In many ways the battle for Marawi has been a curious event which has seen bandits belonging to the allegedly ISIS affiliated Maute Group attacking a Muslim city in order to raise their public profile and demonstrate their power to the Philippine government. Philippine SOF units and Marines worked hard to cordon the enemy into a small neighborhood and have been closing the net to finish them off. In the background of the conflict, US Special Operations soldiers have provided ISR support and enabled near real-time intelligence information to be provided to the Philippine forces. Marawi has even led to some hand wringing from American journalists like Nick Turse who would like to use the siege as a case study for why US Special Operations has failed in the Philippines. This is quite a conclusion to jump to as many parties seek to overlay their agenda on unfolding events.
What has largely been lost in the conversation about Marawi from an American perspective is how Leahy vetting is preventing us from supporting the Philippine Armed Forces. The Leahy Law is the term commonly used in reference to the Foreign Assistance Act which prevents the United States from providing arms or military support to countries, militaries, and even individuals who are involved in human rights abuses. Leahy vetting often has to take place before US Special Forces soldiers are able to work with host-nation partner forces. For example, US Special Forces were not able to work with the Nigerian Army for many years in the fight against Boko Haram because the local units had a reputation for executing prisoners and other abuses. The Leahy Law is in many ways a reaction to past abuses (real or perceived) by right-wing groups in Central America that received US support against the communists in the 1980s.
Interestingly, the CIA does not seem to be hampered by the Leahy Law the way DOD is. In Jordan, US Special Forces have conducted vetting interviews with militia members and turned up disturbing evidence that they are jihadis. When that information is turned over to the CIA who are running the overall covert operation, those who report it are told not to worry about it. Authorization to provide dubious Islamists with weapons and military training is soon given, perhaps due to a confluence of agendas between the CIA, White House, and Department of Justice.
Leahy vetting has been an issue for US Special Operations Forces working in the Philippines in the past, and it seems that the bombastic statements that President Duterte has been making has led to it being an issue once more. Senators Marco Rubio and Ben Cardin have filed “The Philippines Human Rights Accountability and Counternarcotics Act of 2017” which protests alleged human rights violations by the Philippine National Police in regards to the extra-judicial killings of drug dealers. The PNP chief responded to this by stating, “If they will really block the arms procurement, then we have to shift our focus to other sources of firearms,” alluding to Russia and China who are all to happy to step into power vacuums left by the United States as evidenced by recent events ranging from Syria to Qatar.
Leahy vetting is well intended and American military support should be contingent on respect for basic human rights, however this is an example of how complicated international politics can become. Perhaps the United States will not work with foreign death squads or provide them with arms, but that by no means ensures that other regional or global actors will not. One has to make the decision, if we will not have influence in this country, than who will?
The Leahy Law is currently holding up arms shipments to both the PNP (Philippine National Police) and the AFP (Armed Forces of the Philippines). Sadly, good soldiers are impacted by the reckless statements and actions of their President and by a US law which is not fairly applied. The Philippine Special Operations units in Marawi and elsewhere in their country have been doing the right thing and are not involved in the extra-judicial killings that the police have been accused of. By denying these soldiers precision firearms and other material support, we are reducing their capabilities in fighting terrorism, while providing negative reinforcement to units that have towed the line.
With President Duterte openly antagonistic towards the United States, China has been more than happy to step into the role of friend and ally. In late June, the Chinese delivered thousands of rifles, sniper rifles, and ammunition to the Philippines. SOFREP’s sources report seeing scoped SVD clones, Norinco M4 rifles, and 7.62×51 bolt action sniper rifles.
Despite recent events, the relationship between the Philippines and America runs long and deep, as does the relationship between our militaries. The AFP largely uses US model weapons. Therefore, the Chinese provided rifles in calibers that the Philippine troops are institutionally conditioned to accept and use: 5.56 and 7.62. That said, the Philippine troops are unsatisfied with the quality of the Chinese firearms according to several sources in the Philippine Special Operations community.
While the media has made it out that the Chinese arms shipment was sent to help the military in their fight against terrorism in Marawi, not a single Chinese rifle has been fielded. For now, the weapons are marked for test and evaluation only. The Army wants to give the Chinese M4 rifles to the PNP because of their poor quality. This would also help the PNP get around the Leahy Law that is inhibiting their access to American-made weapons. The Chinese arms were delivered as part of a five million dollar arms package promised when Duterte visited China last year, but China (and seemingly the Duterte administration) appear to be taking advantage of the recent situation in Marawi to re-contextualize the arms deal as a last-minute rush job to help the Philippine Armed Forces battle a new crisis.
The Philippine SOF units have little interest in using the Chinese weapons and would rather acquire American .300 WINMAG rifles according to one source SOFREP spoke with.
Speaking of the Chinese arms shipment President Duterte said, “we are almost on bended knees sometimes because of lack of equipment. It is a good thing we have a good friend like China who is very understanding.” Such a statement by the president is completely oblivious to his own culpability in that lack of equipment. Even as the Chinese bully the Philippines and engage in territory expansion by seizing Philippine reefs and atolls, Duterte is happy to work with the Chinese who have absolutely no interest in human rights issues. During a press conference held when the Chinese arms arrived, Chinese ambassador Zhao Jianhua stated, “The Chinese side would like to explore the possibility of joint training, intelligence sharing and joint military exercises in the area of fighting terrorism.” Duterte has threatened to suspend joint US training exercises, but last month the annual Balikatan exercise was held anyway.
The Philippine Secretary of National Defense Delfin Lorenzana also seems to have fallen in with Duterte’s party line against the United States stating that American military aid and support does not amount to much and that the Philippine Armed Forces can live without it. These types of statements from high levels in the Philippine government come across as empty rhetoric and silly political bluster to informed observers. That said, this does not mean that a series of events are not unfolding in which the Philippines could shift allegiances away from the US and towards China. It would not happen over the course of a single administration, but the Duterte presidency could prove to be the canary in the coal mine.
The dynamics of the world order are shifting and the United States is losing much of the international advantage it once had as the leader in a unipolar world. America can choose the moral high ground, but will be ceding actual physical ground to communist China in South East Asia. Part of China’s long-term strategy is to get the United States out of East and South East Asia entirely. Through a combination of dirty ticks and soft power, China would love to have the US military kicked out of Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines as well as reduce our influence across the Pacific Rim.
Driving wedges between America and our long-term regional allies is one way to accomplish this. The Philippine military remains staunchly pro-US and maintains a very positive relationship with American troops. However, the machinations of the political elite in the Philippines demonstrate that China is muscling their way in to increase their influence in hopes of displacing and supplanting America.
Currently, a counter-terrorism package is held up in the US Congress under USC 10 2282 to supply Philippine Special Operations units with new rifles, night vision devices, suppressors, M24 sniper rifles, and other modern weapons. America may ultimately choose to put human rights above realpolitik, but all this will mean is that a lot of people will miss us when we’re gone.
(Featured image courtesy of DVIDS)