The small U.S. military mission in the Philippines attracts little attention, but Defense Department officials say it has been surprisingly effective at reducing the havens once used by militants here -- and that could make the effort a model for other U.S. partnerships with other nations, including Pakistan.
Pakistan has been reluctant to allow more than 70 American trainers into the country, worried about public reaction to a substantive U.S. troop presence. But the low profile and public acceptance of the U.S. military program in the Philippines suggest there could be lessons for American officers eager to step up their efforts with the Pakistan military.
In the first trip to the Philippines by a Pentagon chief in a decade, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates met today with Gilberto Teodora Jr., the Philippine secretary of national defense.
"Over the last decade, the Philippines has faced a number of security challenges and met them squarely," Gates said. "We will continue to support their efforts to defeat terrorists and extremists threatening their country and region.
Gates visited the Manila American Military Cemetery, where 17,202 U.S. service members killed during World War II are buried and another 36,285 missing troops are memorialized.
There are about 600 U.S. service members in Manila advising Philippine commanders and staff officers -- a small force that has been able to reduce the influence of the main Muslim militant group, Abu Sayyaf.
America's former role as a colonial ruler of the Philippines has left many Filipinos wary of a large U.S. military presence. Army Col. William Coultrup, the commander of the Joint Special Operations Task Force, said the Americans provide the Philippine military with their experience, resources and intelligence information. But, he said, it is the Filipinos who take the lead.
"One of the key lessons to take away with is working by, with and through our allies," Coultrup said. "They assume ownership of the problems down there."
The Philippines, like Pakistan, has been reluctant to allow large numbers of U.S. troops to operate on its soil. The American forces on the ground are focused on training, not direct military action. Special operations soldiers generally stay off the front lines, and instead advise and train Philippine commanders and their staffs.
U.S. officers who have served in the Philippines argue that direct comparisons with Iraq, Afghanistan or Pakistan are difficult, but they concede there are lessons to be shared.
Asked where the Philippines could provide a guide to expanding U.S. involvement in Pakistan, Gates said the United States must be sensitive to the domestic politics of any country with which it forms a partnership. "We will move with these various countries at a pace that is comfortable with them," Gates said. "The stronger the foundation we can build under these relationships, the longer they are likely to last and the more effective they are likely to be."
When the mission in the Philippines began in 2002, the United States viewed the southern portion of the country, including parts of Mindanao and the Sulu islands, as ungoverned spaces. Abu Sayyaf had ties with Al Qaeda and was using the area to train for attacks against Western targets.
The Philippine armed forces, according to a U.S. military official, were in a "shambles" and unable to counter Abu Sayyaf's advances. Over seven years of training, the Philippine military has grown in capacity.
"They were not looking too good," said a military official. "Now they are carrying on many operations without us."
The small number of American troops ensures that the Philippine public remains generally accepting of the mission. And the effort has been successful enough that U.S. officials no longer consider the south ungoverned.
"The threats from international terror groups has gone down," a senior defense official said. "There are fewer hostage-takings, terrorists and terrorist attacks."