Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines: What
Would Sun Tzu Say?
IN THE GLOBAL War on Terrorism (GWOT), while
Operation Enduring Freedom aims to defeat the Taliban and al-Qaeda
in Afghanistan, Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines (OEF-P) continues
with little fanfare. The operation began in response to the kidnappings
of U.S. citizens by the Abu Sayyef Group (ASG), a radical Muslim
organization backed by al-Qaeda.
From the U.S. perspective, the GWOT is a counterinsurgency operation
on a global scale-a fight pitting those who believe in democracy
and freedom against those who seek to enslave the world in an Islamic
dictatorship. To successfully counter this threat, the United States
and its allies must-
- Deny sanctuary to terrorists and insurgents.
- Eliminate their ability to move throughout their desired operational
area (in this case, the world).
- Deny them direct or indirect support from sympathizers and nation-states.
- Wage psychological and civil affairs campaigns to separate the
insurgency from the population using all the elements of national
power: diplomatic, economic, informational, and military. The United
States is executing this strategy in Afghanistan and Iraq, but it
is not being effective in Asia.
Before 11 September 2001, the U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM) was already
interested in events in the Philippines. In August 2001, ASG kidnapped
a U.S. citizen, Jeffrey Schilling. The U.S. Special Operations Command
Pacific (SOCPAC) deployed a Department of State-funded mobile training
team to provide the Philippine government with a national counterterrorist
A U.S. Special Forces (SF) unit trained and equipped a Philippine
light reaction company (LRC) drawn from the ranks of the Philippine
army's special forces and scout ranger organizations. From February
to July 2001, while the LRC was being trained, the ASG kidnapped
three more U.S. citizens. One key issue the LRC training identified
was that, while the Philippines government could develop a tactically
proficient counterterrorism force, the Armed Forces of the Philippines
(AFP) did not have a command and control structure to properly employ
the LRC or to integrate it with other forces and current operations.
Two days after completing training, the LRC deployed to the island
of Basilan in the southern Philippine province of Mindanao in response
to the ASG hostage crisis. However, the LRC deployed as a conventional
unit, not as a national-level counterter- rorist force. Before the
LRC deployed, American SF advisers had requested that they accompany
the unit, but SOCPAC approved only a follow-on assessment mission
and took no action until the tragedy of 11 September 2001.
In October 2001, the assessment mission developed a plan for the
PACOM commander that called for the deployment of about 160 American
SF advisers to Basilan to train, advise, and assist AFP units. In
February 2002, under the guise of an exercise named Balikatan ("shoulder-to-shoulder"),
the operation began. Elements of it continue to this day.
Mission and Intent
The mission on Basilan was to conduct unconventional
warfare operations in the Southern Philippines through, by, and
with the AFP to help the Philippine government separate the population
from and to destroy terrorist organizations. The plan's intent was
to provide all SF elements on Basilan with unifying guidance that
would help harmonize counterterrorist and counterinsurgency operations
in the Southern Philippines with initial focus on Basilan.
The key tasks Special Forces were to perform included -
- Denying the ASG sanctuary.
- Surveilling, controlling, and denying ASG routes.
- Surveilling supporting villages and key personnel.
- Conducting local training to overcome AFP weaknesses and sustain
- Supporting operations by the AFP "strike force" (LRC)
in the area of responsibility (AOR).
- Conducting and supporting civil affairs operations in the AOR.
The end state desired was for the AFP to gain sufficient capability
to locate and destroy the ASG to recover hostages and to enhance
the legitimacy of the Philippine government. Much of the operation
was a success; the ASG was driven from Basilan, and one U.S. hostage
was recovered although her husband was killed. Nonetheless, Army
leaders should examine the strategic issues of OEF-P to better fight
the GWOT in Asia and worldwide.
In his classic book on strategy, The Art of War, Sun Tzu wrote,
"Know the enemy and know yourself; in a hundred battles you
will never be in peril."1 Understanding
this principle is essential. Before a commander embarks on an operation,
he must thoroughly examine the situation and assess his and the
enemy's relative strengths and weaknesses at both the strategic
and tactical levels.
