JOLO ISLAND, Philippines — Dozens of U.S. Special Forces soldiers, many fresh from combat tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, have found themselves in a new role fighting the war on terror in the southern Philippines.
As one soldier with experience in Afghanistan explained, it’s tough to transition from actively fighting an enemy downrange to “advising and assisting” the Philippine military in the fight against the Abu Sayyaf terror group in the steamy jungles of Jolo, Mindanao and Basilan islands.
But, he added, he understands the local population has to learn to trust its own government and military.
The U.S. soldiers — National Guardsmen with the 19th Special Forces Group — are part of the Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines.
They are not allowed to actively engage the enemy, and they can return fire only if attacked.
They’re organized into 12-man “Liaison Command Element” teams and they eat, live and work with their Armed Forces of the Philippines counterparts.
Master Sgt. Gary Barnes, an active-duty soldier serving with the group, said his team supports the AFP 3rd Marine Brigade. His team’s 12 soldiers divide into smaller sub-teams to support the brigade’s 4th, 5th and 9th battalions.
These soldiers are as close as it gets to the front line of the battle against terrorists who call the region their home.
Barnes, like many others interviewed in the Philippines, stressed he doesn’t “train” the AFP. Instead, he said, the soldiers offer “subject-matter expert exchanges, seminars and capacity building.”
“And we don’t drive the train,” he added, meaning they don’t tell the AFP what tactics and techniques to work on.
It takes some time to build camaraderie with a Philippine commander, he said, and those commanders will look through their own organizations to decide what help is needed.
Because the AFP marines are structured like light infantry battalions, they’re very good at raids, ambushes and reconnaissance, Barnes said. So they’ve been asked to focus on “primary skill sets that deal with counterinsurgency,” he said.
These include vehicle checkpoints, convoy operations and explosive device awareness. They also offer a brush-up on the basics, such as rifle marksmanship and reconnaissance, he said.
And when the marines ramp up an operation, they ask the U.S. Special Forces soldiers to be on hand, often in the field tactical command posts, Barnes said. The soldiers are able to use their communications resources to help advise the on-site commanders.
Barnes said he feels the work with the AFP has paid off.
The opposition has “not been able to mount any kind of operation since November,” he said. “Not a raid, not an ambush, not an IED.”