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.