The recently concluded (September 18-26) “low-key” US-Philippine joint military exercise, dubbed “Tempest Wind,” signals three interrelated foreboding situations:
First, – after so much presidential anti-US blustering and threat to cut off relations and chart an “independent foreign policy” – it has brought the Duterte government complicitly in closer security/defense alliance with American imperialism under a warmongering Trump administration;
Second, it has tied down the Philippines to the latter’s costly (in trillion US dollars and thousands of lives lost) global “war on terror” – as when, in late 2001, the Bush administration similarly tied down the Arroyo regime. Since then, that has enabled, by virtue of the Visiting Forces Agreement, about 600 US Special Forces troops (on three-month rotations) to stay in the country as advisers and trainers of AFP troops in the antiterror campaign against the Abu Sayyaf group; and
Third, it has reincluded the Philippines as a front of such war – this time against the Islamic State, or IS/ISIS — featuring intensively devastating aerial attacks, with less American troops on the ground. (The almost daily aerial bombings in Marawi, under US drone guidance, which have flattened a large party of the city, are just a small sampling of this mode of warfare.)
And now President Duterte, obsessed with pursuing till the end of his term a bloody war against illegal drugs to fulfill his electoral campaign promise, has found a convenient rationale for embracing the US global war on terror: he conflates his antidrug campaign with the antiterror war.
He has claimed that the Maute group, which along with Isnilon Hapilon’s Abu Sayyaf group has engaged AFP troops in fierce combat in Marawi for over four months now, is being financed by drug lords. His latest narrative was that the Marawi conflict had been triggered by an attempt by state security forces to arrest a “drug suspect” whom he didn’t identify. However, the broadly publicized story was that the arrest attempt was directed at Hapilon, for whose “neutralization” as a “high-value terrorist” target the US government has offered a $5-million bounty (similar to that for “Marwan” in the botched Mamasapano secret PNP operation).
Duterte has also claimed that the Philippines is being used as a transshipment point for shabu (crystal methamphetamine) bound for the US market – following up with the not-so-subtle suggestion that therefore America should “work closely” with his administration “on this serious matter.”
Back to the Tempest Wind joint military drill, what did it entail?
In an unusual scenario, up to 1,200 American and Philippine troops were mobilized in a first-of-its-kind drill wherein a Hawaii-bound plane from Sydney, Australia was supposedly hijacked by an Islamic State cell and forced to land at Clark Air Base in Pampanga. More than 400 troops, airport police and hostage negotiators, and unspecified civilian agencies from both governments were put to work.
No details were provided as to how the mock hijacking problem was resolved. But worth noting is that, as the report said, both the US and Philippine governments stressed that they knew of no such actual plot by the IS or its supporters.
Let’s look at the rationalizations, reported in media after the closing ceremonies, of the key officials involved in the exercise.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said Tempest Wind is in line with President Duterte’s wish to refocus the 1951 US-RP Mutual Defense Treaty toward counterterrorism and disaster relief. The MDT pertains to mutual defense against external attacks or invasions. Can either party refocus it just like that? Lorenzana was quoted as saying:
“(It) served as a perfect opportunity to assess the needs of the new security environment in the Pacific region, especially now that terrorism has become evident in our current security landscape. The drill was designed to provide realistic scenarios (on) terrorism that demand both high-level engagement from these countries on a tactical level.”
How does Lorenzana’s statement fit with the two governments’ acknowledgment that there’s no known plane hijacking plot by the IS?
Provoking more questions was what the US ambassador to the Philippines, Sung Kim, reportedly said at the closing ceremonies: “(Tempest Wind) presented an unprecedented opportunity for comprehensive training for both senior leaders and action officers.”
However, Jarrod Gillam, of the US State Department Counterterrorism Bureau, provided a definite reference point: Tempest Wind was a venue for the “whole-of-government approach to crisis resolution.” “Whole-of-government approach” is an aspect of the 2009 US Counterinsurgency Guide that the AFP has adopted in its Oplan Bayanihan under the P-Noy (Aquino) government, carried over to the Duterte regime’s Oplan Kapayapaan.
The concept, culled largely from US military experiences in their interventionist wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, requires all departments and agencies of government to be involved in the counterinsurgency, or antiterrorism, programs. That this idea hasn’t worked is starkly shown by the fact that after 17 years the US war in Afghanistan continues – with President Trump now planning to send more American ground troops there.
Oplan Bayanihan also failed to achieve its goal: to “render irrelevant” the New People’s Army. Yet Duterte’s defense secretary and AFP generals, who he has acknowledged to be “all pro-US,” have mindlessly incorporated those US-designed concepts in its own counterinsurgency Oplan Kapayapaan. Come to think of it, the name ought to be Oplan Todo Gera, not Kapayapaan, given that it is being relentlessly pursued under the rubric of “total war” declared last February and endorsed by Duterte.
Published Philippine Star
Sept. 30, 2017