US to keep counterterrorism outpost in Philippines, despite peace deal

On Sunday, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III announced the framework for a long-term peace deal had been reached with leaders of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), according to recent reports. 

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“This framework agreement paves the way for final and enduring peace in Mindanao,” Aquino said Sunday, referring to the southern Philippine region and homeland of the country’s Muslims. 

“This means that the hands that once held rifles will be put to use tilling land, selling produce, manning work stations and opening doorways of opportunity,” according to The Associated Press. 

The group, along with the al Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf, has been battling Philippine forces for decades in an attempt to establish a Muslim state in the south. 

Both the MILF and Abu Sayyaf are splinter groups from the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), which led the fight for a Muslim state in the south since the late 1960s. 

MILF leaders deny any links to Abu Sayyaf, however, due to their attacks on non-military targets and practice of kidnapping Filipino and foreign citizens. 

The administration plans to have the details of the peace deal finalized by Oct. 15, according to reports. 

The details in that plan, which are still being negotiated with MILF leaders, will provide the backdrop for a long-term peace deal expected by 2016. 

But until then, American special operations forces will remain in the country, providing training and logistical support to Philippine military units continuing to hunt down Abu Sayyaf leaders and cells in the area. 

American intelligence and special operations forces have been conducting counterterrorism support operations from their base in Mindanao since 2001. 

Those U.S. forces attached to the Joint Special Operations Task Force—Philippines were initially sent to the country after the 9/11 attacks. 

At the time, American intelligence had uncovered ties between elements of Abu Sayyaf and the 9/11 conspirators. U.S. boots have been on the ground ever since. 

Aside from the MILF and Aby Sayyaf, members of the U.S. special operations task force have assisted in counterterrorism operations against Jemaah Islamiyah, al Qaeda's primary cell in the Asia-Pacific region. 

Despite Sunday's peace deal, the U.S. is continuing to ramp up its presence in the Philippines. 

Hundreds of Marines are expected to flood into the Philippines as part of the service’s growing focus on the region, Assistant Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Joseph Dunford said in March. 

At the time, Dunford did note that those additional deployments would be temporary and would not require any permanent Marine Corps installations in the country.

In May, the Obama administration pledged $30 million in foreign military funding to the Philippines for fiscal 2012 — nearly three times the $11.9 million in military funds Washington pledged to the Philippines in 2011. 

The Pentagon had initially set aside $15 million in fiscal 2012 to help finance ongoing counterterrorism efforts by the Philippine military against radical Muslim groups in the southern part of the country. 

But the White House opted to double that amount during a series of bilateral talks between Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert Del Rosario and Philippine Secretary of National Defense Voltaire Gazmin in Washington in May. 

The increase falls in line with the Pentagon's overall plans to extend the U.S. presence in the Pacific. 

An increased focus on the region was the cornerstone of the Pentagon's new national-security strategy, unveiled by President Obama in February. 

Most recently, roughly 4,000 US and Philippine troops kicked off a  large-scale bilateral maratime security training exercise focused on areas in the South China Sea.

The exercise would be held in various parts of the Philippines, including the southern provinces of Zambales and Palawan which sit alongside highly disputed territories in the South China Sea 

But public opinion in the Philippines has begun to turn against the American military presence there, which could make expansion of those forces difficult. 

Filipino citizens demanded Manila conduct an overarching review of the U.S. task force after a fatal accident in April involving American special forces and civilians in the area. 

A U.S. patrol boat piloted by members of special operations forces collided with a small fishing vessel in the waters around Mindanao after returning from a humanitarian mission in the town of Hadji Mutamad near Basilan. A Philippine fisherman was killed and his son injured as a result of the crash, and spawned regional protests against the U.S. presence in the south.