Pentagon bringing typhoon relief mission to a close

The Defense Department is scaling back its disaster relief mission in the Philippines as U.S. commanders on the ground move those operations into their final phase. 

Marine Corps Lt. Gen. John Wissler, head of the U.S. joint task force leading humanitarian operations in the Central Philippines, said American forces on the ground are increasingly handing over the mission to local authorities. 

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That said, the Pentagon is ramping down Wissler's task force, dubbed Joint Task Force 505, with plans to shutter the team's operations by December, Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren said Monday. 

The decision marks the beginning of the end of the U.S. mission in the Philippines, which began after Typhoon Haiyan slammed into the Philippines over two weeks ago. 

The typhoon, which wiped out whole villages and towns in the Visayas region of the country, was reportedly the strongest to ever make landfall in the Pacific or elsewhere in the world.

More than 4,000 Filipinos had perished in the massive storm, with most of the dead centered in the hardest-hit cites of Tacloban, Leyte and Roxas City. 

At its height, thousands of U.S. sailors and Marines were on the ground in country or aboard the small fleet of American warships stationed in Philippine waters in the wake of the disaster. 

All told, American forces delivered four million pounds of equipment and supplies into the Visayas, logging over 2,000 flight hours ferrying those supplies into the Philippines, according to Warren. 

U.S. forces also evacuated more than 20,000 Filipinos from Tacloban and elsewhere as part of the disaster relief mission, dubbed Operation Damayan, Warren added. 

The rapid U.S. withdrawal falls in line with the Pentagon's claims the disaster relief mission would not open the door to a long-term American military presence in the Philippines. 

Backers of a ramped-up military footprint in the Philippines argue the U.S. response to Haiyan could have been faster, if American units were already based in the Philippines.

The only permanent American military presence in the country is a special operations counterterrorism task force based in the southern Philippines.

In June, Philippine defense leaders agreed to allow U.S. forces to return to Clark Air Base and Subic Bay Naval base for the first time since the Department of Defense officially shuttered the facilities in 1991 and 1992, respectively.

The Obama administration also opted to triple the amount of military funding to the Philippines last year, as U.S. forces look to expand their foothold in the country.

But Pentagon press secretary George Little said earlier this month the department is not looking to leverage the disaster relief mission into a larger role for U.S. forces in country. 

The idea, according to the Defense Department spokesman, is to use Clark and Subic as waypoints for "rotational presences" of American forces in the Asia-Pacific, "so that we can work together with allies and partners ... address problems like humanitarian assistance and disaster relief."

"We realize there is a [U.S. forces] deficit in places [in the region] and we're absolutely game to fill the gap," Little added. "But it's something that we think is important to continue to work with our partners."