheless retained significant capability to conduct violent acts of terror - particularly against the ill-equipped and ill-trained forces of the PNP.

The Pangutaran inhabitants knew about the activities of Philippine and U.S. military forces on the main island of Sulu and how those activities were improving the lives of many Sulu residents. JTF Comet and TF Sulu had been building schools, roads, water distribution networks and other civil infrastructure projects on Sulu in a successful attempt to build the legitimacy of the Philippine government forces. As the legitimacy of the military forces increased, the freedom of movement of ASG/JI elements consequently decreased. Moreover, significant amounts of intelligence on ASG/JI whereabouts flowed from the population to AFP military forces as a result of these activities. In addition to civil projects, AFP Marine forces relentlessly pursued ASG/JI elements deep in their jungle redoubts. The inhabitants on Pangutaran had been hearing about these activities and, even before ASG/JI elements would attempt to seek refuge on their island, they made contact with Joint Task Force Comet to see what assistance they could receive to better their island infrastructure.

As a result of increased pressure from JTF Comet, ASG/JI sought to establish themselves on Pangutaran Island. The ASG moved a small force to Pangutaran Island to gain control through their normal methods: fear, intimidation, violence and extortion. The inhabitants of the island, knowing that JTF Comet was pursuing ASG/JI wherever they might be, contacted the Sulu-based AFP. Because of the distance from its Sulu-based forces, TF Sulu would assist the AFP with communications and control of the AFP forces as JTF Comet deployed elements to Pangutaran to assist the inhabitants. Additionally, TF Sulu had SFOD-As already conducting advise and assist activities with the AFP Brigade's organic battalions. During this mission, TF Sulu would deploy an SFOD-A to Pangutaran Island in support of the Philippine Brigade's mission to expel ASG/JI elements from the island.

The Philippine Marine Brigade assigned AFP Marine Battalion Landing Team (MBLT) to conduct the mission to expel the emerging presence of ASG and JI elements from Pangutaran. The MBLT, supported by its partnered SFOD-A, planned the mission. Although U.S. forces are restricted from participating directly in combat operations within the Philippines, the SFOD-A would be co-located with the MBLT commander during the execution of the mission to advise and assist where required. It is beyond the scope of this paper to describe fully the details of the mission. In short, the MBLT did come into contact with ASG/JI elements. During the encounter, AFP forces received minor casualties, but the cost of the effort was worth the expense: the Marines earned a tactical victory and demonstrated to the populace an appropriate and timely use of force and follow through. Co-locating the SFOD-A with the MBLT commander was instrumental to the success of the mission - discreet, offset, advisory and technical assistance proved invaluable during the multi-phased mission.

Outcome. The ASG was unable to escape the reaches of JTF Comet by attempting to reposition itself to Pangutaran Island. Indeed, even before their attempt was made, the fate of this endeavor was sealed. The activities being conducted by JTF Comet and TF Sulu on the main island of Sulu were known to the inhabitants, and the people of Pangutaran sought close ties with JTF Comet and TF Sulu. The population knew that JTF Comet was interested not only in destroying ASG/JI elements but also in providing needed infrastructure and development assistance to the people of the Sulu Archipelago. Because of this, the inhabitants reached out to JTF Comet forces even before ASG/JI made their presence known on Pangutaran. As a result of this cooperation to expel the terrorists, JTF Comet established a small AFP Marine outpost on Pangutaran Island to prevent a see-saw battle for control of the island. Almost a token force, this presence was enough to dispel any notion of ASG/JI terrorists that the island was their's for the taking. The small outpost of Marines work closely with the island's well-run yet underequipped PNP station to ensure security for the inhabitants.TF Sulu and JTF Comet continue to visit the island routinely and have conducted a series of medical clinics and infrastructure development projects as a way of both thanking the inhabitants of the island for their support and increasing the perception of persistent presence to any lawless elements wishing to prey upon the civilian population. The combined efforts of U.S. and Philippine military forces, along with those of the PNP and civilian municipal government on Pangutaran, truly made this effort a notable tactical success and a worthy case study for COIN and FID practitioners.

Counterinsurgency or FID

All three vignettes represent the studied application of COIN strategies applied by, with and through host-nation forces that were genuinely in the lead. The OEF-P policies shape behaviors and outcomes that are textbook FID doctrinal solutions in a complex COIN environment.

In 2009, we are a COIN-conversant military, hard-wired to the gravitational pull of our OIF and OEF-A experiences. Our self-critique of COIN is the mark of an adaptive institution and is bearing results in campaign objectives and individual behaviors. However, understanding COIN doctrine and application is not good enough for U.S. general purpose or special-operations forces. While the focus on and understanding of COIN is paramount to U.S. success, it is in many ways a foundational step required to successfully conduct our actual mission: FID in support of COIN.

Though FID is doctrinally a SOF Title X responsibility, FID accurately describes the mission of major U.S. joint task forces in both OEF-P, OIF and OEF-A as well as other regional engagements. As we progress from COIN-centric thought to FID-centric behavior, OEF-P offers some lessons for applying U.S. capacity within significant operational constraints. No matter the theater, "thinking COIN, practicing FID" is the proper state of mind for operational planners, tactical forces and ground practitioners.


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