Hawaii-based troops close Philippine counterterror mission
By WILLIAM COLE | The Honolulu Star-Advertiser (Tribune News Service) | Published: March 7, 2015
The Hawaii-based Special Operations Command Pacific continues to wind down a more than decade-long counterterrorism mission to the southern Philippines as former inward concerns shift to the external threat posed by China.
Joint Special Operations Task Force Philippines — which grew out of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and al-Qaida's rise — included nearly 2,000 U.S. personnel in 2003, 500 to 600 in more recent years and about 250 service members as of September, officials said.
Philippine media said the U.S. task force held a deactivation ceremony in late February in Zamboanga city.
The flag-lowering symbolized the transition and paid tribute to the U.S.-Philippine partnership, said Maj. Kari McEwen, spokeswoman for Special Operations Command Pacific at Camp H.M. Smith. U.S. troops worked with Philippine army and police forces.
"The transition is scheduled to be complete by May 1, but U.S. military personnel and equipment have been leaving the Philippines since the announcement (of the task force shutdown) was made last summer," McEwen said in an email.
By May 1, U.S. "foreign liaison elements" will advise and assist Philippine counterterrorism efforts "at higher levels of command within the Philippine security forces," McEwen said.
As of September about 300 service members were assigned to the Special Operations Command Pacific in Hawaii. About 20 percent of those were commandos.
SOCPAC, as it is known, has units with Army Special Forces in Japan and Naval Special Warfare sailors on Guam.
Seventeen U.S. service members died while advising Philippine forces, including 10 in a helicopter crash, three in bombings and four in "non-hostile" incidents and a drowning, according to the U.S. government and reports.
In 2002 the Philippines agreed to the deployment of U.S. advisers in the fight against the Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah Islamiyah terrorist organizations, according to the Congressional Research Service.
Gen. Joseph Votel, in charge of U.S. Special Operations Command, said during his U.S. Senate confirmation in July that the effort in the southern Philippines initially was known as Joint Task Force 510 before it became Joint Special Operations Task Force Philippines.
"The intent of these operations was to go at the heart of the (Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah Islamiyah) support zones and eliminate their ability to operate by improving government legitimacy, separating terrorists from the populace and assisting in (counterterrorism) targeting," Votel said in prepared answers for the Senate Armed Services Committee.
"Our Philippine partners have now progressed to a point where they can maintain security and stability with minimal advisory support," Votel added.
The Philippine constitution prohibited American personnel from engaging in direct combat, and U.S. troops could use force only to defend themselves.
The Congressional Research Service said in May that territorial disputes between the Philippines and China remained tense, with frequent confrontations involving Chinese paramilitary or coast guard vessels.
The U.S. government has pledged greater security assistance to the Philippines as joint military exercises "reorient from a domestic focus to an outward one," the research service said.
An Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, finalized in April, allows for the increased presence of U.S. personnel, ships, aircraft and equipment in the Philippines on a temporary basis.
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