In OEF-P, American leaders failed to know themselves. Theater-level
and national-level U.S. military leaders did not understand, to
a certain extent, the SF concepts of employment and capabilities
in a combat advisory mission during unconventional warfare. The
combatant commander and the Secretary of Defense imposed restrictions
on SF soldiers' ability to efficiently conduct operations to accomplish
the mission. Specifically, because of force-protection considerations,
American SF advisers were restricted to operating at battalion level
with their AFP counterparts and were not allowed to operate at lower
tactical echelons required to be effective in combat situations,
which was a strategic error.
U.S. leaders at the highest levels did not understand this unconventional
war. The belief that U.S. soldiers would be safe at a battalion
headquarters implied the existence of front lines and a rear area,
which is a fundamental misunderstanding of counterinsurgency and
counterterrorist conditions. To see this clearly, consider that
the only U.S. combat casualty in OEF-P occurred just outside an
AFP division headquarters when a terrorist bomb killed a U.S. soldier.
Six months later, the combatant commander and the Secretary of Defense
permitted Special Forces to operate at the company level. Even this
less stringent restriction still prevented SF advisers' from providing
effective assistance, however. The Philippine Scout Ranger battalion
commander repeatedly requested that his American SF operational
detachment be allowed to deploy with his companies and patrols because
he knew he was on the trail of the ASG and the hostages, but permission
was denied. Tragically, when Philippine scout rangers engaged the
ASG, American hostage Gracia Burnham's husband was killed by friendly
The failure to know ourselves and understand the nature of the unconventional
conflict led to overreliance on technical reconnaissance assets.
Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and the Navy's P3 Orion were used
to locate the ASG and the hostages on Basilan. The rationale for
technical reconnaissance assets was, again, force protection and
to minimize risks to U.S. personnel. The use of these platforms
did reduce patrolling in remote areas, but the UAV surveillance
was extremely conventional, surveilling specific named areas of
interest supporting the joint task force's (JTF's) priority intelligence
The forces on the ground could not exploit the reconnaissance assets
because the JTF tightly controlled them. Gracia Burnham's memoir
describes the ineffectiveness of this technique: "[We] heard
a spy plane circling overhead, [but our captors] ignored them .
. . because they had been circling for months and nothing ever happened."2
This illustrates one of the weaknesses in the American way of war-an
over-reliance on technological solutions at the expense of the human
element, which must be the main effort in unconventional warfare.
The United States and the Philippines did not understand the nature
of the enemy. Connections between the ASG and al-Qaeda were well
known because Osama bin-Laden's brother-in-law had provided the
ASG's original funding.3 U.S. military
leaders also did not understand the relationship between the ASG
and other terrorist organizations such as the Jemmah Islamiyah (JI)
in Indonesia or the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in the
Because the Philippine government was negotiating a peace agreement
with the MILF, U.S. leaders prohibited SF units from assisting the
AFP in MILF-controlled areas. Because the AFP wanted to work closely
with the U.S. military, it shifted AFP troops from MILF-controlled
areas so more AFP troops could benefit from U.S. advice and assistance
elsewhere. These actions by U.S. and Philippine leaders created
de facto ASG sanctuaries. The ASG and MILF had a mutually supporting
relationship and a loose alliance. Many families in the area had
members who belonged to both organizations.
The ASG has links in funding, support, and ideology to the JI, which
aims to create pan-Islamic states in Malaysia, Indonesia, and the
Southern Philippines.4 Membership in
JI, ASG, and MILF extends over vast distances in these island nations,
but U.S. operations were limited primarily to Basilan and local
waters, allowing the JI, ASG, and MILF terrorist organizations to
move with relative ease throughout all three countries and hundreds
of their territorial islands. Had the United States and the Philippines
reached a different strategic-level decision based on a thorough
analysis and understanding of the enemy, U.S. Special Forces and
the AFP's LRC might have been able to execute a broad, combined
campaign covering the entire AOR.
Sun Tzu did not say so explicitly, but he implied that it is just
as important to know one's ally as it is to know one's enemy and
oneself. Regrettably, U.S. strategic leaders made several wrong
decisions regarding the operation in the Philippines because they
did not understand their ally's beliefs as expressed in the Philippine
Constitution.5 The deployment of U.S.
troops was contentious in-country because the local press asserted
that U.S. forces could not legally participate in combat operations.6
However, a correct reading of the Philippine Constitution reveals
that it prohibits only the stationing of foreign forces in the Philippines
after the 1991 expiration of the Philippines-U.S. agreement on military
bases.7 The constitution does not prohibit
combat operations and provides an exception to this-if there is
a treaty in force-and a treaty has been in force between the two
countries since 1951.8 A lack of understanding
of Philippine laws contributed to U.S. decisions to unduly restrict
the employment of SF advisers.
