The 28th Balikatan exercises ended with the “usual thank yous”, said an Inquirer report. “As the curtain closes down on this year’s Balikatan, I would like to express my gratitude to the American soldiers… who gave their invaluable time to share their experiences…” General Jessie Dellosa, Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), said during the closing ceremony.
First of its kind
But the curtain never truly closes for the US troops in the Philippines. Because while the Balikatan has already been concluded, the supposedly visiting American soldiers will not leave. About 600 of them – perhaps even more – will continue to stay in the country as part of the Joint Special Operations Task Force – Philippines (JSOTF-P), established under the 1999 PH-US Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA).
And when the so-called 2+2 meeting on April 30 is over, we could be seeing more US troops – maybe thousands – deployed, on so-called “rotational” basis, on our shores soon. The 2+2 meeting, which will be held in Washington, is described as “the first of its kind” in Philippine-US relations. To underscore its significance for the country, the Department of National Defense (DND) said that the US has had similar meetings only with Japan and South Korea, America’s most reliable allies in East Asia.
And while the meeting that will be attended by DND Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) Sec. Albert del Rosario, US Defense Sec. Leon Panetta and State Sec. Hillary Clinton will also discuss economic and political cooperation, what everyone is anticipating are details of how Manila and Washington will strengthen military relations.
The military aspect of the upcoming talks has generated increased public interest due to the ongoing Scarborough Shoal standoff between the Philippines and China. Filipino and American officials, abetted by the local mainstream media, have used the perceived Chinese bullying to highlight the supposed potential benefits for the Philippines of deepened military relations with the US.
China’s assertive stance in its dispute with the country over the Scarborough Shoal and the Spratly Islands is being used to justify increased US military presence and intervention in the Philippines and in the region. While this serves US’s agenda in Asia Pacific, it also raises further risks to peace and development in the region and to the national sovereignty of the Philippines. (Read more on this here)
Sustaining global presence
Meanwhile, one of the expected results of the 2+2 meeting is the conduct of more frequent and bigger joint military exercises and the deployment of more US troops here like those under the JSOFT-P. This is consistent with the latest defense strategy of the Obama administration. As I have written in a previous post:
Updating existing military alliances and forging new ones, however, have to be pursued in the midst of the harsh economic realities facing the US. Amid its raging public debt crisis that has been caused in part by costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Obama administration released this month its latest defense strategy document Sustaining US global leadership: Priorities for 21st century defense. The document was the result of “an assessment of US defense strategy in the light of the changing geopolitical environment and changing fiscal circumstances”.
Consequently, the latest US defense strategy calls for developing “innovative, low-cost and small-footprint approaches” to achieve US security objectives, relying on bilateral and multilateral training exercises, rotational deployments and advisory capabilities. This will allow US forces to “conduct a sustainable pace of presence operations abroad” and at the same time let it commit to a large-scale operation in one region while still having the capability to impose “unacceptable costs” on an aggressor in a second region.
New types of bases
To house the additional troops, the 2+2 meeting could lead to the establishment of more covert US “military bases” in the country such as Forward Operating Sites (FOSs) and Cooperative Security Locations (CSLs). These types of bases are much smaller than traditional US foreign military bases.
The US Overseas Basing Commission, the official body tasked to review US military basing in other countries, describes FOSs as “expandable ‘warm facilities’ maintained with a limited US military support presence and possibly prepositioned equipment; it supports rotational rather than permanently stationed forces and be a focus for bilateral and regional training.” CSLs, on the other hand, are “facilities with little or no permanent US presence. Instead they will be maintained with periodic service, contractor, or host-nation support. CSLs will provide contingency access and be a focal point for security cooperation activities.” For US strategic planners, the expansion of FOSs and CSLs in key locations worldwide “adds to operational flexibility, preserves a presence abroad, and serves to strengthen alliance relationships.”
Essential for US operations
In the Philippines, the headquarters of the JSOTF-P inside Camp Navarro in Zamboanga City where it has based since 2002 is considered an example of an FOS or sometimes referred to as forward operating base (FOB) in some US military papers. Read, for instance, a 2004 monograph on Army special operations forces, which used Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF-P) in Mindanao as a case study. The OEF-P was pushed by then President George W. Bush supposedly to combat the Abu Sayyaf and covers Mindanao as its area of operation (AO).
As narrated in the monograph, the Joint Task Force (JTF)-510 – JSOTF-P’s predecessor – “set up an FOB on the southern tip of the Mindanao Island near Zamboanga City”, specifically the Edwin Andrews Air Base (EAAB) because “basing was essential for OEF-P”. It also described the role of an FOB in US military operations: “The FOB at EAAB was the logistical hub within the AO for all operations. All US forces flowed in the FOB before conducting operations… From Okinawa, all assets and personnel flew into the JTF’s AO via the FOB at EABB on Mindanao. FOB EAAB served as a transloading point, logistical hub for the forces on Mindanao and Basilan, and housed air assets.”
The location of these bases is not willingly disclosed to the public by authorities in an effort not to attract too much attention to the presence of US troops as well as to undercut criticisms against US military basing in the Philippines which is a violation of the Constitution. Even so, US military documents such as the monograph cited earlier would confirm the existence of US bases in the Philippines.
Another such document is the 2005 report of the US Overseas Basing Commission, which disclosed that: “A series of CSLs are being developed in India, Thailand, Philippines, and Australia that will be able to provide logistics arrangements for support throughout the region. Many of these will simply be fueling arrangements and perhaps some pre-positioned stocks.” The Philippine government, however, has not confirmed the existence of these CSLs, much less disclose their locations.
But in an August 2009 affidavit, former Philippine Navy Lt. Sr. Grade Nancy Gadian revealed that since 2002, the US has established “permanent and continuous presence” in southern Mindanao as she identified possible CSLs in Zamboanga City, Sulu, and Tawi-Tawi. The table below summarizes her testimony describing the location and features of US presence/basing in Mindanao.
It was also Gadian who exposed the anomalous use of P46 million in Balikatan funds by high ranking AFP officials. She was the officer in charge of the Civil Military Operations (CMO) Fusion Cell for Balikatan 2007. In 2001, Gadian was one of the planners of the Balikatan 2002 (held in Pampanga) and of Balikatan 2002-1 (held in Mindanao).
Aside from those identified by Gadian, another possible CSL is located inside Camp Ranao in Marawi City, Lanao del Sur which was unknown to the public until the reported death of Gregan Cardeño, an interpreter hired by the Americans for an elite unit of US Special Forces called the Liaison Coordination Elements (LCE). Cardeño died on Feb. 2, 2010 under dubious circumstances, telling relatives before his death that his job “was hard and not what he expected”. Less than two months later, Capt. Javier Ignacio of the Philippine Army – a friend of the Cardeños helping to shed light on his death – was shot dead by still unidentified gun men.
Certainly, there are many other military facilities set up and being used by US troops in the Philippines, including in Luzon and Visayas, which the public does not know. But their number could further increase as Philippine-US military relations further deepen in the coming years. This blatantly violates Philippine sovereignty and an infringement of the Constitution which does not allow the basing of foreign troops in the country.
Consequently, more atrocities involving American soldiers such as the case of Cardeño could arise. Just recently, another Filipino died – fisherman Ahbam Juhurin – in what was a supposedly “sea mishap” involving US troops conducting “routine maritime activity” in Basilan. While some may argue that this latest incident was just an accident, Juhurin’s death still raises a fundamental question – why do we allow US troops to base in our country and patrol our seas, lands, and air? (end)