U.S., Philippines accelerate military cooperation plans, focusing on terrorism, regional threats
Top brass at the Pentagon and their Philippine counterparts have agreed to accelerate bilateral military engagements between the two longtime allies, in an effort by the Trump White House to reaffirm the U.S. commitment to the Pacific nation.
Philippine military chief Gen. Carlito Galvez and Adm. Philip Davidson, the U.S. Indo-Pacific commander announced the plan to increase the number of American and Philippine “joint security activities” from the current annual level of 261 to 281, the Associated Press reports. The agreement was reached as part of the annual assembly of senior U.S. and Philippine military leaders in the capital of Manila.
The 20 additional military engagements will drill down into increasing cooperative efforts between the two nations in the areas of counterterrorism, humanitarian aid and maritime security, said Philippine military spokesman Col. Noel Detoyato. He declined to provide details as to how many of those additional, individual drills would focus on each of the three priority areas outlined during the senior-level meeting in Manila.
But the announcement comes days after a new State Department assessment placed the Philippines, for the first time, among the five countries with the most terrorist attacks. The Philippines, along with Afghanistan, India, Iraq and Pakistan, were the sites of nearly 60 percent of terrorist attacks last year, department officials said in the assessment of terrorist activity, released last week.
There are more Islamic State-affiliated foreign fighters in Southeast Asia, especially from jihadi groups based in the southern Philippines’ autonomous Muslim Mindanao region, than there ever were battling U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq during the height of the U.S.-led wars there, according to figures compiled by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“Foreign terrorist fighters are heading home from the war zone in Iraq and Syria or traveling to third countries to join [Islamic State] branches there,” said Ambassador Nathan Sales, the State Department’s top counterterrorism coordinator.
The threat exploded into view in May when members of the Maute group a splinter faction of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front which pledged allegiance to the Islamic State overran and held the Philippine city of Marawi for three months. The Islamic State’s black banners flew over Marawi the first city to be seized by an Islamic State affiliate in Southeast Asia until November, when Philippine forces, backed by U.S. intelligence and air power, took back control.
Although the top echelons of the Maute’s leadership were killed in the aftermath of Mawari, including group leader Isnilon Hapilon, the goal of establishing an Islamic State caliphate in Southeast Asia, with the southern Philippines as the de facto capital, will remain a key goal for the group’s affiliates in the region.