Ten years ago this month, US military personnel began arriving in the southwestern Philippines ostensibly to help hunt down “al-Qaeda-linked” Abu Sayyaf fighters in what commentators and US officials billed the “second front” of the “war on terror.” It was the largest deployment of US troops since the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and before the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Instead of commemorating the 10-year anniversary of US troops in Mindanao and reviewing whether their continuing stay is still warranted, the US and Philippine governments are now again considering expanding their presence in the country while vigorously denying any plans of reestablishing any US bases—as if they don’t already have one.
As we have meticulously documented in our reports, “Unconventional Warfare” and “At the Door of all the East”—using publicly available US military documents—the United States has effectively been constructing a base in the country over the last 10 years, although one that is very different from the kind of bases they had in Subic and Clark.
This new base has five components.
The first is the establishment of what they call their “Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines” (JSOTF-P), headquartered in Zamboanga but operating all over Mindanao. It is interesting that in denying the construction of any new base, one US official recently denied only the construction of a “US-only base”: this is because the JSOTF-P base in Zamboanga is inside a Philippine military base, although even Filipino soldiers require US permission to enter the facility.
As confirmed most recently by a Washington Post investigative report, this JSOTF-P is part of a highly secretive elite military unit at the cutting-edge of the United States’ ongoing efforts to radically transform its worldwide offensive capabilities: Special forces ready to swoop in anytime, anywhere in the world at a moment’s notice to strike down America’s enemies.
The second is the establishment of the so-called “Cooperative Security Locations” (CSLs), a new category of bases that are either private or technically “owned” by host governments but are to be made available for use by the US military as needed. The Philippine government refuses to disclose where these CSLs are but in 2005, the US Overseas Basing Commission (OBC), the official commission tasked to review US basing, confirmed that the Philippines has them.
The third component is the continuous deployment of US troops to the country in the guise of “training” or other exercises. Since 1998, a steady stream of US troops have been arriving in the country for regular and recurring military exercises involving as many as 5,000 US troops. As many as over 30 exercises were scheduled annually during the past years. US military strategists consider these training exercises as a way of securing on-again, off-again but continuous access to the country where they are training.
As former US Pacific Command head Adm. Thomas Fargo pointed out: “Access over time can develop into habitual use of certain facilities by deployed US forces with the eventual goal of being guaranteed use in a crisis, or permission to pre-position logistics stocks and other critical material in strategic forward locations.”
The fourth is the regular arrival of US military warships and their temporary but regular stationing in various ports all over the country—from Subic to Palawan, from Leyte to Tawi-Tawi. According to the US Congressional Budget Office “[T]he Navy counts those ships as providing overseas presence full time, even when they are training or simply tied up at the pier.”
The fifth component is full access: In 2001, the Philippine government gave the US military permission to fly over the country’s airspace, use its airfields and ports, and travel on its sea lanes. And with the Mutual Logistics Support Agreement (MLSA) signed in November 2002, the United States was also allowed to store and pre-position equipment in the country, construct structures and be provided with the full range of logistics and operational services it requires during deployments—in short, access to the full range of services that the US military would require to operate in and from the country.
All together, these five components give the United States everything—and arguably more—
than it had in Subic and Clark. The dictionary defines a military base as “a place used as a center of operations by the armed forces or others.” It is any facility or set of facilities that allows a military to perform military activities and achieve military objectives. What all the five components enumerated above provide the United States is just that: perform and pursue its military objectives—to operate and deploy in and from the country anytime and maintain a forward presence to deter enemies all the time; but without the economic and political costs of maintaining large garrison-like bases that can serve as visible symbols for the opposition.
As the former US official charged with transforming the US global basing strategy, Douglas J. Feith, explained: “Our goal is to be positioned to deal with uncertainty, with the right forces, the right relationships, the right authority and the ability to execute our missions within and across regions.” Whatever achieves that goal is what the United States wants; what matters to it is the ability to deploy, not the physical structure. But the aim is the same: so US troops can operate wherever they please.
Whether the Philippines should help the United States achieve that aim in light of the tension with China is an important debate, but let us at least start with the facts. The United States already has a base here: the entire country.
Herbert Docena is a former researcher with Focus on the Global South, a policy research NGO.