We should be clear: Mindanao is not Syria, Iraq, or Afghanistan. We cannot approach a province of our longest standing treaty ally the same way we do in Syria or any of the other 18 or so countries to which the ISIS virus as spread.
As ISIS nears defeat in Syria and Iraq it is trying to keep its ideology alive by spreading to other countries where it is taking advantage of conditions of political resistance that weaken governments and provide safe havens for training, recruiting, and eventual resurrection of its quest for the Caliphate. This is what appears to have attracted ISIS to Mindanao. The attraction is mutual, as threat groups such as the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) and the Maute Group have embraced the ISIS ideology to enhance their legitimacy and gain recruits, resources, and respect.
Does this phenomenon in the Philippines and its neighboring countries pose a significant security threat to the U.S. that requires a U.S. military response?
Appreciate the Context
While the ISIS presence makes the headlines, it is important to remember that the Philippines and its neighbors are sovereign nations that are established, relatively stable, and advanced compared to Syria and other ISIS locales. However, the Philippines face myriad threats that complicate the security situation. These range from the external threat of China and the territorial dispute to the existential threat posed by the Communist Party of the Philippines (CCP) and the New Peoples Army (NPA) which seek to overthrow the government. President Duterte’s drug war also garners much of the headlines.
In Mindanao, in addition to the NPA, there is the continued friction with rogue elements of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) despite the 1996 peace agreement that established the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao. There are the terrorist groups of the ASG and the Indonesian based Jemaah Islamiyah (JI). There are also clan conflicts (ridos) and sometimes-violent competition among local political groups. Lastly, among the major threats, there is the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) that seeks return of its ancestral domain and has nearly reached a peace agreement with the government though it has not been fully implemented.
These conflicts together pose a serious challenge to the central government and regional structures, and this leads to sanctuary within Mindanao that allows various groups to survive and thrive. Although there is no unified resistance to the central government, the widespread but disparate political resistance creates a cauldron that breeds political violence that ISIS has begun to exploit.
Understand the Problem
The nature of the problem is not solely a security threat. Although the Marawi siege with the Maute Group is a lightning rod that brings focus on ISIS, it is only a symptom of the underlying problem. It is a Philippine problem and a problem that can only be solved in the long term by the Philippine government at the national, provincial, and local levels.
To illustrate this, I will share one anecdote. In 2007, I participated in a meeting with US diplomats and MILF leadership in their headquarters in Cotobato. The purpose of the meeting was to express US support of the ongoing peace process and inform the MILF that a peace agreement will bring US support to the MILF just as USAID did in 1996 for the MNLF when it signed the peace agreement. The MILF leadership was quite clear that while they appreciated all the development support the U.S. and the international community would provide, if their political problems were not addressed and solved by the Philippine government, their insurgency would continue.
This can be applied to most of the threats in Mindanao. The political problems that exist, from the national to the province to the barangay or village level are exploited by groups who seek to use political resistance and political violence to develop their own political power.
The U.S. executed Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines (OEF-P) under the authority of the 2001 AUMF which limited U.S. support to the security forces only conducting operations against Al Qaeda-linked organizations which at the time were the ASG and the JI. As described, the problems in the Philippines go beyond AQ, just as they go beyond ISIS. It is a problem when the U.S. myopically focuses on a narrow threat that is only in its interests and does not take a holistic approach to the broader challenges faced by its ally.
While ISIS does not pose a direct threat to the U.S. from Mindanao, the political and security problems of the Philippines can serve as an incubator to allow the ISIS threat and others to metastasize and spread throughout the region. If left unchecked it could use Mindanao as a sanctuary to rest, refit, and train new recruits. It could exploit the maritime routes to move extremists to new targets of opportunity when it is ready to strike again. At the very least, ISIS can use Mindanao to keep its ideology alive so that it one day can regain strength to attempt to re-establish its Caliphate somewhere.
Develop an Approach
How should the U.S. respond to the emergence of the ISIS threat in Mindanao?
First, the Philippine government must request additional support. Despite the end of OEF-P in 2015 the U.S. has continued to provide security assistance in the Philippines to include advice and assistance with the ongoing siege in Marawi.
Second, just as in OEF-P in 2001 it must conduct a thorough assessment of the situation in complete coordination with the Philippine military that will lead to a combined campaign plan that will integrate US support to the security forces. The assessment will assist the Philippine government in determining the acceptable durable political arrangement necessary to stabilize the region. This will also ensure that Philippine and U.S. interests are sufficiently aligned.
Third, the American Embassy in 2006 coined the phrase ”Diplomacy, Development, and Defense” (3D) and as in 2006 the effort needs to be holistic and led by the Chief of Mission to ensure full U.S. interagency support to the Philippines. A military only or military led mission is insufficient. The approach must focus on assisting the Philippines more broadly than simply combatting ISIS. It must support Philippine development and political solutions as well as security.
Fourth, the U.S. should act as part of a coalition of friends, partners, and allies. Recent reports indicate that Australia has made the largest financial commitment to the situation in Marawi, along with the U.S. Japan, Thailand, and the EU. China has provided the fifth largest contribution with the bulk for medical support of soldiers wounded in Marawi. Although there are complexities that come with this approach, working as part of a coalition will minimize the focus on the U.S. and allow for greater and more effective support to the Philippines rather than the U.S. being the sole focal point for political opponents.
Fifth, the U.S. must use the right tools and forces for the mission from the capabilities of USAID to the appropriate military advisory forces from across the spectrum to include civil affairs and psychological operations as well as special forces who have developed decades long relationships with members of the Armed Forces of the Philippines. These forces are well suited for operating “without being in charge” as they recognize that this is a Philippine problem and a Philippine fight. This is not “leading from behind.” This is the appropriate understanding of the relationship between U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) and host nation forces in a sovereign nation.
A consideration for any support provided cannot be narrowly focused on ISIS and most certainly cannot use a similar approach as the U.S. has used in Syria and Iraq. On the one hand, the challenges are bigger than ISIS, so the support to the Philippines must be broader. On the other, a myopic focus on ISIS will enhance its legitimacy and provide fuel for growth. It should be treated as a symptom and not the disease in the Philippines. This must be an important theme in a supporting information and influence activities campaign.
In conclusion, ISIS is a growing global threat that is seeking to sustain itself for the long term even as it appears on the verge of defeat in Syria and Iraq. It will exploit local political conditions in countries where it can find sanctuary so that it can live to fight another day. However, in the Philippines, ISIS is only one security challenge. The U.S., if requested, can provide advice and assistance to support a 3D approach - diplomacy, development, and defense - that can reduce the ISIS threat by supporting Philippine political solutions.