MANILA, Philippines — Since 1947, the Joint U.S. Military Assistance Group here has assisted, advised and trained the Philippine military.

The group develops and supports state and defense department programs to increase military cooperation and help combat terrorism. It’s an ambitious agenda that accounted for nearly $114 million in fiscal 2003.

The group — roughly 12 U.S. servicemembers working with about 50 Philippine servicemembers and civilians — also advises the U.S. ambassador to the Philippines.

JUSMAG oversees bilateral exercises, humanitarian projects, and military financing, sales and education. More Philippine military leaders attend U.S. military colleges than from any other Asian nation. More excess defense articles are delivered and counterterrorism training conducted here than anywhere else in the Pacific.

The relationship has wavered, from heavy support in the 1980s to almost none a decade later, as the last of the troops left the U.S. bases in the Philippines. But since 2000, and more so since Sept. 11, 2001, the two countries have revamped their defense partnership, and with that created a newly charged JUSMAG.

In 2003, the group oversaw five counterterrorism training modules created to help the Armed Forces of the Philippines, or AFP, fight terror. Pilots learned to fly missions at night to help evacuate injured soldiers. Rangers learned to infiltrate buildings to free hostages.

The training, called security-assistance training, will continue this year with a new program to help improve the Philippine version of Navy SEALs.

The group coordinated about 20 bilateral training exercises this year including Balikatan, Balance Piston and Talon Vision. It provided civil affairs personnel to treat thousands and rebuild schools and other infrastructure.

Under JUSMAG, foreign-military financing has gone from nothing after the base closures to the fourth highest in the world.

In terms of military sales, the Armed Forces of the Philippines this year purchased more than $1 million in military goods through JUSMAG, with the possibility of $7 million more in a pending sale of helicopters. An agreement between President George Bush and Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to improve the AFP could add $17 million in sales.

“The fight against terrorism is one of the anchors on which our current skills development and training are directed,” said Lt. Gen. Rodolfo C. Garcia, vice chief of staff for the Armed Forces of the Philippines. “But this relationship of ours is based on very close historical ties and an affinity between the American people and the Philippine people.”

Strong ties

The joint assistance group began after World War II to advise and assist a key ally. At one time, the group had 300 people working for it. They had their own compound and commissary in Manila.

In the late 1980s, the United States scaled back on its military presence everywhere.

“We lost our appetite to be in a lot of places,” said Army Col. Mathias Velasco, JUSMAG’s current chief.

Bases closed at home, and the Soviet Union collapsed, ending the Cold War. Philippine nationalism also grew and the result led to the closing of the U.S. bases in the Philippines and the end of a strategic footprint in the region.

After the bases closed, the relationship cooled. Since the two nations lacked a treaty allowing U.S. troops in the country, aid and assistance dried up.

At the time, terrorist groups reportedly began building strongholds across the country, some with ties to al-Qaida.

In 1999, the governments drafted a visiting-forces agreement that allowed U.S. troops, as trainers or in exercises, to return. Cooperation intensified after Sept. 11; more money flowed to the country, and more projects were created to curb terrorist activities.

In fiscal 2001, the United States gave less than $2 million in military financing to the Philippines; in fiscal 2002, that amount rose to about $45 million; and in fiscal 2003, to $50 million, U.S. Embassy officials said.

Transformation ahead

The next step for the two countries is moving from a role of provider to that of partner.

The current relationship is more transactional with the United States providing training and equipment, Velasco said. It must become transformational, with the United States helping the AFP become a stronger, better trained and more efficient organization.

He hopes the training and exercises can help achieve that goal.

“The [security assistance] models have helped in our fight against terrorism. Now it’s a matter of putting the effect of that training out in the field,” he said.

The group is moving away from its counterterrorism training, Velasco said. Next year’s security-assistance budget is up slightly from this year; there is no budget planned for the year after.

The process created Philippine military trainers, allowing the programs to continue with minimal U.S. help.

“We’ll start to come back and do exercises [to sustain the training],” Velasco said.

The partnership will also grow through the implementation of the Joint Defense Assessment, a plan created between the governments to help the AFP improve its organization, confidence among its ranks and effectiveness in the field.

Garcia described it as correcting the dysfunctions in the AFP’s system.

The plan will be a short- and long-term fix to the AFP’s problems. Many of those problems sparked an officer-led mutiny in July. Among the complaints listed by the mutineers was corruption and operational shortcomings, like the inability to evacuate injured soldiers at night, something the U.S. training this year helped correct.

The mutiny also forced the AFP to recognize its problems and be more receptive to reform under the JDA.

Ultimately, the Joint Defense Assessment will improve the two countries’ ties, Garcia said. “This would only further strengthen the character engagement between the two nations.”

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