Because the Philippine constitution bans U.S. troops from direct combat, the Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines plays mostly an advisory and training role in the battle against transnational terrorist groups.

But perhaps the most important U.S. military contribution has been advanced surveillance capabilities to track down terrorists in dense, remote jungle.

The high-tech equipment remains under U.S. control, according to Col. Mark Miller, the JSOTF-P commander.

When the Armed Forces of the Philippines requests information, Miller said, “we take their information requirements and we try to answer within whatever means we have over here in country.”

That includes aerial surveillance, which provides full-motion video.

The high-tech gear has been used to locate terrorists, with the U.S. providing crucial information to Philippine ground forces in capturing or killing several high-ranking Abu Sayyaf leaders.

In one well-publicized case, a tracking device was planted in a backpack of supplies that was known to be heading to the group’s main spokesman, Abu Sabaya. The device was used to guide the Philippine military to a boat as it was leaving land with Sabaya on board, and an aerial surveillance craft provided video of the ensuing clash at sea back to the presidential palace.

The AFP would like to have more hands-on access to surveillance equipment used by the U.S, said Lt. Gen. Noel Coballes, commander of the Western Mindanao Command, which covers most of the area in which the terrorist groups operate, such as the islands of Jolo and Basilan. They would ultimately like to possess advanced surveillance capabilities, he said.

While Miller empathized with Coballes’ desire for so-called intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance equipment, he said it was not within his power to do so because that’s a “bigger U.S. government decision on how they want to do that — if they’re going to do that at all.”

How long the U.S. military will remain in Mindanao to provide such surveillance remains uncertain.

“I can’t say whether or not we’re going to stay,” Miller said. “Someone above me will make that decision.”

Joy Yamamoto, the political counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Manila, said that the troops would “absolutely” leave Mindanao — “in the same way that eventually we will end providing development assistance.”

Philippine troops will likely be working with more U.S. troops overall, however, as the two countries continue to conduct joint exercises.

Yamamoto said the U.S. has been in discussions with the Philippines about increasing the presence of American troops and equipment in the country and positioning supplies for humanitarian disaster relief.

There are no plans, however, to re-establish the likes of Clark Air Force Base or U.S. Naval Base Subic Bay, which once were linchpins in America’s presence in Southeast Asia. Both closed in the early 1990s as a result of the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo and mounting Philippine opposition to extending leases.

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Wyatt Olson is based in the Honolulu bureau, where he has reported on military and security issues in the Indo-Pacific since 2014. He was Stars and Stripes’ roving Pacific reporter from 2011-2013 while based in Tokyo. He was a freelance writer and journalism teacher in China from 2006-2009.

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