Strategy and Alliances
If they had better understood the enemy, themselves,
and their ally, U.S. military leaders could have undertaken more
comprehensive operations and employed Sun Tzu's two essential strategic
concepts: attacking the enemy's strategy and disrupting his alliances.
The combined U.S. and AFP military force did attack the enemy's
strategy, using a robust civil affairs program to undercut the terrorists
by strengthening Philippine government institutions and local security
to enable Filipinos to go about their daily lives without the constant
fear of terrorism. Civic action projects included building water
supply and distribution systems; rebuilding mosques and schools;
and providing medical, dental, and veterinary programs.
To help reinforce the democratic process, U.S. and AFP personnel
participated in many civic events, such as school graduation ceremonies
and village and provincial meetings. In some remote areas, no graduation
ceremonies had taken place in over 5 years because of security concerns.
Because SFtrained AFP security forces deterred terrorist attacks
and disrupted terrorists' ability to operate in and around the cities,
the Philippines held its first city festival celebrations with nighttime
events. A U.S. Navy and Marine Engineer Task Force improved the
road network, which, in turn, improved communications between villages
and helped farmers move their products to market. The civic action
program was one of the most successful aspects of the mission and
reflected great credit on the governments of the Philippines and
the United States.
The decision to not directly attack the alliance of the three terrorist
groups and to concentrate solely on the ASG was a strategic error,
however. Sustained operations on Basilan eventually drove the ASG
off the island because of combat losses and the loss of bases and
popular support, but the ASG "lived to fight another day"
with help from the JI and MILF. The ASG is now reorganizing on the
southern islands of Jolo and Tawi Tawi, where U.S. forces have not
been allowed to help the AFP.
Sun Tzu's Assessment
Sun Tzu would tell us that OEF-P is not yet
complete. Significant strategic errors limited the operation's effectiveness,
but some successes should be heralded. The ASG no longer operates
on Basilan. Civic action programs continue to support the population.
Philippine social welfare agencies and nongovernmental organizations
are attacking the underlying socioeconomic conditions that give
rise to terrorism. U.S. advisers did take an indirect approach to
attaining U.S. strategic objectives. This approach, at least, would
please Sun Tzu.
Unlike in Afghanistan and Iraq, U.S. unilateral operations are not
feasible within an allied nation. However, the commitment of Special
Forces to advise and assist an ally in attaining mutual objectives
is an effective, indirect use of the military instrument. Had U.S.
forces more thoroughly followed Sun Tzu's strategic concepts, the
United States might have achieved greater success in ridding Southeast
Asia of the scourge of terrorism. MR
1. Sun Tzu, The Art of War (London: Oxford
University Press, 1963), 84.
2. Gracia Burnham, with Dean Merrill, In
the Presence of My Enemies (Wheaton, IL: Tyndlae House Publishers,
3. Roman Kupchinsky, "Bankrolling Terror:
A Special RFE/RL Report on Terrorist Financing," Radio Free
Europe/Radio Liberty, on-line at <www.rferl.org/corruption watch/2002/11/40-211102.asp>,
accessed 16 April 2004.
5. For information about the Philippine Constitution,
see on-line at <www.chanrobles. com/philsupremelaw1.htm>,
accessed 16 April 2004.
6. James S. Robbins, "Freedom Eagle:
The Mission in the Philippines," National Review, 18 January
2002, on-line at <www.nationalreview.com/contributors/ robbins011802.shtml>,
accessed 16 April 2004.
7. The Philippine Constitution of 1987 states,
"After the expiration in 1991 of the Agreement between the
Republic of the Philippines and the United States of America concerning
military bases, foreign military bases, troops, or facilities shall
not be allowed in the Philippines except under a treaty duly concurred
in by the Senate and, when the Congress so requires, ratified by
a majority of the votes cast by the people in a national referendum
held for that purpose, and recognized as a treaty by the other contracting
State." See on-line at <www.chanrobles.com/philsupremelaw1.htm>,
accessed 16 April 2004.
8. Mutual Defense Treaty Between the United States
and the Republic of the Philippines, 30 August 1951. See on-line
at <www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/diplomacy/ philipines/phil001.htm>,
accessed 16 April 2004.
Also available online at: